- Associated Press - Monday, May 9, 2016

JANESVILLE, Wis. (AP) - Decades ago, Janesville’s downtown attracted hundreds of young people who cruised the streets in hot rods, muscle cars and whatever their parents would let them drive.

Twenty-three years after that tradition became outlawed, a recently formed group of baby boomers_with their gray hair, fading blue tattoos, yet ever-flashy rides_want to go for another ride and resurrect a piece of Janesville’s past. And they’ve made friends out of the kind of folks who ended it all those years ago, The Janesville Gazette (https://bit.ly/1NMKfZh ) reported.

“I grew up on the circuit,” said Tom Nimmo, an organizer for the Janesville Cruisers Car Club, referring to the notorious rectangular network of streets that teens and 20-somethings converged on for decades. “A Friday, a Saturday night down there, there would be hundreds of people.”

Beginning in the 1950s, Milwaukee, Court, High and Wisconsin streets became the epicenter of youth culture in Janesville. People checked out and showed off cars. Races ran up Courthouse Hill. Pizza parlors and long-gone movie theaters were there to fuel the energy.

Those who remember those days say Janesville had the biggest circuit west of Milwaukee in southern Wisconsin and attracted dozens of out-of-towners every week.

Eventually, that cruising culture earned too much notoriety, and in 1993 the city choked it out of existence with a new ordinance. Any lingering cruisers moved on to Milton Avenue, where they continue to this day.

More than 20 years later, in an era where the same downtown streets are largely empty and tranquil on weekend nights, a crew of 60-some-year-olds wants to bring cruising back for at least one night_to hold a quasi-car show that’s on the move.

“This is more of a nostalgic thing,” Nimmo said. “It’ll bring the old days to Janesville.”

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Despite a large local following on social media, the Janesville Cruisers Car Club’s got fewer than a dozen paying members. A little more than half are men, and of them, most are in their 60s and either worked for General Motors or have earned a living working with cars some other way.

The group formed with the help of Nimmo and three other longtime Janesville residents after a public discussion on Facebook had some reminiscing about the circuit.

The Janesville circuit was born in 1956, right as the post-World War II car culture was raging, when the booming city had to convert Milwaukee and Court streets into one-way roads to handle traffic, according to “A Century of Stories,” a local history book by Mike DuPre. The lengthy three-lane stretches were ideal for driving around among friends with no particular place to go.

Most of the car club members came of cruising age in the 1970s, when the GM plant operated at its peak and interest in cars was still hot in people’s bellies.

“It was a rite of passage,” Nimmo said. “Everybody was down there.”

The way Nimmo and others describe it, cruising was near-unavoidable in those days. Nobody had cellphones. The best way to buddy-up was to head downtown.

In its early days at least, it wasn’t a tough guy scene, either.

“It was pretty innocent,” said city council member Douglas Marklein, who could be found on the circuit in the early 1970s. “We were just checking people’s cars out and trying to meet girls. A lot of people found friendships. Some people married.”

As benign as it might have been, there was always an element of unlawfulness, though. CB radios were fundamental in arranging drag races up Courthouse Hill, club member John Westendorf said. There was beer around_maybe even some drinking while driving_but nobody ever drove drunk, member Pat Rowley said.

As the years went on, club members said, it became less about socializing and appreciating cars and more about thrill-seeking.

Eventually, business owners, police and City Hall tired of the vandalism, beer-drinking and littering that came with it. So they hit the e-brake.

In 1993, the council passed an ordinance that, without context, is comically specific: It is prohibited to drive past a traffic control point three or more times in a two-hour period between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. in the area bounded by Milwaukee, Atwood, Locust and Court streets.

By that time, those who are now car club members didn’t mind much. They were older and had families.

“It kind of wore off,” club member Bob Gorman said.

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The cruisers’ rambunctiousness might have bedded down over the years, but their interest in cars has not.

Today, they own classic cars so colorful and shiny they draw people to them like wild animals to fruit.

It seems an informal car show ensues whenever they gather. Hoods are popped; engines are inspected; fixtures are photographed. At one April meeting at Traxler Park, several pedestrians wandered over for a peek.

Some of those cars are the same ones club members cruised in as youngsters, such as Rowley’s ‘71 Chevrolet Nova, a brilliantly yellow beast nicknamed “Big Bird.”

They all still have that muscle-car look to themselves, too. Black shirts, jeans, tattoos down the arm. Nimmo looks the part more than anyone, standing about 6-foot-3 with black boots, sleeves cut off and a graying goatee extending past his shoulders.

The group formed this past winter with the creation of a Facebook page. More than 800 people joined it within 24 hours. That caught the eye of Marklein, who at that time was the city council president and helped bring the club’s idea to City Hall.

What the club wants to do is hold a sanctioned event downtown in which permitted drivers_visibly marked for the police’s convenience_ignore the 1993 ordinance and cruise like it’s the muscle car era all over again.

Club members and Marklein alike see it as a car show of sorts. They think it has the potential to draw people downtown and for businesses to cash in.

When they speak about the old cruising days, they do so cheerfully and between hearty laughs. But they also tend to adopt an earnest and borderline frustrated tone when they veer into how uneventful downtown is today.

Marklein nearly adopted that tone himself at a March city council meeting, when a proposed ordinance that would allow certain cruising events was discussed. It was as if Marklein couldn’t help himself, given that it passed unanimously and with the blessing of the Janesville Police Department.

“This is a great idea. Why are we always saying no to everything?” Marklein said before the vote. “It’s not hurting anything.”

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Assuming all goes well with the permit process, the club will hold its nostalgic cruise night June 4.

Just like the old days, roads won’t be shut down to make way for the hot rods, and you don’t need a particularly sweet ride to join in. The participating cars just have a few rules to follow (no burnouts allowed).

Club members have taken the no-goofing rules seriously, too. They don’t want someone jeopardizing a future cruise night_assuming the first one is a success.

“You’re gonna get your (expletive) whupped,” Nimmo jokingly said to anyone who thinks otherwise.

When the council passed the new ordinance in March, it stipulated that any sanctioned cruising event had to benefit the community in some way. The car club plans to advertise for businesses and hopes that will satisfy the requirement. Marklein believes the council won’t get in the way.

If or when the day comes that they can once again head downtown, knowing that’s where everyone will be, for a carefree night of rolling through the circuit, the Janesville Cruisers Car Club will greet it like an old friend.

“We’re bringing back yesterday,” Rowley said.

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Information from: The Janesville Gazette, https://www.gazetteextra.com

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