Springfield's youths cruise for a bruisin'
April 4, 1979
The only good movie George Lucas ever made was about cruisin' the strip in his native California, which custom—cruising, not movie-making—then quickly spread west, with results that I describe here.
Having been young once myself, youth is the only topic on which I am credentialed. Finding a cure for the boredom endured by the middle-class young has been a chronic problem is postwar America, if not for the reasons advanced by local authorities; what they needed was a government to overthrow or a cause to embrace.
They're putting the heat on "the strip. " Every spring, whenever the saps. start to rise, area young people gather along stretches of South Grand Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard on Springfield's southwest side, parading up and down the street, seeing and being seen. Those not in the parade watch it from cars parked in empty business parking lots. In the process the celebrants commit assorted offenses against the public peace, to the consternation and finally the outrage of businessmen and people living nearby. Their complaints led to the public forum on the problem on April 26 organized by Springfield police chief Howard Rogers, who has promised a crackdown on noise, speeding, and littering along the strip.
Cruising, of course, was one of the earliest cultural imports from California, along with chinos and promiscuity, and it has since become established as a tribal rite among the young. In fact, the popularity of the strip transcends the usual rules of territoriality among teenagers. I have it on good authority, for example, that Springfield Lanphier students motor down from the north side into the heart of Springfield High turf to take their places in the nightly cavalcades; in this they resemble the English who would never let a Spaniard into their parlors but who flock to the beaches of Spain every winter for their vacations. So powerful is the seduction of the strip that some youths drive in from country towns to take part; one of the kids who testified before Chief Rogers—one of a "Pontiac Club" that holds regular meetings on the parking lot of the Swiss Colony Cheese Shop at Fourth and South Grand Avenue—is from Glenarm.
If all they did were drive there would be no problem. But they drag-race, play loud music, screech tires, swill Little King's Ale or Malt Duck, and toss empties onto business roofs and leave parking lots littered with broken glass.
Not all the strip's devotees pile up misdemeanors so assiduously, of course. Indeed, some of them argued at the hearing that the strip serves a positive social purpose. Without it, they say, there would be nothing to do in Springfield at night. I'm not convinced. Unlike their parents, most stripsters are too young for adultery, too dumb to learn how to play bridge, and too lazy to go bowling. If we are to believe published reports, the principal amusements of the young are: 1) drug abuse; 2) suicide; 3) dying in car accidents; 4) quitting school; 5) burglary; 6) getting each other pregnant; and 7) vandalism. There seem to be ample opportunities for each in Springfield.
Justified or not, the complaint that there is nothing to do in Springfield is hardly new. I made it when I was a high-schooler myself thirteen years ago, and have no doubt that it goes back all the way to the founding of the city; hot-blooded young'uns probably complained about it back in the 1820s, and when their father recommended that they make themselves useful by shooting a deer for breakfast, they no doubt sneaked away in a sulk and, resentful and bored, spent the evening vandalizing neighborhood bears.
Confronted by the same problem in the mid-60s, my colleagues and I occasionally spent our weekend nights drinking beer and throwing up on our parents' furniture. There also used to be weekend dances at the Washington Park pavilion (anybody out there remember the Signets?) where one could enjoy live rock-and-roll and hone one's lust for 50 cents; there was sometimes secret drinking here too, and on one memorable evening I ended up quacking on my hands and knees beside the lagoon during friendly chats with the ducks who reside there and coaxing my friends out of nearby trees into which they'd fled until the ground stopped spinning.
Most of the time, though, we were stone-cold sober. The strip existed even then, but it didn't dominate the social landscape the way it seems to now. We cruised too, of course, and scooped Tops or Mac's or contrived to get thrown out of Don's, but even these excitements concluded well before midnight. (One of the reasons the stripsters may have trouble finding things to do in Springfield is that they go looking for them at one or two o'clock in the morning, which tends to narrow the options.) What we did with most of our evenings—going to movies and ball games, parties at friends' houses, doing homework, dating—now sound so quaint that I hesitate even to mention them. Naturally, things are not the same today, when the average teen-ager leads a life that in my day would have resulted in petitions to the juvenile authorities.
A Mr. Hollinshead of Osburn Avenue reportedly suggested to Chief Rogers that local parks be allowed to stay open later than their present 9:30 closing hour to provide an alternative to cruising; he also wondered whether a Frisbee park might be established in nearby Washington Park for the same reason. With all due respect to Mr. H. , these are quite possibly the most horrifying notions I've ever heard advanced at any public forum. Washington Park, for example, is a Frisbee park now; on warm days the place looks like a reform school exercise yard. (Frisbee is popular among a certain class of disaffected young because, having no boundaries to honor, no time limits, no scores to keep and no uniforms to wear, it suits their outlaw tcmperamcnt. Besidcs, it's the only game whose rules—you throw, I'll catch—are simple enough for them to remember.) Even if the park could tolerate more Frisbee-ers. we are left with the problem of how they are going to throw them at 1 AM. The only way a Frisbee park would be a remedy for the antics on the strip would be if kids, having spent their daylight hours playing, would be so tuckered out by sunset that they would go home to bed.
As for the suggestion that parks stay open later to accommodate the young, I say no, no, a thousand times no. Kids congregate on the strip because they've been driven out of everywhere else—violins here —and the reason they've been driven out everywhere else is that they (or a significant minority of them) are a noxious presence. An unhousebroken puppy, remember, doesn't care whose carpet he craps on.
In fact, in their rootlessness, their powerlessness, their anger, in the cultural distance between them and their host population, young people might be said to be America's Palestinians. Having been made economically redundant, relegated to the status of students in a society in which learning no longer has honor, trapped in useless schools and living in families that too often give them nothing but time and money, they are exiles in their own land.
While wrestling with that dilemma, however, we must attend to the more tractable problem of the strip. Strict law enforcement is likely only to cause the stripsters to move and create similar problems on some other street; besides, one can't issue a ticket to someone for being young and bored.
One answer would be to provide a new strip away from residential and commercial districts where kids may parade at will. The section of Illinois Rouge 4 connecting Springfield and Chatham would be ideal for such a purpose—four lanes wide, nobody to complain about noise except a few sensitive groundhogs, plenty of room for gawkers to park. Best of all, that highway is all but useless anyway, since it leads nowhere.
The best solution, however. is the simplest one. Just make South Grand and MacArthur one-way streets, leading out of town. □