Cruising’s bruised reputation
By Mark Wineka
In February 1986, David Treme confronted cruising in downtown Salisbury for the first time.
He actually didn’t know what he was witnessing on this particular Sunday night before his first day as Salisbury’s city manager.
Drivers hanging out of honking cars choked traffic on Main Street.
Just as many people ó they looked to be older teens ó leaned against their parked cars and smoked, yelled and watched the line of vehicles.
Treme thought the high school must have won some kind of state championship and the town was having an impromptu parade.
The next morning, he asked his office staff what the big celebration had been about the night before. He didn’t realize it then, but within a year, Treme and his police chief would be recommending a controversial ordinance designed to put an end to what many considered a slice of Americana.
For several decades in Salisbury ó and in small towns across the country ó downtown cruising had been an innocent part of the scene, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. It gave bored teenagers an inexpensive place to congregate, show off their cars and wind down after a week of work or school.
Think of the movie “American Graffiti,” or the television series “Happy Days” with Richie, Potsie and the Fonz. Cruising seemed like a rite of passage for many American youth.
Married couples in Rowan County told stories of how they first met while cruising, because it drew people to Salisbury from different high schools.
During its day, the Zesto’s drive-in on Main Street depended on cruising for a lot of its business because it was the perfect turnaround spot on the north end.
Thanks also to its wide Main Street and ample parking on both sides, Salisbury provided the perfect social environment for cruisers, who found a way to co-exist with downtown movie theaters and the few other businesses that were open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.
Cruising in Salisbury seemed harmless.
But in the mid 1980s, it turned ugly.
Pam Hylton-Coffield, owner of Stitchin’ Post Gifts on South Main Street, stayed open late on Friday nights, but she and her employees eventually had to ask the Police Department for escorts to their cars at closing time.
Cruisers had become intimidating. They vandalized buildings, littered the streets and sidewalks and urinated in the recessed storefronts.
As the cars roared up and down Main Street, the air was filled with blaring horns and screams. Police were responding to reports of assault and drug and alcohol use. They wrote scores of citations for traffic violations.
The numbers of cruisers grew to a point that Main Street often became blocked. Emergency vehicles couldn’t get through.
When Hylton-Coffield arrived to open up her store on Saturday and Monday mornings, “it stank, it looked bad,” she recalls. “It was a situation that would have ruined the downtown if it would have been left alone.”
Salisbury Police Chief Mark Wilhelm, a patrol sergeant in 1986, found himself in the thick of the cruising problem.
“It was almost like the wild, wild West,” Wilhelm says.
Under the direction of a new chief, Jeff Jacobs, Salisbury Police conducted a special downtown enforcement project over 80 different nights in 1986.
During that project, officers wrote tickets for 412 traffic violations and cited 243 people under a broad category of “public nuisance.” Jacobs also reported that license tags of more than 85 percent of the cruisers showed they weren’t Salisbury residents.
Still, the police effort made no visible dent in the cruising problem. “It was just about bumper to bumper on Friday and Saturday nights,” Wilhelm says.
“I always felt cruising was part of an Americana thing, and I loved it,” says Michael Young, executive director of the Central Salisbury Corp. in 1986. “I just hated some of the baggage that came along with it.”
The dilemma for downtown merchants was their wish to provide a friendly and accessible place for everybody to shop, including cruisers. Young says debate raged in the organization’s board room about how far the city should go in trying to rein in cruising.
The perception ó and Young emphasizes the word “perception” ó was growing that downtown was an unsafe place, and it started having a chilling effect on business.
Behind the scenes, Jacobs and city officials talked about putting extra police officers on downtown duty, establishing public restrooms and using video surveillance. All the extra costs seemed prohibitive.
Meanwhile, Treme received an opinion from the N.C. Attorney General’s Office that if the city went with an anti-cruising ordinance, it would pass a constitutionality test.
Salisbury City Council and other downtown stakeholders remained reluctant to go that far until a night in November 1986 when cruiser David “Maniac” Myers was shot near the courthouse by another cruiser. He survived to cruise again, but the radiologist who looked at Myers’ X-rays turned out to be Dr. John Wear, then mayor of Salisbury.
The shooting was the last straw for Wear, who said he wanted to get rid of the “Dodge City” atmosphere in the downtown. Councilman John Ramsay decided that cruising had become “motorized loitering.”
Other council members saw the destructive side of cruising firsthand.
Organizations such as Central Salisbury Corp., the Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Salisbury Action Association agreed it was time to get serious.
On April 20, 1987, Salisbury’s anti-cruising law took effect.
It was North Carolina’s first.
In a 22-block area of the downtown, the ordinance prohibited ó and still does ó a vehicle from passing a police checkpoint three or more times within a two-hour period.
Violators received a $25 traffic ticket. If another violation occurred within seven days, the motorist faced a criminal summons, court costs and a $50 fine.
City officials coupled the cruising ordinance with prohibiting parking on Main Street between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m.
“The city did what it had to do,” Young says.
In effect, cruising became a moving violation.
“We had no choice,” Hylton-Coffield says, looking back. “This was my livelihood. I just couldn’t close shop and go somewhere else. I applauded the City Council for taking action to control a situation that was getting worse and worse.”
James T. Lloyd refused to accept the city’s action without a fight.
The trailer park and grocery story owner formed a protest organization, Cruisers’ Constitutional Rights, and led parades here and in other towns where Salisbury’s ordinance was being used as a model to control their own cruising problems.
Lloyd and others staged rallies at the fairgrounds, encouraged boycotts of downtown stores and circulated petitions. When city officials stood their ground, they became targets of some of the more rebellious protesters.
They began cruising the street past Mayor Wear’s home over the weekends. Besides driving up and down, they set up lawn chairs, rang doorbells, yelled profanities, shined lights into windows and roamed the Country Club neighborhood on foot.
Hylton-Coffield says her husband, then a Salisbury police officer, spent nights inside the mayor’s home.
One afternoon, when his daughter disappeared for awhile, Treme says he first worried that cruisers had something to do with her disappearance. “It was kind of a fearful time,” he says.
She was found later at a neighbor’s house.
Lloyd, his wife and son eventually were among eight people named in a temporary restraining order barring them from the mayor’s neighborhood. They later consented to an injunction keeping them out of the area for two years.
Salisbury attracted national media attention with its cruising law.
“It was a big deal,” says Treme, who was interviewed by the New York Times and Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Radio commentator Paul Harvey featured the city in one of his reports. Television stations descended on the downtown during the height of the controversy. Treme and Jacobs fielded numerous requests from other cities for copies of the anti-cruising ordinance.
Lloyd seemed to enjoy the attention and would eventually take his disgust for government into a 1988 candidacy for governor. When he died in 1997 at age 55, his funeral procession detoured briefly so it could proceed through the downtown for one last cruise.
Between April 20 and Sept. 15, 1987, Salisbury Police issued 35 cruising tickets, and most of the diehard cruisers faded away under the threat of being cited.
Lloyd and others tested the law again in 1988, and 15 more cruising tickets were issued one weekend. The protesters also returned to the Country Club neighborhood that year.
In frustration one night, Salisbury attorney John Holshouser (now a Superior Court judge) fired two shotgun blasts into the air when cruisers were outside of his home. The charge of shooting a firearm in the city was dismissed a couple of months later.
Today, Wilhelm can’t remember the last time a cruising ticket was written, and the “No Cruising” signs downtown have all but disappeared, along with the nighttime parking ban.
W.F. Owens, who frequently showed up at meetings, rallies and parades in 1987 to protest the cruising law, says he tried to get the cruisers to sue the city on constitutional grounds. He was sure the law would not pass a test in the higher appellate courts.
“They didn’t seem to want to do it that way and chose that confrontational style (instead),” Owens says.
Owens, a Spencer resident, says the city’s effort to stop cruising contributed to the decline of downtown Salisbury. “The result is pretty obvious,” he says. He also finds it ironic that Salisbury’s downtown and others now invite people to bring their old cars back for display and the nostalgic feel of cruising.
Given time, cruising in downtown Salisbury probably would have died on its own, Owens says. Today’s gas prices would make the pastime difficult, and young adults now socialize more on their computers and cell phones than they do standing beside their cars.
But Treme, Young and Hylton-Coffield say the cruising law was needed for a rebirth of the downtown.
With the cruisers gone, Salisbury started to see confident new investment in downtown buildings, offices and businesses. Efforts to promote the downtown’s historic architecture, theater, shopping and public events took off and maybe owe something to the passage of the cruising law, Treme says.
“Had it not been for that,” he adds, “I don’t know if we’d have the downtown we have today.”