Streetspace and Cultural Practices–Which cultures are invited into “complete streets?”

Editor’s Note:

The following is a synopsis of Sig Langegger’s argument in Chapter 7 of Incomplete Streets, “Curbing cruising: lowriding and the domestication of Denver’s Northside.” The chapter points out how Complete Streets provide a platform for gentrification when conceived as efficient and orderly thoroughfares for the movement of people instead of spaces of la vida pública where cultural practices and traditions are performed. In the following synopsis, Langegger asks “Which cultures are invited into ‘complete streets?’”

By Sig Langegger

An historical perspective of neighborhood change exposes longstanding conflicts between diverse public practices and shows how social and cultural streetscapes are often dispossessed before they are completed. A long view of North Denver streets, where lowrider cruising was once common, illustrates how la vida pública can be deliberately policed from city streets. Decreasing diversity through zero-tolerance policing of lowrider cruising was part and parcel of the gentrification process that occurred as North Denver’s streets became Complete Streets.

What is lowriding? On one hand, it is a distinctive public performance with unique mobilities. At once a familial and cultural affair, lowriding inscribes a mobile barrio on city streets. Latinos slowly parading cars with lowered suspensions and custom paint jobs boldly announce the presence of a counterculture. On the other hand, this public practice, common in North Denver from the 1960s into the 90s, ran up against traffic management protocols and emerging middle-class notions of the urban scene.


Figure 7.1Figure 7.2

Top: A low-rider tilting and bouncing (Source: Photograph by Louise Aguilar)
Above: Custom paint job on a 1964 Impala (Source: Photograph by Sig Langegger)

For a Latino cruising enthusiast, the practice of lowrider cruising reproduces Latino culture:

Cruising is a part of our culture. When I see a lowrider cruising down the street, I like it, bang! Even as an adult. A lot of people don’t understand this. A lot of people think that lowriders are gangsters. But it’s just part of the Chicano community, you know?

To others, lowriding undergirds the cultural conflicts comprising the commonsense logic of gentrification:

It was pretty interesting to have this whole other culture rolling ever so slowly past your house. Pretty interesting stuff, I found it fascinating. Aside from the souped-up cars there were a lot of people without particularly fancy rides, just cruising, saying hi to their friends….[However] you ended up working your schedule around cruising. You didn’t invite guests over on Sunday afternoon. It wasn’t going to work. It got tiresome. It’s noisy and all that.

One means to delegitimize lowriding was through zero-tolerance policing justified through the creation of the Latino folk devil. The following two viewpoints highlight how the symbolic violence of racism and draconian police protocols interrelate. The first is a quote from a white 1950s cruiser lamenting how cruising became a racial/ethnic issue.

We were teenagers; we used to cruise, maybe even drink beer, right? Every so often, the cops would pull us over, take our beer and make sure we got home okay. Back then the cops were concerned with us, with making sure our parents knew what we’d been doing. They didn’t cuff us and take us to jail. With Latino lowriders it was totally different. In the 90s things changed. Whole groups of cops were out there, patrolling for cruising, pulling kids over and slamming them on the hoods of their cars, arresting them, impounding their vehicles. We were kids; they were kids. Somehow it became a different situation. They shut cruising down eventually, the police did.

The second viewpoint, part of a mid-nineties op-ed series on the “Cruising Problem” in the Denver Post, thinly veils the violence inherent in white, middle-class cultural imperialism, clearly aiding and abetting implicit tolerance for racial profiling. A close reading of “Hooligans Don’t Know Culture” shows blatant racism and overt cultural imperialism.

I didn’t know that ‘cruising’ was a Latino cultural thing. I thought it was a 1950s American thing. Now it turns out to be a part of Mexican American/Hispanic/Chicano/Latino history.

Cruising was a part of his history, specifically a white, middle-class history. The author not only blatantly denies Latinos their history, but also implies they stole his. For him, cruising was:

Lookin’ cool, being seen, chasin’ girls. Night after night, month after month, we’d be bitchin’ our ‘57 Chevies or ‘61 Cudas or ‘65 Mustangs. You’d see all your friends a few of your rivals. It was a ritual.

In this elegy, white cruising is ironically described precisely as Latinos practiced it. Substitute ‘45 Fleetliners, ’64 Impalas, and ‘70 Monte Carlos, and he would be aptly describing Latino lowrider cruising. Midcentury, night after night, neighbors had to deal with the nuisance of large groups of white youth cruising Denver streets. Nevertheless, he concludes that lowriding “ain’t cruisin’; it’s hooliganism.” Simply put, delegitimizing the Latino public practice of cruising while authenticating a similar white middle-class public practice works to create folk devils and legitimize racism.

Can infrastructure alone complete our streets?

In 2006, the construction of a pedestrian bridge across Interstate 25 connected Highland, a once-isolated Northside barrio, to lower downtown Denver. Highland Bridge now serves as a vital infrastructural component of the continuing gentrification of North Denver neighborhoods. This award-winning span completed North Denver’s currently pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly streets. As I argue above, well before they were completed, these streets played a critical role in neighborhood change. Today, trendy restaurants, funky boutiques, and bike kiosks currently encourage a decidedly hipster and middle-class publicness along streets that were once public, but in much different ways.

Photo 1_The Highland Bridge with walkers and cyclist

The Highland Bridge with walkers and cyclist (Source: Photograph by Sig Langegger)


Highland Bridge wasn’t the first change to North Denver streets. In the late 1990s North Denver’s Sloan’s Lake Park was transfigured. The internal road system’s south loop, designed in the 1950s to ease auto access throughout the park, and used throughout the late twentieth century by cruisers of all ilk, was transformed into a lake-encircling walking path. This dramatic change facilitated walking, jogging, and cycling—normalized in mainstream middle-class cultural practice and constituent parts of Complete Streets discourses.

Sloan’s Lake Park at sunset replete with paths and people walking them (Source: Photograph by Sig Langegger)

Sloan’s Lake Park at sunset replete with paths and people walking them (Source: Photograph by Sig Langegger)


It also incontrovertibly frustrated lowrider cruising—an activity authenticated and legitimized in Latino cultural practice. Put another way, the city drastically altered Sloan’s Lake Park—dispossessing it from Latino lowriders while simultaneously completing it for middle-class consumption.

History and culture matter; they produce everyday life. By fixating on completing streets with infrastructure such as bridges and bike paths, city planners easily lose sight of historical dynamics driving inevitable dispossession and displacement that remain stubbornly woven into gentrification processes.

Note: Except where indicated, quotes come from field interviews with North Denver residents.

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