Grand Avenue Cruise Nights Stir Up a Phoenix Neighborhood Controversy

Crowds gather for a Saturday night lowrider event on Grand Avenue.
Crowds gather for a Saturday night lowrider event on Grand Avenue. Robert Graham

Since July 2019, Grand Avenue in Phoenix has played host to lowrider events on Saturday nights. At first, attendees would simply cruise Grand and park their lowriders along the street. Then street vendors began selling food and merchandise. Even as the pandemic caused the cancellation of the annual Grand Avenue Festival, typically held in November, the lowrider party has rolled on. Lately, locals estimate that somewhere around 2,000 people gather on Grand every Saturday for the party.

Not everyone is pleased about it. Last weekend, the city posted "no cruising" signs on a strip of Grand between Seventh and 15th avenues, and the future of this new Saturday tradition is uncertain. Whether it returns may hinge on discussions taking place behind the scenes, and whether participants can address complaints lodged by some residents and small business owners in an area known for its connections to arts and historic preservation.

click to enlarge Phoenix artist Lalo Cota snapped this photo while walking his dogs Saturday night. - LALO COTA
Phoenix artist Lalo Cota snapped this photo while walking his dogs Saturday night.
Lalo Cota
Supporters and opponents of the cruise alike have been making their voices heard through two Grand Avenue organizations: the Grand Avenue Members Association and Grand Avenue Arts & Preservation.

Both organizations sent letters detailing their concerns to Phoenix City Councilman Michael Nowakowski on October 30. He responded by phone, according to Bob Graham, who led a Zoom meeting about the cruise nights on November 24.

Nowakowski has also been meeting with members of the lowrider community, according to Larry Calles, a member of the Majestics car club who has been a regular participant in the Grand Avenue cruise nights. Calles says their next meeting is scheduled for Thursday, December 3. Nowakowski’s office has not responded to Phoenix New Times' repeated requests for information on prior and planned meetings.

According to Graham, Nowakowski has floated several options, including holding the events less frequently or moving them to other parts of the city.

Supporters include business owners for Bud’s Glass Joint, Cha Cha’s Tea, and Grand Avenue Pizza, who cite increasing sales during the Saturday night gatherings.

Bud’s on Grand co-owner Greg Centrone likens the cruise nights to early First Fridays, before the art walks were better organized. “This is how is First Fridays started out,” he says. “If we could get it organized, it could benefit the neighborhood and all of Phoenix.”

click to enlarge People gather for a Saturday night lowrider event on Grand Avenue. - ROBERT GRAHAM
People gather for a Saturday night lowrider event on Grand Avenue.
Robert Graham

Among the opponents are the business owners of Novel Ice Cream and El Charro Hipster Cafe, who worry the events are driving customers away. “We’ve had a tremendous amount of problems,” says Novel owner Brandon Douglas. He says he’s been vandalized and threatened with assault during the events.

Complaints have centered around several issues, including excessive noise, people leaving trash behind, increased graffiti, and illegal parking that blocks public rights-of-way.

Beatrice Moore, a Grand Avenue artist and property owner who heads Grand Avenue Arts and Preservation, has safety concerns such as people mixing alcohol and driving, and attendees using public areas to relieve themselves. “The event is out of control,” she says.

The Phoenix Police Department issued a statement through spokesperson Mercedes Fortune: Phoenix PD, "in partnership with other City Departments, have been working with event organizers in an effort to facilitate a safe environment for their car club. Unfortunately, the event has grown and now residents, business owners, and first responders are facing challenges resulting in traffic hazards and access for local residents.

"With this in mind, the event organizers have been advised there will be road restrictions in the area in an effort to keep traffic moving and to ensure the safety of the residents. The organizers are cooperating with residents and the Police Department. There are no assigned officers to this specific location, however, signs were posted in the area of 7th Avenue and Van Buren as well as 15th Avenue and Grand Avenue."

It’s impossible to mitigate concerns without knowing who organizes the event, according to Moore, who believes the gatherings are loosely organized in part to avoid accountability and liability-related issues.

She has another concern, as well. “It’s become a divisive event in the neighborhood. Some people like it and others don’t.”

click to enlarge Pre-pandemic glass-blowing demonstration in front of Bud's on Grand. - LYNN TRIMBLE
Pre-pandemic glass-blowing demonstration in front of Bud's on Grand.
Lynn Trimble

Although Ashley Hoekstra of Cha Cha’s Tea supports the Saturday cruise nights, she sees merit in taking a pandemic pause now that COVID-19 numbers are rising again. After all, many other civic events are on hold due to COVID-19.

Calles hopes the event will return next year with a better plan to address concerns expressed by locals. So does Sam Gomez, whose Sagrado Galleria in South Phoenix started out on Grand Avenue. He’s one of several regular attendees.

“People should try and be solutions-based,” says Gomez. “Everybody may have to compromise.”
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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble