June 5, 2014

Parade to reign on Modesto's McHenry Avenue on Friday night

Expanding the American Graffiti Festival parade to a stretch of McHenry Avenue will be more enjoyable not just for those driving the route in classic cars but also for spectators, who will be able to spread out quite a bit, organizers say.

To some, bringing the cruise back to McHenry Avenue tonight is all about numbers.

Although spontaneous cruising has been banned for two decades, the experience has enjoyed a healthy revival in recent years in the form of a vintage car parade. But it’s been confined to a few short streets in downtown Modesto, where many spectators have had to jostle to see anything.

Here’s where the math comes in: A downtown parade means a 1.1-mile circuit, but extending to McHenry lengthens it to 3.3 miles.

“It’s literally three times as long” with the McHenry addition, said parade general chairman John Sanders. “This is going to make it better for car owners, for engine cooling purposes. And it will be a lot nicer for spectators, who can scatter out with lawn chairs.”

Last year, 900 oldie-but-goodie vehicles rumbled in the American Graffiti Festival parade – with grand marshal George Lucas himself – and downtown practically burst at the seams. This year, the number of registrants in the increasingly popular event could top 1,000.

The North Modesto Kiwanis Club, which sponsors the annual carfest, was faced with tough quality-control decisions. Options included capping registrations, which would mean turning away some vintage car owners, or canceling the parade.

Or, the club could make the route longer, accommodating more cars and people. Where better than McHenry Avenue? Although early dragging in the 1950s focused on downtown, second-generation cruising in later years largely migrated to McHenry, which retains a special allure for many. Several people responding to The Modesto Bee’s call for Graffiti memories in last week’s special section said they met their spouses while cruising McHenry.

“There is no secret that the desire to go down McHenry has been percolating,” said Graffiti cheerleader Chris Murphy.

Closing the thoroughfare to traffic brings a new set of challenges. Because McHenry doubles as State Highway 108, Kiwanis had to jump through many bureaucratic hoops, including providing scads of detour signs.

At least the organizers didn’t have to fight City Hall. Top elected and appointed officials and the Modesto Police Department were nothing but helpful, Sanders said.

Some McHenry merchants have been apprehensive, he acknowledged, mostly because the street will be closed from Five Points to Orangeburg Avenue from 3 to 10 p.m. today to accommodate the parade, which runs from 7 to 9 p.m. Others with long memories recall a Graffiti Night riot in 1978 that produced 60 arrests and 500 citations, the man killed by police in 1980, and the City Council’s official ban on cruising in 1993. The next year, people ignored the ban and six people were shot and wounded by an armed teenager.

Twenty years later, many McHenry merchants seem eager to bury past problems and celebrate Modesto’s heritage.

“We think (the parade) is a great thing,” said House of Carpets co-owner Bob Kerr, whose employees and their families will tape off sidewalk access to the store’s raised breezeway for a private barbecue and cruise viewing. “I’m glad to see it get back on McHenry. A lot more people will enjoy it.”

Minnie’s Restaurant patrons years ago watched the cruise from a private rooftop terrace. This year, the eatery quickly sold all of its $30 VIP tickets featuring a special T-shirt, cocktail and premium sidewalk seating. Only a few $15 T-shirts remain.

“This was the spot, a tradition when the cruise was on McHenry,” said Minnie’s Diane Marcuerquiaga. This year’s return “is kind of a new beginning. We’re planning a party around it,” she said, adding that the outdoor patio opens to McHenry for lots more revelers.

Deana Barron of Hair By Jose and Tangles, Bangles & Chocolates, in its McHenry location since 1986, said she was sad when the cruise dissipated and looks forward to its return.

Midas General Manager Jeffrey Wolf came to Modesto in 2001, long after cruising ended, but called Sanders to offer support. “We’re going to use it as a positive opportunity to pass out bottled water and coupons,” Wolf said.

Priceless Treasures Thrift Shop closes tonight at 6, an hour before the parade, but manager Bob Van Hofwegen plans to stick around for the festivities. “I love the idea,” he said. “I’m all in favor.”

Paradegoers drawn to the McHenry stretch likely will park in neighborhoods on both sides and walk to the street. Don’t expect to drive on lower McHenry after 3 p.m.; some parts of I, J, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th streets will be blocked off as well. And vehicles in the parking garage on 11th Street between I and J streets, which is in the middle of the parade route, won’t be able to leave after 6:30 p.m.

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