Let Us Have Our Car Culture
Where are we allowed to exist, and who is allowed to decide that?
If you pay attention to car culture, especially lowrider culture, you may have seen what’s going on in Austin, Texas. As reported in an excellent Texas Monthly piece by Peter Holley, some newer residents (gentrifiers?) of the city’s East Cesar Chavez neighborhood are stirring up an annoying, pearl-clutching storm about a long-running local car show. The story reveals that some recent transplants and good ol’ fashioned Karens are trying to shut the show down under the pretenses of “safety,” noise, and environmentalism. This goes much, much deeper than cars, and I’d contend that it was never the cars themselves that were the problem.
To briefly recap, some of Austin’s local lowrider enthusiasts – most of them Black and Latinx –have convened in a place dubbed “Chicano Park” almost every Sunday afternoon since the early 1990s. Today, however, residents of The Weaver, a new luxury apartment building across the street from the park, are aggressively seeking to shut the lowrider show down. Though it’s been an important gathering site for the city’s car clubs for decades, and those enthusiasts aren’t hurting anyone, the arguments the residents of The Weaver are using to evict them are particularly ugly. From that story:
Watching from her upper-floor apartment, one of The Weaver’s most vocal critics of the car clubs, the blond woman who worried about emergency responders being able to reach her, decided she’d had enough. She bounded downstairs and into the street in high heels, holding her iPhone to film the offending vehicles and threatening to call the police on another group of men standing beside an old-school Ford sedan who looked unamused. “You can’t tell me drugs aren’t being distributed over there,” she huffed. “The brazenness of it all just kills me!”
As that story notes, this is a “microcosm” of a much larger issue that has plagued Austin for years now. To the wider world, Austin is a high-tech, youth-friendly, up-and-coming city that’s as famous for its barbecue and its live music as it is for its progressive atmosphere. It’s often called a “blue dot” in the “sea of red” that is conservative Texas. But under the surface, Austin deals with tremendous racial tension and challenges over gentrification – new, predominantly white residents, often spurred by the tech boom, move in and often displace the long-running Black and Brown residents. Or, as in this case, they fight to change aspects of the culture that made entire neighborhoods feel alive in the first place.
I’m not from Texas. I also don’t live in Austin. But what’s happening here to this car culture resonates with me on a personal level, because I’ve experienced aspects of it as a Latinx enthusiast myself.
Cars and their history in America go far beyond mobilizing the populace, even if most of the country are slaves to a commuter culture that’s resulted from decades of redlining, highway building, and suburbanization, displacing entire inner-city neighborhoods. The romance of the American automobile is mostly dead, and enjoying our machines as they are meant to be used comes much too rarely for my comfort. Miserable hours in traffic counteract mere minutes of freedom on a backroad or enjoying the company of fellow enthusiasts at car gatherings. That is, until you get stuck behind a miserable tourist who won’t use turnouts.
So most of us who love cars, work with cars, and grew up in the decades before a bunch of asshats came in and decided that our city was theirs, cherish the time and interaction we get from cars and car culture. In our increasingly busy lives, the moments we get actually enjoying cars are shrinking. Not just driving. Cars are much more than the sum of their parts, or their experience: they’re an effective social vector. Anyone who’s managed to attend a socially distant car show over this past miserable, isolating year can probably attest to that.
So in spite of the damage the automobile has done to marginalized communities (the most overt of which being the interstate system), car shows, car gatherings, and cruises all happen to be powerful social vectors for community building, for individual agency and creativity, and as a means to generate much-needed money and stability. Our relationship with cars is at odds with our dependence on them, and no, I’m not talking about needing massive SUVs to do a five-mile school run. For many Americans, the story is much different.
My mom and dad came to the United States in the 1980s in search of a better life, away from the violent (and U.S.-funded) civil wars in Central America. They spent several decades commuting to work, depending on their cars so they could earn a living. For the first few decades, they commuted just tens of miles to and from work; we used to live deep in the heart of Los Angeles. Even at that distance, if the car breaks down, if it doesn’t start, you will lose your job.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans live under the threat of this. Most minimum wage jobs, just as valid as any other job, are the most demanding, punishing, and abusive jobs you can have. It’s easy to see how resentment can build towards a car. In the last couple of decades, thanks to population growth and our lack of investment in public transit, those few miles of a commute have turned into two-hour commutes, plunging the knife further, feeding a vicious system of transportation inequity. People buy their cars on finance because who has that kind of cash? Not most people. They commute their cars, like my Mom, 150 miles a day. Within a year, they’re upside down on the loan. They owe more than the car is worth.
To many Americans, cars are oppressive. Even when they step out of their cars, they see artificial structures built around cars. Parking lots, parking structures, roads, highways, interstates, but not much in the way of built environments for people to actually use.
Those same people are now finding the great things about cars. For my culture, family is everything. Sure, you might have heard that in a Fast and Furious film, but it is the actual truth. These events, especially the Sunday gathering at Chicano Park, bring people closer together and allow the pride of a culture to shine through. These lowriders aren’t just old American slabs with hydraulic suspension. They’re full expressions of their owners and craftsmanship that they’re capable of. Beautiful, intricate, sparkling dioramas showcasing the finest work of members of the community, celebrating a rich heritage that goes back a half-century. They aren’t caricatures, but tributes to the hard work of generations before us.
It’s a reclamation of what the car means to an entirely new generation of people. For my parents, a car was just a means of surviving. For myself and many others, it’s a way to discover oneself and find new people—our people. Objects of status and desire, of joy, and of freedom. Especially, something to personalize and make an expression of.
So when these people who have lived in East Austin for decades post up for their traditional, old-school car show, it becomes a problem, right? An entire culture of lowriders and car enthusiasts exists, centered around the Chicano community. Many of these drivers are first-generation Mexican-Americans who lived in these communities far before any Facebook developers had Austin on their radar.
What makes these new residents think they can barge in, and stake claim to a community they didn’t build, didn’t contribute to, and certainly want to hijack? Is it hubris? Is it spite? Is it hatred? Or is it thinly veiled racism in the works?
All of the above. I find it hard to believe anyone would bat any eye if this was an old hot-rod car show, predominantly white and sufficiently suburban. The language used to describe these enthusiasts—calling them drug dealers and worse—is a dog whistle that’s louder than any performance exhaust. Nobody cares when it fits their image of safe and right.
Suddenly, if people see a kid like me, loving my car, enjoying my community, then I must be doing something wrong. It’s the presumption of guilt when it comes to people of color. Surely, if these “scary looking” people are hanging around, something bad is happening. Surely, if these sick-ass cars keep trundling around my street, the value of my condo is going to go down, these people must think.
I’ve been there. I can readily recall times where I’ve been harassed for no reason, other than existing. Both times, police came up to my car as I’m hanging out and taking pictures, snatched the keys from my ignition, and sat me down to tell me how dangerous I’m being for parking somewhere empty and enjoying some creative expression. A friend and I nearly had our cars towed in downtown Los Angeles for just looking slightly modified, and very brown. The expression of my love for cars has been suffocated by gatekeeping, bad policing, and social dispositions against myself.
Indeed, the residents of The Weaver complaining about the Chicano car show believe that lack of policing is the problem here. Not a lack of communication or community building. It isn’t just the presumption of guilt that resonates from the hallways of The Weaver to courthouses across America. It’s the dehumanization and demonization of marginalized communities for just existing differently than what’s acceptable.
But what is acceptable? This isn’t about tire smoke, it’s not about noise and it’s not about safety. But it does raise a bigger, and perhaps more disturbing, question in my mind: Where are we allowed to exist, and who is allowed to decide that?
I don’t know how to answer complicated questions around race and power any more than you do. But I do know this: those guys were here first. They aren’t hurting anybody. The new residents moved to that area, so it’s on them to honor and respect their new home. Let people have their damn car culture.