Slow & Low in Chicago

I’m too young to have been in East L.A. during the Seventies, but I can imagine the scene.

Whittier Boulevard on a Saturday night. 1975.

A line of Chicanos roll down the block in classic American-made cars. The 1965 Lincoln Continental. The 1947 Chevy Sedan Delivery. The 1974 Chevy Monte Carlo. The 1950 Mercury Eight. The 1972 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. The 1941 Ford Super Deluxe. And, of course, the 1964 Chevy Impala. Convertible, preferably.

They put whitewall 14-inch tires and gold rims on it and install velvet seating for extra comfort. Then they spray-paint that bad boy and lower it til it scrapes the ground.

They’re not racing these beauties. Oh no. They’re going low and slow — bajito y suavecito — letting everybody get a good look.

Cops and the people on the other side of town try to dismiss them by calling them troublemakers. But around the boulevard they’re known as lowriders.

The Seventies may be considered the heyday of lowrider culture, and East Los Angeles the mecca, but its origins stretch further back than that. And lowrider culture has been introduced in other places since, having been adopted in places as far as Japan and Australia.

Lowriders here in Chicago have their pick of car clubs to join: South Side Cruisers, Amistad and Con Estilow, just to name a few.

The culture has since traveled outside the Mexican American community too. Black, Arab, Asian, European — people from all walks of life have adopted the lowrider lifestyle. Lowrider culture has been around for so long that anyone from the age of 16 to the age of 100 can rightfully call themselves a lowrider.

Yet, even within the Mexican American community, there’s still some debate as to how and where lowriding came about.

Common lore says that lowriding began in Los Angeles in the late 1940s, when the Mexican American community there began customizing old cars. They put sandbags in their trunks before they learned to lower the chassis.

The first lowriders were pachucos, zoot suit-wearing Mexican Americans who, instead of fully assimilating to American society or adhering to the old ways and customs of their parents, chose to carve out a cultural identity all their own.

The origins of pachuco culture is another matter of debate. One history points to Juárez–El Paso. “El Chuco” was a nickname for El Paso, and Mexicans headed for the city (“pa’ El Chuco”) are said to have been called pachucos.

While the white youth were modifying their cars to look more futuristic and go faster, pachucos kept to their counterculture ways by customizing their cars to look more classic and go lower.

The late Fifties were watershed years for lowriding. In 1958 California outright banned lowriding. To get a round the new law, lowriders fitted their cars with airplane hydraulics so they could raise them  to legal height whenever police were around.

Lowriders later discovered that adding more voltage to the hydraulics made their wheels jump off the ground.

Pachuco culture gave way to Chicano culture beginning in the Sixties. Increasing sociopolitical awareness among young Chicano, mixed with new car designs, led to an evolutionary leap in lowriding. Now, instead of the curved edges that characterized earlier cars, lowriders in the Sixties began customizing big, boxy Chevy Impalas and Lincoln Continentals.

Lowriding isn’t just about the cars though. It’s about community and cultural identity, family and solidarity. Lowriders have been lumped in with gangbangers for a long time, but it’s mostly due to the violent neighborhoods that lowriding came out of.

As Ben Chappell, author of Lowrider Space: Aesthetics and Politics of Mexican American Custom Cars said in a recent interview:

I’m not going to lie and say that there are no gangbangers who like lowrider style. But there are two ways that I can say this stereotype is misguided. First, there are a whole lot of lowriders who are preoccupied with being a positive presence in their community. The club that I spent the most time with had strict rules: no drinking or drugs, no gang activity. When you were representing the club in public, that was a serious responsibility.

The other thing is that … plenty of lowriders I knew had friends or relatives who might have been involved in a gang. The fact is, it’s close in certain communities. To be able to distance yourself from gangs is not a privilege that everybody enjoys. …

But the people I got to know saw lowriding as a positive alternative to various kinds of trouble. They were mostly working-class Mexican Americans who wanted to spend time with friends and family and create beautiful cars.

Lowrider culture spread to places outside of California as lowriding started cropping up in mainstream culture. “Low Rider,” a song by Long Beach funk band War, topped the Billboard R&B charts in 1975, and a lowriding Chevrolet Impala named “Gypsy Rose” is seen rolling down Whittier during the opening credits of “Chico and the Man.”

With Los Angeles being one of the most diverse cities in the United States, the culture soon spread to other marginalized groups. By the early Nineties, lowriding had become just as iconic to Crenshaw Boulevard, the epicenter of L.A.’s black community, as it had been on Whittier.

The Midwest Lowriders Car Club held its first in 1982. That first gathering boasted a grand total of 15 cars. Nine years later it had become a three-day event attracting around 300 cars and 10,000 attendees.

On Sunday, August 10, the Chicago Urban Art Society will host the 4th Annual Slow & Low Chicago Community Lowrider Festival in Pilsen. It’ll be held at 600 W. Cermak from 11 am til 8 pm.

Lowriders from local car clubs will show off over 200 custom cars decked out with shiny rims, powerful hydraulics, plush interiors and beautifully spray-painted murals — all competing for top car.

The event will be a celebration of lowrider culture, featuring art, food and music.

So whether you remember Whittier back in ’75 or you’re too young to, head to Pilsen this Sunday to witness lowrider culture in all its glory.

Chicago-style, of course.

[Photo: Walter Watzpatzkowski via Flickr]