What a great idea the former cruisers had recently when they staged a cruise-in along Pearl Nix Parkway, or West Bypass, as it was known at one time.
That’s the four-lane stretch beside Gainesville’s Lakeshore Mall that teenagers and young adults used to cruise to show off their cars, flirt with each other and just hang out instead of taking in a movie or staying home watching television.
The route varied as the streets changed, businesses and non-cruisers complained or law enforcement intervened. Basically, drivers would find a way to cruise the street and turn around and follow the same route time after time. They’d park a while in groups, chatting, meeting cruisers from outside Gainesville and Hall County. Then they’d start up again and retrace their route before finally heading for home.
At its peak around Lakeshore Mall, the traffic did get tedious. People just driving through or shopping at the mall or nearby stores would get tangled in jams, sometimes waiting through traffic light changes to get where they were going. Police would monitor the cruising to be sure no laws were broken and to keep traffic moving as best they could.
While there remains some cruising today, and perhaps there always will be, it doesn’t seem to be as popular as it once was.
Before Lakeshore Mall and Pearl Nix Parkway or West Bypass, the Gainesville downtown square was ground zero for cruisers. This was particularly true in the 1950s. The square was truly a circle back then. The cruisers’ route basically was around and around the square. Parking places were at a premium, especially those around the circle itself. Usually the cruisers would back into a space, then sit on the hood or fenders to watch other cruisers cruise.
Police were present, some like L.L. Bennett, Joe Edge or Mac Vickery who would hang out with the teenagers, yet keep them in line. There were few incidents because policemen on foot from nearby City Hall were there, more to just watch rather than intimidate.
Besides the square, cruisers usually would venture down Main Street by the Collegiate Grill and the two side-by-side pool rooms. Those who didn’t have cars would lean against the ice cream boxes inside the Collegiate watching out the window for a familiar face to drive by. Traffic often would pick up when the Royal Theater nearby would let out after a movie, those in cars looking for somebody to join them.
The route would branch out from the square to such popular meeting places as the Avion Restaurant in the vicinity of where the Weaver Law Firm is today at the intersection of E.E.Butler and Jesse Jewell Parkway, Nicholson’s Drive-in and Doug’s on Atlanta Highway or the Brazier on Riverside Drive, where today’s Little Italy Pizzeria is located. You could get a pickle for a nickel at the Big Bear on Cleveland Road, next to where Johnny’s Barbecue is today.
Those hankering for a little stronger refreshment might run by the Salvage House package store on Oak Street or down to the Pendergrass drive-by, where you could negotiate a six-pack. A leisurely, obligatory run through Brenau was routine for the guys, wishfully thinking some beauty would bound out of her sorority house and into their back seat.
In the 1950s, fewer young people had cars, though what they had have turned into collectors’ classics today like the ’57 Chevy, Ford Fairline or Corvette. That would mean cars normally would be packed for cruising, both the front seat and back seat sometimes overflowing.
Gas prices today might be another impediment for cruisers. It’s running more than $3.50 a gallon presently, while in the 1950s, you could buy a gallon of gas for about a quarter. You could cruise all night for a dollar in a brand new car that might have cost $3,000 at the most. Of course, a dollar then was considerable for parents as well as their children.
It wouldn’t be easy for the 1950s cruisers to conduct a nostalgic cruise-in today. The square is still there, though squarer than back then. Long gone are the Avion, Pete Tankersley’s and Lee Crowe’s pool rooms and the Royal Theater.
Only the Collegiate Grill on Main Street remains — along with a carload of memories from the original cruising era.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.