Rick McCloskey Takes Us Back to Cruisin’ Van Nuys Boulevard
Editor’s Note: The latest installment of our Through the Lens series is an intriguing detour of sorts. Rick McCloskey spent the summer of 1972 chronicling the vibrant and bustling cruising scene on Van Nuys Boulevard, a part of the booming suburban San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles. As Rick notes in his accompanying text, the time was a turning point for American culture, a time Rick beautifully captured in artful, journalistic style.
A selection of McCloskey’s photos has been compiled in a wonderful hardbound book titled “Van Nuys Boulevard 1972.” Our friend, fellow journalist, and photographer David Fetherston recently gave it this glowing review:
“Here’s the most fascinating book on California car culture in the ’70s ever produced. Rick McCloskey collected these images on Van Nuys Boulevard, and they are an amazing statement of the time. The cover is what I consider ‘the’ most iconic car culture image of the times. It speaks from so many angles. Without knowing it at the time, Rick shot these historic and fascinating images of California car culture as a personal project. I feel his work ranks with the great social photographers like Mary Bourke White and Henri Catier-Bresson.”
It’s no surprise that Rick is also a car guy. He ultimately found himself establishing Rick Mack Enterprises, which specializes in reproduction wood components and kits for 1949-51 Ford and Mercury woodies. You can learn more about Rick at rickmack.com. Art-quality silver prints of his photography are available through the Joseph Bellows Gallery at josephbellows.com.
We hope you enjoy these images as much as we have. Where were you in ’72?
Van Nuys Boulevard 1972
Words and Photos by Rick McCloskey
Wednesday night was always cruise night on Van Nuys Boulevard. Why Wednesday? It was possibly created as a spontaneous opportunity for something to do, a cool place to be, in the middle of the week. Friday and Saturday nights also found a large number of people and their cars out on the boulevard, but Wednesday was the big night.
Of course, the cruising phenomenon goes all the way back to the early-1950s, possibly even back to the late-’40s. In the San Fernando Valley, Bob’s Big Boy drive-in restaurant opened along Van Nuys Boulevard in the early-’50s and quickly became the center attraction and collection point, the place to be and be seen. By the late-’50s, long waiting lines formed on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights along both Van Nuys Boulevard and Clarke Street for a place to park for ‘car hop’ service. It was a jam-packed car show.
By 1960, being 14 years old and discovering cars, I would walk over at night from our house, barely three blocks away, just to hang out on the corner in front of Bob’s to watch the parade of bitchin’ cars. My friend Ted and I even managed to get arrested for curfew violation standing there watching cars after 10:00pm!
Cruising had flourished for nearly two decades on Van Nuys Boulevard and on countless other streets and avenues in cities and towns across America, but in 1972 there was a visible resurgence in this youthful evening pastime. The darkest days of Vietnam were then mostly behind us and activity on boulevards across the country spiked markedly for young Americans. With the monthly draft numbers now down significantly and our military presence in Vietnam diminishing, young people, especially young men, were once again enjoying the freedom and fun of youth without the foreboding that had accompanied turning 18 during the previous half-dozen years. One could feel a great lightening of spirit, and this was nowhere more evident than on Van Nuys Boulevard at night. Cruising was back, big time!
Purely by happenstance, I discovered the new resurgence and wonderful energy levels of the evening car culture on Van Nuys Boulevard during the late spring of 1972. Since I had just completed several years of photography in the Art Department of California State University at Northridge, it was an easy step to assign myself the task of capturing what I could of the essence of the boulevard scene. This might also be great fun – after all, I grew up cruising that boulevard.
The photos in my series were mostly shot on Wednesday nights, but a few were also grabbed on Friday and Saturday nights. Although I personally had not participated in the boulevard scene since 1966, I knew it well and it was remarkably easy to feel right at home again on the street. I was also still in the boulevard demographic – albeit barely. Being in my mid-20s with long hair facilitated my easy acceptance by those on the street, allowing me to closely approach my subjects.
Shooting photos of young people during cruise nights was not at all like the difficult and often risky business of shooting photos of people ‘on the street’ in everyday life. Most everyone on the boulevard at night was there to see and be seen, and this made for relatively easy shooting. Indeed, many of my subjects would play for my camera; they very much wanted to be on stage, to perform and to be photographed. This allowed me to take my time and concentrate on composition and timing. I deliberately worked at getting people to look directly at my camera before I took the shot. I concentrated as much, or more, on making images of the people than their cars.
Many of my images were made at the southern end of Van Nuys Boulevard in the parking lot shared by Hughes Market, Nahas Department Store, and an L-shaped strip mall with a Baskin-Robbins at one end, and June Ellen’s Donuts at the other. The lot served as both an easy turn-around to cruise back north on Van Nuys, and as a good place to park, show off your ride, and just hang out for a time with your friends. Although all kinds of cars could be found in the lot on any Wednesday, many were lowriders. June Ellen’s was also a favored stop for bikers.
Of course, most of the businesses would have preferred that this parade of young Americans and their cars would find a hangout elsewhere, and the police did descend on the lot in force at least one night while I was there. They wrote a few tickets, found some folks with open beers, reminded everyone that ‘they’ were in control, and shooed everyone out – at least for an hour or two. Occasionally there would be some kind of dustup between a couple of guys, and the police would come and scoop them up. And, the police were always pulling someone over for a traffic stop, and actually taking one or two people into custody for whatever transgression. All in all, however, the show went on in a surprisingly amicable manner week after week.
Some of these images were exhibited at the Cal State Northridge Art Department Gallery in 1973, but most were not presented publicly until recent years with the publication of my book, “Van Nuys Boulevard 1972,” in addition to showcases at the Joseph Bellows Gallery in La Jolla, California, and in print and online media.
Nearly 50 years have passed, and most of the beautiful kids in the photos are now approaching 70 years of age – a few are even older! Cruising of this type does not happen anymore. It is gone, probably forever. These photos and fine memories are what are left. Enjoy.