Some people liken the weekend tradition of cruising cars through downtown Boise to American Graffiti, the George Lucas film that romanticized coming of age in the car-centric '50s. While Lucas' version of "the cruise" was rated PG, the real-life version in Boise is an R-rated experience, with downtown business owners and employees reporting encounters with drivers that include racist and homophobic taunts as well as threats of violence.
"The situation is untenable," wrote one business owner to members of the Boise City Council in August.
"As someone who owns a business, I want to be careful about I say publicly, in fear of retaliation," another owner told Boise Weekly. "But yes, there are times that I'm a bit nervous when I go in and out of my store at night."
Ceci Thunes, who has worked downtown for 16 years--first as general manager of Asiago's Ristorante and now as a supervisor at The Modern Hotel and Bar--says she has lost count of the times her employers have had to call the police due to customer complaints about the problem. She said the shouting and screeching tires even prompted The Modern to hire private security and install new sound-proofing in hotel rooms. More recently, Thunes said many of the drivers cruising Main and Idaho between 12th and 15th streets have been parking their cars near The Modern, just west of the downtown core, and making their presence felt on street corners.
On the evening of July 16, Thunes said she approached some of the drivers who had parked at the corner of 14th and Main streets. She spoke to the group after hearing someone shout "faggot" at a passing vehicle.
"Hey, did you just call that guy a 'faggot?'" she asked, and was surrounded by about a dozen angry people.
"Two of them insisted they were armed. I told them 'Words matter,' but they indicated I should leave the country. I didn't want them to see they were upsetting me, but it was a pretty hostile presence—a mob mentality," she said.
That prompted Thunes' boss, Modern owner Elizabeth Tullis to pen a letter to the Boise City Council in August, writing she and a number of other businesses "have approached this from many angles" over the years, yet the problem has grown nastier.
The issue is nothing new. According to a 1990 white paper published by the Boise Police Department under the title "Downtown Cruising in Major U.S. Cities and One City's Response to the Problem," Boise law enforcement wrote that it was addressing a situation that had grown "intolerable." BPD said it opened a police substation on Idaho Street, increased street lighting along Main and Idaho, issued more juvenile offense citations, sentenced more offenders to community service and partnered with the Treasure Valley YMCA to create more youth-oriented alternatives to cruising.
But teen dances or juvenile citations won't curb Boise's 21st century cruising problem.
"I've been operating a downtown business for decades. And, once upon a time, it was just kids cruising around. No big deal. But a lot of today's drivers are older. It's a rougher crowd," said one merchant who asked to keep his identity confidential out of fear of retaliation. "We've had vandalism. Most of the trees in front of our store have had to be replaced. My employees have found hypodermic needles out front. And, one day, there was a dead jack rabbit hanging from a tree."
That merchant and others, including representatives of Idaho Power, Hurless Brothers, the Owyhee Plaza, The Royal Plaza, Idaho Mountain Touring and The Modern, have met regularly to talk about the problem and repeatedly turned to Boise City Hall for answers.
"On any given weekend, you can easily spot open containers of alcohol, littering, engine-revving, speeding, racing, tailgating and yelling, that in many cases, is considered harassment," Tullis wrote in her letter.
Her missive triggered a Boise City Hall meeting on Oct. 3, where merchants sat down with officials to talk about their grievances.
"I want to listen really closely to what everyone has to say about this," Boise Council President Elaine Clegg told Boise Weekly. "Some of what we're hearing is not appropriate behavior that I'm willing to put up with. That said, downtown Boise is evolving. We haven't had a lot of people living downtown for a really long time. And now, with more people downtown 24 hours a day--well that, quite frankly, changes everything."
Lynn Hightower, executive director of the Downtown Boise Association, said downtown has a lot of energy, attracts a diverse group of people and can be noisy. "But it's important to figure out what's the best thing any or all of us can do to make sure the neighborhood remains a friendly and welcoming place."
Said Boise Police Chief Bill Bones: "People certainly have a right to drive around in circles all night long, but if they're driving reckless or drag racing, that's something we can take action on. But for police, it's a balance. Yes, people have a right to congregate. But people are also pretty good when we ask them to move along. That's where we can take the role of being a peacemaker. But in case of criminal activity or reckless behavior, then that's where we become the enforcer."
Tullis is anxious to "have a broader discussion of how to manage this community problem"--and sooner, rather than later.
"It's not child's play," she told the Boise City Council. "Waiting for it to escalate is not a proactive approach."