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As sideshows increase, Sonoma County community leaders to propose sanctioned event

More than 50 souped-up cars converged on Sebastopol Road and West Avenue one mid-September evening. Hundreds of bystanders milling about the popular Roseland intersection gathered around to watch them pull doughnuts and figure-eights through rising tire smoke.

By the end of the night, two people had been stabbed, at least one car had been impounded and one person arrested on suspicion of reckless driving.

The intersection has been the site of a number of these impromptu stunt events, called sideshows, a relatively new dilemma for local law enforcement and a controversial concern for the community.

Some residents say they are traffic hazards that pose significant danger to pedestrians and other drivers and accuse police of not doing enough to stop them. Police argue that the gatherings are sometimes random and too large to confront without potential use of force.

But leaders in Roseland, the southwest Santa Rosa neighborhood wedged between Highways 12 and 101 where many of these sideshows have taken place, are offering a solution beyond criminalization.

They propose a city-sanctioned event where drivers can do their tricks in a safe, controlled environment. For the young people who participate, they say, sideshows are about self-expression and cultural exchange with roots in the Bay Area.

“This is a great opportunity for government to involve the youth in policy-making,” said Santa Rosa City Council member Eddie Alvarez, who is among those spearheading the proposal. “This could easily be a perfect example for us to say, ‘Your voice counts, what do you want to say?’”

Police limited response

Over the past three years, large-scale sideshows have been growing larger and happening more often in Santa Rosa, according to police data. Some of them have led to injuries.

Two girls were hurt at a sideshow at the Santa Rosa Marketplace last year when they were struck by a car as it spun around the store’s parking lot.

Since the beginning of this year, there have been six large sideshows in the city, police department spokesperson Sgt. Chris Mahurin said.

Police responses to the gatherings generally have been muted.

At the most recent sideshow on Sept. 16, less than two dozen Santa Rosa police officers stood by, noting the license plates of cars they planned to later pull over and impound.

As crowds swelled to 400 spectators, authorities said, officers received a report someone had been shot and ordered people to leave so they could find the potential victim.

In a statement, police said people began throwing rocks and bottles at officers and their cruisers. While they determined no one had been shot, officers found a man with a head injury and two teenagers with superficial stab wounds.

A 14-year-old girl was charged last week with assault with a deadly weapon in one of the stabbings.

Santa Rosa police posted alerts about previous sideshows on May 5 and Aug. 27 at Sebastopol Road and West Avenue on the department’s official Facebook page. Officers did not actively stop either incident.

Some complained about what they said is a nonresponse from law enforcement.

“Ok we all know this was going to happen!” wrote one commenter. “Be prepared and be pro active (sic)!!!“

Steve Martin, the president of Cruisin’ North Car Club of Sonoma County, a nonprofit established in 1987 that hosts car exhibitions and fundraisers, said he just wants the sideshows to stop.

“I live here in Roseland and I hear it almost every night. Sometimes I even smell the smoke. I wish the cops could do something,” he said.

But police spokesperson Mahurin said that sideshows are difficult to predict and plan for.

“They’re tricky,” Mahurin said. “There’s times where they just pop off very quickly. In order to have enough resources to respond, that would take time.”

Instead of directly intervening or dispersing the crowds, police have generally monitored the sideshows, unless there is an emergent situation like gunfire. Officers can later pull over and impound vehicles for 30 days. The driver is responsible for the towing fee and daily lot fee, which total between $2,500 and $3,000.

The city has tried new traffic infrastructure, like large yellow or white ceramic dots in trouble intersections. They’re larger than typical traffic dots and can cause tire or rim damage when hit while skidding, but don’t interfere with normal traffic.

Despite these measures, Santa Rosa authorities are still in a reactive role as they grapple with a relatively recent hazard other cities have struggled over decades to address.

Oakland sideshow meets Santa Rosa lowriding culture

The sideshow was born in the streets and parking lots of East Oakland in the 1980s, said Sean Kennedy, a hip hop historian who grew up “in the culture.” At first a venue for proudly strutting modified vehicles and mingling in the community, he said the sideshows were directly tied to music, originating in Oakland’s Black community with the arrival of hip hop and then popularized beyond the East Bay through tracks like Richie Rich’s 1988 “Side Show.”

From its cradles in Foothill Square and Eastmont Shopping Center, the phenomenon traveled across the bay to San Francisco and up and down the coast. Now, it’s worldwide.

Only relatively recently did sideshows become the wild spectacle that has earned them their negative reputation, Kennedy said. As high-performance vehicles entered the scene and shows became more stunt-centric, cities began cracking down, passing ordinances that made it illegal to participate in or even watch one.

“It’s dangerous because they’re spinning cars, but with the absence of cars turning around in circles, it’s really a big social gathering,” Kennedy said.

Sideshows gained traction in Sonoma County in the past three years, and have been mostly unruly here from the get-go, said Jose Quiroz, a member of the Latin Rollers Car Club and the county LowRider Council. During his childhood in the ’80s, young people peacocked their cars by cruising through city streets, which was all about going low and slow rather than fast and furious.

“My dad, my mom, they were all cruising,” Quiroz said. “Literally, my car seat was strapped in the back of a lowrider when I was a baby.”

The LowRider Council, a coalition of previously rival car clubs, is opposed to sideshows, Quiroz said. To him, respect and acceptance of lowriding was hard-earned, which the younger generation is taking for granted.

“There was a time in Santa Rosa if you were in a lowrider car, you’d get pulled over just immediately if you passed a cop on the street. We’ve changed that,” he said.

In August 2020, the city announced a project to convert one of its police cruisers into a lowrider called The Marylou, with the hope of building bridges with the community.

“When we go to an area, we want to respect the area, spend money at local vendors, support the community, have a good time and let people check out our cars,” Quiroz said. But sideshows “blow up the spot — they whip their cars around, they make it dangerous, they clog up traffic.”

However, as someone born and raised in Santa Rosa, Quiroz said he understands that young people are looking for an outlet, for something exciting to do.

When the conversation focuses solely on the damage the events cause or the mess they leave behind, the creativity and resourcefulness central to sideshows gets ignored or forgotten, Kennedy added. The young people who partake in the tradition are far from unskilled — they’re “motorheads, they’re mechanics, they fix they’re cars up.”

“There’s a trade behind it that they’re not recognizing. These kids could be like the next NASCAR drivers. Being able to perform in one of these cars, turning a car in a figure-eight, that’s not an easy job,” Kennedy said. He believes that young people view it like a sport: potentially hazardous, but also fun, exhilarating and an opportunity to show off.

Sideshows ‘an opportunity’ for the city

Council member Alvarez was at Sebastopol Road and West Avenue the night of Sept. 16, Mexican Independence Day, helping his mother close their family shop on the corner. When they emerged from the storefront to the developing sideshow, they were surprised at the large and diverse crowd.

“I seen every race out there. I seen every age out there. I seen families eating tacos and at the same time breaking their necks to watch,” he said.

On Reddit, one Roseland resident also described the crowds: “I was there, hunting a burrito in a bathrobe. The people were mellow, the area was commercial, and aside from the gunshot, it was super peaceful. This struck me as an American moment, where people were just cutting loose and coming together as a community.”

Alvarez shared that he felt conflicted. It was incredibly dangerous, he acknowledged, and the cars were tearing up an important intersection. But the gathering also seemed deeply human, the modern automotive equivalent of a Spanish matador performance. Finally, it felt like kids simply being kids.

“Ask me what period of time our youth hasn’t done something we consider dangerous,” he said.

Elected to city council at the end of 2020, Alvarez said he wants to push the city to take a different approach to sideshows than cracking down punitively, and come up with a solution in collaboration with the community, the LowRider Council and the kids who participate in them. He hopes to propose a sanctioned, regulated event, involving vendors and educational opportunities, that would host a controlled sideshow with spectators behind barricades.

“Why not make lemonade out of lemons?” he asked.

The new council member is figuring out how to formally propose the event idea and hopes to get the ball rolling by the end of the month. Possible locations include the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.

This harm-reduction approach has been adopted by other cities, like San Diego, with positive results. Kennedy said he introduced similar proposals to create a space for legal sideshows as former cultural affairs commissioner for the city of Oakland, but the proposals were not adopted.

“I think we need to stop criminalizing sideshows and dumping money into law enforcement and overtime hours and put that money into resources that train kids and then give spectators a place to come and socialize at an event that’s safe,” he said.

The LowRider Council supports the initiative, Quiroz said, explaining that it’s easy for leaders, lawmakers and law enforcement to forget what it’s like to be a young person.

“Sometimes we need to try to be a little more understanding and provide them a safer outlet and show them a better way,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 602-736-5270 or emily.wilder@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @vv1lder.

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