Omaha, Nebraska: We Don't Cruise AnymoreOct 22, 2023 02:03AM ● By Catherine a. Dunn
Design & illustration by Reneé Ludwick.
When my brothers and I were in high school in the 1980s, there were no personal computers, the internet did not exist, and nobody had cell phones. To speak or otherwise communicate with anyone outside of your home, you had to use your parents’ olive green or harvest gold teen landline to call a friend, or, if you had enough change, you could make a call from a public phone—booth or not.
In those days, our underage in-person socializing largely took place at school dances, occasional house or farm parties, Skateland, Rosenblatt Stadium, the Golden Spike Drive-In Theater, Gizmos Arcade, Putt-Putt, Henry Doorly Zoo, Godfather’s, and Peony Park.
However, on summer weekends, when nothing was going on, when other plans cost more than we could afford, when all else had failed, we could always go cruising on Dodge Street, out of the presence of our parents, to see and be seen.
Dodge Street begins right after it crosses the Missouri River from Iowa. It is the main east-west street in Omaha and serves as the dividing point between north and south numbered street addresses. From the 1950s until the late 1980s, Dodge Street was the main strip for cruising in Omaha.
Cruising culture in the United States was an evolution of the old traditions of strolling down Main Street or around the town square to meet and socialize with other people in the community. In the 1950s, cruising started as a way to show off cars, a place where boys and girls could meet; allowing youths to go out, have fun, and make a bit of mischief.
My mom recently shared with me that when she was in high school, she and her girlfriends occasionally cruised Dodge Street on a strip east of 72nd Street, always keeping an eye out for a coveted open parking spot at Tiner’s Drive-In Restaurant, located mid-strip on 44th Street.
When my brothers and I came of age, cruising involved slowly driving your car in a big circle, west on Dodge Street just past 90th Street, pulling a U-turn and then driving back east on Dodge Street, just past 72nd Street for another loop.
On weekend evenings, after taking a few bends around Dodge Street to take in the scene, hundreds of young adults from Omaha and surrounding communities would park their cars in the soccer field-sized lots that butted up against either side of Dodge Street in front of the Indian Hills Theater, Children’s Hospital, and the Crossroads Mall among other commercial establishments.
Once parked, they sat on the hood or trunk of their cars, checking out who was passing by, playing music, drinking pop, talking, and sometimes, making ‘googly eyes’ at a crush. In fact, my younger brother met his first girlfriend while cruising on Dodge Street.
Over the years, with thousands of cars cruising Dodge Street on weekend evenings, the police received numerous noise complaints from neighborhood residents and reports of theft and property damage from business owners. However, it was the sharp increase in car accidents occurring on Dodge Street after 9pm that moved the City to act.
With public safety issues outweighing the social niceties of cruising, in March of 1992, Omaha City Council Member Lee Terry introduced an ordinance prohibiting cruising on Dodge Street from 69th Street west to 96th Street, promptly signed by then Mayor P.J. Morgan.
Still on the books, Sec. 36-149 of the Omaha Municipal Code prohibits cruising, stating that, “No person shall drive or permit a motor vehicle under his care, custody and control to be driven past a traffic-control point three times within a two-hour period, from 9pm to 6am, Monday through Sunday, in a posted no-cruising area.”
The drafters wisely put teeth into the no cruising ordinance—a violating citizen was not fined or imprisoned, but instead could be placed on probation for up four months with driving privileges suspended for 30 days of the probationary period (within city limits).
In the end, the bark was enough to avoid having to administer the bite. For newly licensed teenagers, the horror of losing driving privileges for an entire month served its deterrent purpose. Within months of passing the ordinance, cruising on Dodge Street slowed and soon stalled altogether.
Since that time, several towns and cities have embraced and organized legal cruising revivals. While I’m no stranger to nostalgia, and continue to reflect on great memories of cruising back in the old days, I don’t think it would be as much fun in my fifties as it was in my teens. As a mom, I pretty much lived in my car for decades, driving my six kids to and from and endless circuit of events. In the end, carpool took the sheen off the whole cruising thing.
In lieu of hopping in your car, you can cruise vicariously by watching the 1973 film, American Graffiti, which provides an excellent snapshot of cruising and an outstanding rock and roll soundtrack with Wolfman Jack as the disk jockey. Dazed and Confused, a 1993 film directed by Richard Linklater, is another cruising movie set in the 1970s with an amazing soundtrack that features Matthew McConaughey in his first speaking role as a cringy 20-something-year old who still hangs out with high school students. You know…“Alright, alright, alright.”
For those who are risk adverse, you can still cruise down memory lane without violating Omaha’s no cruising by using your personal computer or cell phone to access and search the internet for Cruising Dodge Street Omaha, NE—a private Facebook group created for people to share stories, pictures, and to reconnect with people from the cruising heydays. Though the ambiance of growling motors, flashing headlights, and the occasional cop siren might be absent, for better or worse, it’s still a great place to see and be see.