About five decades ago, on a typical, noisy Thursday night, fumes of exhaust filled the air as the youth of San Luis Obispo cruised the streets of downtown, showing off 1960s muscle cars while they blasted their music from their 8-track tapes. 

This tradition came to an end once the Downtown Association decided that cruising was deterring patrons from visiting the core of downtown, according to the Downtown SLO website. The Farmer’s Market emerged as a way to solve this, attracting more people to Downtown San Luis Obispo. 

A news article from 1980 detailed the end of “cruising” in San Luis Obispo. San Luis Obispo Tribune | Courtesy
A news article from 1980 detailed the end of “cruising” in San Luis Obispo. San Luis Obispo Tribune | Courtesy

In the 1960s and 1970s, high school and college-aged students would “cruise” down Higuera Street as part of a tradition that played a role in San Luis Obispo’s culture and history. This started when the city decided to have the shops downtown stay open until 9 p.m. on Thursday nights, and the cruisers decided to take advantage of the late night scene. 

According to longtime San Luis Obispo resident and county genealogy historian Mary Adler Hansen, cruising was an integral part of the San Luis Obispo social scene at the time. 

“It was more of a social experience,” Hansen said. “If you cruised that meant you were cool and wanted to be seen, it was the popular thing to do back in the day.”

It was a time for teenagers to interact in a way that allowed them to make memories and unleash their reckless and rebellious sides. These nights were filled with chances to have fun with friends or to get to know others, since it was almost like a community of cruisers, Hansen said. 

“The girls would flirt with the guys and the guys would hit on the chicks,” Hansen said, “It was common for a guy to pull up next to you and rev his engine, and maybe you would race with other people.”

According to Hansen, back then there was not much else to do for young people that age, there were only a few clothing stores and restaurants. There weren’t all the bars, stores, and coffee shops that downtown San Luis Obispo has now. On top of that, cruising was popular because it was cheap. 

“You could fill your car up and really cruise all night with just $2 worth of gas, so it wasn’t very expensive,” Hansen said.

For people who grew up in San Luis Obispo like Hansen during these times, the cruising nights were memorable and played a big role in their social life when they were younger. 

Lorie Norkus, a fourth-generation resident of San Luis Obispo, vividly remembers her experiences with cruising in the 1970s when she attended SLO High School. 

“My friend Sally had a convertible VW Bug. We used to wait at the stoplight at Marsh and Chorro,” Norkus said. “As soon as it turned green, we would floor it and try to catch the green light at Chorro and Higuera.”

She said that one of her favorite parts was when they saw their friends in another car and wanted to chat, they would hop out of their car and get into the other car at a red light, go around the circuit, and then return to their original car later. She and her friends would then end the night by meeting up at Taco Bell on Santa Rosa or Denny’s.

“We blasted all the best music back then too,” Norkus said. “Van Halen, Boston, Foreigner, Loverboy, Fleetwood Mac, Police, Cheap Trick, AC/DC, Tom Petty, and Queen.”

When it comes to authority, cruisers didn’t have much to worry about, Norkus said.

“There were the local police that kept things in order, and we all got along with them for the most part,” Norkus said. “They didn’t come down too hard and we had a lot of respect for the law back then.”

Norkus said she remembers seeing many cool cars while cruising, including old Mustangs, Chevy Camaros, Pontiac Firebirds, and Dodge Darts to name a few.

“Life was great back then,” Norkus said. “I wish everyone could have had such good memories of their high school days like this.”

According to former member of the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce David Garth, in an effort to stop cruising and encourage more people to visit downtown and the local businesses, the City Council decided it was time to close the street and implement forms of entertainment including bands, musicians, and puppeteers to name a few. 

To gain even more traction, the Farmer’s Market Association who already had a Farmer’s Market going on at the Madonna shopping center on Saturdays, proposed the idea of having one downtown, Garth said.

The Downtown Association then stepped in and worked on bringing this new idea to life. This led to the birth of the Farmers’ Market in the summer of 1983 when farmers were invited to sell their produce along Higuera. 

Garth said that he recalls the development of the Farmer’s Market and how it became a significant part of the community. 

“The Farmer’s Market is important to San Luis Obispo because it helped establish this town’s tourism,” Garth said. “It was and still is good for both the businesses and the locals.”

Hansen said there were a lot of people who boycotted Farmers’ Market at first. 

I remember being really angry when they stopped the cruising to start the Farmer’s Market, we were all really mad,” Hansen said. “We thought it was unjust.”

Despite some opposition from former cruisers, the Farmer’s Market ended up taking on a life of its own.

It started out slow, and didn’t gain much popularity at first. It began as purely selling produce and flowers. It evolved once the merchants downtown realized that it could be a money-maker to sell food from their local businesses, Hansen said.

 It started out in a small area, and then it got larger as time went on. Recently they expanded the Farmers Market by adding more blocks. They have also started to block off the street earlier at 5 p.m.

“Primarily today’s farmers market are Cal Poly students and tourists,” Hansen said. 

According to the Farmers’ Market Manager Whitney Chaney, it now runs 6 blocks and has about 70 vendors. On a slow night, it is expected to see around 2,000 people visiting the Farmers’ Market, but on a busy night there is usually over 5,000 people.

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