BBC Autos

New York City’s automotive graveyard

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    You can just make out the top of Manhattan from here. The bright glass fingers give this place a vanishing point, a tension and an irony. Willets Point is eight miles from America's grand capitalist experiment, north of Queens, south of the breadline, and with no running water or sewage system. It folds in downbeat garages with no-questions-asked employment, as well as homes for the destitute and a black market for stolen cars. Which are often the same thing.

    It's a difficult place to pass through. Literally. What's left of the paved road has been beaten by deep, pupil-black puddles. Even a careful line at crawling pace paints cars with a militant shade of brown muck as they lurch in and out of the craters. It's one of few sources of amusement for the Willets Point workers, who are either on the edge of their seat or mid-flight, finding the thing to fix the thing.

    But the stew of metal and grime and sliding eyes is punctured by small triumphs. Or, in Felix Lora's case, a big red one.

    (All photography Gabriel Milori)

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    "It's a distraction, fixing up a classic, that's why I bought my '64 [Ford Thunderbird]. It takes you away from things. I did pretty much all the work on it at my shop [36 Avenue Rims and Tires], in the dirt and dust. The guy next door did the paint - the whole car's out of Willets Point. I know it's not perfect, but neither's this place. It's crazy here, low-quality, where everyone's trying to take your money. Crackheads. The mayor. The police. It's hard to do anything."

    Underestimate Felix's achievement at your peril. Willets Point - the "Iron Triangle" - is an 80-year-old seam between absolute rock bottom and the rest of the world, and you make your journey out by car. There are no job titles here, no terms of employment, no office hours. Everyone's role is discordant and hyphenated: welder-tire fitter, electrician-painter, mechanic-broker. A transience steered by the next car, and the next customer. "As long as it's broken, I can fix it," says Felix.

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    Willets Point veteran Satellite explains the mechanics of each transaction. "I started out here as an arranger. There are about 256 registered companies and 2,700 employees here, and it can take hours to find the right person if you're looking for something specific. You facilitate a service or a sale and work for tips. With that, you build relationships - when I came here two decades ago, I couldn't even loan a screwdriver. Now I can get whatever I want, learn new skills and build on that. You grow into it, but it's not easy - trust is hard to earn around here. Some people make it difficult."

    In one of its northerly corners, there's an area Felix avoids. "Don't go to the junkyard at night. It's where the addicts live, in the cars. Sometimes they come down and do a little work - odd jobs, selling parts - but those guys are dangerous. They pulled a dead body out of there a few months back. They're why I don't leave the Thunderbird out at night - it wouldn't have any rims or mirrors on it the next day. You hear the stories about that place and you can see why the city wants to knock this whole place down."

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    Not just wants to, but will do. The new $610m, 41,922-capacity Citi Field baseball stadium has its back to Willets Point. It's home to the New York Mets and is separated from the garages by a narrow two-lane road. On the right, scrubby workshops balancing on century-old rubbish (see boxout on p142). On the left, taproots of a sterile, steel-and-crystal future. Landmark or slum. Like the before-and-after shots in a makeover show.

    Expanding Citi Fields was a priority for New York's previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who left office at the end of 2013 - though razing and redeveloping Willets Point has been every mayor's ambition since the Fifties. But the City Planning Commission has finally certified a $3bn project which will flatten the garages and replace them with houses, shops, parks and a school.

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    According to the city's Economic Development Corp, $15.5 million has been set aside to help Willets businesses find new homes, and more than 40 shops have relocated, signed a lease or are in talks to do so shortly. But business still persists. Felix says, "I was offered money in the beginning, but then I heard nothing, so I thought it was politicians making the same threats, like they've been doing for the last 50 years.

    "But things got aggressive after Bloomberg. He tried to push through the development. The police department, sanitation department, fire department - they patrol every day now, and still do, even though [he's no longer in office]. Even on Sunday, when I'm working on my car. It's tense now."

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    Satellite adds: "So many established businesses are forced to sell. [Owners] are paid off with a year's rent and a year's salary, but that's not enough, especially for the workers. There's nearly 3,000 of them, and about 70 per cent work off the books because they don't have the right [citizenship] papers. They're from all over - South America, Korea. What'll happen to them? When the shops close, they leave, and you don't see them again. We don't know where they are, what they're doing, if they're alive. Then there's the customers - where'll they go?"

    Ruben Vargas and his classic VW Beetle, which is in every tiny detail from 1968, have been coming to Willets Point for a decade. He knows Felix from his Thunderbird, and also owns a 1963 and 1969 Chevrolet Impala. "I wouldn't go anywhere else. I trust these people with my cars." Manuel Gordillo is the exhaust shop owner waving away the drifting blue mist rising from Ruben's Bug.

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    "We've been here for 24 years, and we'll put a new muffler on anything. Doesn't matter how old it is, what it looks like, who's driving it. We don't ask questions or make things difficult - we do our jobs because we have to."

    You can't negotiate with a bare cupboard, and you can't turn away business. But from the dustblown workshops and pitted thoroughfare, you'd expect Willets' customers to be the same shade of compromised and cost-conscious. But there's the vast disconnect between the visitors and indigenous here. For every five Chevys and Fords, there's a Range Rover, Porsche, BMW. Satellite's adamant that he's worked on a Lambo. One suspects the owners of the posh stuff don't use Willets just because it's cheap. It's one of the few things Felix won't talk about.

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    "You hear things, but I don't know, man. We don't ask questions, we just do our work. I buy my cars and parts from people I trust - we get enough trouble from the police department already."

    "Alex" is one of the fixers. He doesn't want us to use his real name or have his picture taken. His expression is tense, and you can sense restlessness in him. A strobing behind the eyes. "A lot of the [Range] Rovers, and imports down here are hot, no doubt. People steal cars, strip them down and sell them here.

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    Business owners will buy that stuff and sell it on. "We see everything. Like, if people can't afford the payments on their car, they'll drive here in the middle of the night and torch it to get the insurance money. Or pay some other guys to take care of it. We're working people, we're not criminals, but we're at the bottom, and we'll do more to make a dollar than you."

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    If you can, visit Willets Point. You won't find anywhere else like it in the First World. It's despairing and inspiring; a puzzle that can't be solved. But, most of all, it's impossible.

    It shouldn't exist, and soon won't. And in this precarious, medieval car quarter - where utility is the architect and aspiration - nor should Felix's car. The Thunderbird is superfluous, incongruous respite here, where everyone is struggling with poverty, addiction, uncertainty, or all three.

    "I'll wait until the last day of the deadline before I leave," Felix says. "I have my customers here, and they all know me. It's stressful, but if I need another distraction, maybe I'll fix up another car. You can build good things here."

    This story initially appeared in the June 2014 issue of Top Gear magazine.