Sergio Aguirre is weak, pale. Sometimes he fumbles for words, and it’s not because English isn’t his first language. He’d been on a hunger strike, and hadn’t had anything besides water and tea in four days.
We’re standing in the middle of his garage in Willets Point, an almost surreal corner of Queens. Most people, even some New Yorkers, have never heard of the neighborhood or are aware that it exists as a mass of dilapidated auto shops near the entrance to one of the city’s newest sports stadiums. When you show them pictures, on first glance they often ask if it’s in Brazil. They see the garbage-strewn streets – more rutted, soggy dirt pathways than anything else – and the corrugated metal buildings, more reminiscent of a favela than anything people tend to see in an American city.
It’s a labyrinth of mechanics, bodyshops, metal recycling, upholsters, and infamously, chop shops, and it’s really here, in the biggest and greatest city in the United States. Few people realize how close it is, though, until they see the massive shrine of consumption and commerce that is home to the New York Mets, known as Citi field, looming above it all.
And that’s on one side. On the other, the new roof meant to cap off Arthur Ashe Stadium, home of the U.S. Open tennis tournament and its more than $38 million in prize money, rises like the specter of progress that it is.
That labyrinth is all set to be demolished, and before all of its inhabitants are ready. The mechanics who work there are being forced to leave, with nowhere else to take their work.
It’s not because they don’t want to leave, they do, eventually, and not because they didn’t agree to leave, not originally. But somewhere between a progressive law firm, agreements with dollar figures in the millions, city bureaucracy, and a convoluted permitting process, everything seems to have gone awry for the mechanics.
A perfect plan, where everyone was mostly happy, has now turned into a nightmare of evictions. The hunger strike is over now, having lasted several days, but little seems resolved.
Without more time, they all stand to lose their livelihoods. No one wanted it this way, not the city, not community advocates, and not the people living in Willets Point.
It’s not like Willets Point isn’t a symbol of commerce and progress on its own, even if it is decidedly lower-budget than the monoliths erected around it.
Crawl through in a car, making sure to creep around the craters disguised as mere puddles, and you’ll instantly be approached by upwards of five men asking what you need. A broken wheel is no problem. A new belt is an easy fix. Need some welding done? They know a guy, you need to find him, he’s sometimes a few blocks away, but don’t worry, if he’s not there they’ll find you someone else.
If you speak Spanish, you’ll get what you need that much easier.
Generations of workers, grandfathers and young kids, can be seen in alternate states of activity. Some sit on chairs, waiting for a big customer to come by. Other times, the customers themselves need to make way, as freakish, stripped-down pickup trucks rumble past, scrap metal stacked up where the beds used to be. If you ask where you can get something done, there are a million answers waiting for you. Start asking questions about what else is going on, however, and people shoot you suspicious looks.
Who wants to know? Why are you asking? Oh, you may want to talk to those guys over there. Maybe.
“Those guys over there,” as it so happens, is Sergio, and his group of mechanics he’s helping to lead towards an uncertain future. A future of their own design and agreement, and one, partially at least, outside their control.
Willets Point, as it stands now, will soon be gone. It won’t vanish all at once, and it won’t vanish overnight, but no one can hold a prime corner of New York City real estate — and preserve it for gritty blue-collar work — for very long.
Politicians have been trying to evict the mechanics for decades. In the midst of the World’s Fair in the 1960s, famed (and infamous) New York developer Robert Moses tried to get it all condemned, and have the land all incorporated into the area that then included plans for Shea Stadium, the tennis complex, and Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, home of those big flying-saucer-shaped things you might recognize from the Men In Black movie franchise, as the Gotham Gazette noted in 2004:
As president of the 1964 World’s Fair, Moses sought to condemn local properties and integrate Willets Point into an expanded Flushing Meadows park complex. To defend their interests, junkyard owners hired a young Queens attorney named Mario Cuomo. For both men, it was a turning point. Cuomo won the case and went on to the governor’s office. Moses lost and went into grudging retirement.
Cuomo’s son, Andrew Cuomo, is the current New York governor.
The Gazette’s 11-year old article was about the desire to once again condemn the shops of Willets Point, and build a new stadium for the New York Jets football team, and a New York Olympic bid.
In 2015, the Jets still don’t play in Queens, New York still hasn’t gotten an Olympic bid, and the mechanics are still in Willets Point. But the tide of history and economics can’t be held back forever. And it couldn’t hold back the rising tide of supreme wealth that was the Michael Bloomberg administration in New York.
Towards the latter part of the last decade, momentum began to build towards the final civic blows. In 2009, the administration won the right to re-zone the area, with the goal of turning it into a shopping, entertainment, and residential complex.
Everything was beginning to move ahead with the plan. The bulldozers would come in, knock the old things down, and the new things would go up. No longer would visitors to Citi Field have to wonder what the corrugated metal village was, hiding just outside the stadium’s gates. No longer would the city suffer the blight of so much unregulated industry, unserved and unloved by the city that bore it.
Fifty million dollars were approved by the city to finally build a sewer main to serve the new commercial development in the 62-acre space. Another $3 billion in private investment was on its way, just for the first phase of construction alone. More than 7,000 permanent new jobs were promised. By the time everything was said and done, more than 3,000 homes would be going up, built alongside at least eight acres of public space.
Everything would change, and that was great for everyone. Even the mechanics.
This was their livelihood, after all, the work they used to feed their families and keep their kids in shoes. Where were they to go? What were they to do?
The city actually had a plan for them, too. They were going to take every last worker, every last shop, every last drop of its economic lifeblood, and they were going to move it.
The whole thing.
Under an agreement with the administration, the city’s Economic Development Corporation would actually give the mechanics $4.8 million to facilitate moving the entire Willets Point community to the South Bronx. The would-be developer of the site, the Queens Development Group, was going to kick in another big chunk of cash, almost a million dollars, to help out as well. The money wouldn’t just pay for the move, it would pay for a legal team at the Urban Justice Center to make sure everything would run smoothly.
And it wasn’t just the money that would be helping the workers of Willets Point. Free English classes and GED classes were offered, along with job training and placement for people who wanted new careers, and referrals to immigration services for those trying to obtain legal status.
Not only was the future going to come to Willets Point, but it had already made almost everyone happy before it even got there.
So why were the proprietors and employees of 48 different auto shops now going on their fifth day with nothing but water and occasional mug of herbal tea?
For a neighborhood that is normally gritty and publicity-averse, Sergio’s shop stands out. It’s much cleaner than most of the others, and relative to the guys sitting on folding chairs shilling pink wheels, it looks like it’s staffed by a team of professionals. It’s right on the street facing Citi Field, which might offer him more customers, but instead of advertising his service to people driving by, there are signs adorning everything.
It’s June 4th, 2015. The deadline for the mechanics to be out was on June 1st. Less than 24 hours remain before evictions begin.
“Mayor de Blasio: Justice for Willets Point,” the signs read. “Hunger strike!” one blares. “Mayor de Blasio: Ten Piedad de los Pobres,” pleads another. Have mercy on the poor.
It’s certainly a strange sight to see. Mechanics are, at their heart, the blue-collar small business entrepreneurs that every politician aspires to be. People come to them with serious problems, problems that need resolution for their lives and livelihoods, and mechanics fix them.
They don’t take principled stands, and they don’t go to extremes. And they definitely don’t go on hunger strikes.
So when I walked up to Sergio’s shop, I didn’t really know what to expect. But whatever I was expecting, it wasn’t what I heard.
“We don’t have a problem with moving,” Sergio told me. “But look at this shop. It can’t be moved in 24 hours.”
The group of over 40 shops he leads, known as the Sunrise Cooperative, actually wants to go to the South Bronx, he said. They’ve wanted to just get on with it already, and start a new life in their new location.
There’s a distinct, palpable feeling of desperation in the air.
“We signed an almost $6 million agreement for this project,” he added.
But somewhere between city bureaucracy, and the lawyers at the Urban Justice Center, a wrench was thrown into the plans. The final permits for construction in the South Bronx were supposed to be applied for with the city by January 15th, 2015, and they were.
The city was supposed to respond within 30 days, and it did not.
But when it finally did respond, on April 10th, the permits were denied. The letter, from the city Department of Buildings and addressed to the Sunrise Cooperative’s architect, was definitive.
“This is in response to your request received on January 15, 2015, for a Letter of No Objection (LNO) for an automotive repair shop at 1080 Leggett Avenue,” it reads. “The existing warehouse with truck storage indicated in the Certificate of Occupancy (CO) is a current Use Group (UG) 16D and the Occupancy Group (OG) is S2. The proposed automotive repair shop is a UG 16B and OG is F-1.”
It went on, all emphasis from the city itself:
An LNO cannot be issued for the change of UG/OG per AC 28-118.3 which requires an Alteration Type-1 (ALT-1) application be filed and signed-off with a new CO. The DOB records indicated two Alt-1s filed for change of use at this premises; no. 200519171 permitted in 1998 and no. 220107140 disapproved in 2011, which have expired due to time limitations. As such, a new ALT-1 is required to be filed, permitted, and signed off for a new CO to establish the use proposed. In addition, please note that an auto repair shop requires an oil separator drainage system, which could also be filed as part of the Alt-1 or as a separate Alt-2 application. Finally, an LNO cannot be issued for a property with open Work Without A Permit Hazardous violations. DOB records show an open VWH no. 35096769 with associated civil penalties due on this property.
Therefore, the Department of Buildings (DOB) cannot issue a Letter of No objection (LNO) for an automotive repair shop at 1080 Leggett Avenue.
That sort of letter is tough for even the most civic-minded non-lawyer to get through. But in plain English, the mechanics’ whole plan was rejected.
Somewhere, somehow, someone at the Urban Justice Center, the law firm that was supposed to be working for the mechanics and paid for by the city, had screwed up the paperwork. The wrong applications were filed for the wrong permits.
After all of the years of work, after all the money spent, the workers of Willets Point would not be moving.
Sergio, for one, felt betrayed. The workers at Willets Point had an agreement with the city. This was supposed to be a matter of dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s, he felt, just the paperwork on an agreement that had already been concluded. One hand of the city was supposed to know what the other was doing.
But all wasn’t lost. It was just April, and while more time would probably be needed, the Urban Justice Center just needed to re-apply. This time, using the right applications, for the right permits.
They never did, as far as the city is aware, multiple administration and Department of Buildings spokespeople told me.
The Urban Justice Center, a famed progressive law firm that tends to focus on anti-poverty efforts, declined to comment for this story.
“We asked for more time, but the city said no,” Sergio said. “The law is the law.”
It was June 4th, and there was less than 24 hours left before the first wave of evictions began.
A little over three weeks later, I’m on the phone with Marco Neira, another leader of the Sunrise Cooperative. I immediately ask what the result of the hunger strike was.
“The hunger strike ended,” he said. The city sent the group an email concerning their previous agreement the day after I spoke with Sergio. Because the mechanics hadn’t honored their agreement, they would lose everything.
But if they agreed to go voluntarily, if they surrendered the keys to their businesses within the next day, Marco said, the city would let bygones be bygones. Everyone would be out, and everything would continue to proceed in the same haphazard manner.
Faced with the risk of not only losing their businesses, but all the money and programs set up for their move, too, the mechanics didn’t see much choice in the matter. They would be losing their businesses regardless, either by force or by persuasion, so there wasn’t much left to do. And just like that, their hunger strike was over. They would move out, and try to re-assemble the pieces that had been shattered by a ticking clock and a broken legal support team at the Urban Justice Center.
“The lawyers didn’t do the right job,” he said. “They were supposed to do all the legal things, and make sure the right conditions were in place. They took so long, but they made mistakes,” he said. “Just mistakes.”
But if the mechanics were angry with the law firm, why go on a hunger strike? And why direct it against the city that gave them millions of dollars to help them begin an even better life?
“Four more months, we’d have it ready,” Marco said. “We just asked for four more months, we didn’t ask to stay forever. Four months after June 1st, in four months we’d have it ready.”
But a four month extension, despite the years they’d had of notice, hardly seemed fair to demand of a city that had already given them so much. Again, why go after the city, and not the law firm?, I asked.
“We have a new administration. Mr. de Blasio said he had had it real good for poor people, that he’s trying to create jobs. But instead he’s trying to destroy our jobs,” Marco maintained. “It doesn’t sound right, it doesn’t look good. All they gave us was lip service, but at the moment they said they couldn’t do anything because of our agreement.”
And for all they’ve been through, the mechanics are still trying to work with the Urban Justice Center, despite their accusations of failure.
What happens next isn’t clear. All isn’t said and done. The first wave of workers that have turned over their shops to development have moved on, in a somewhat ad-hoc manner.
Instead of gleaming new facilities in the Bronx, they’ve been working on the streets in Corona, the next neighborhood over. Taking whatever jobs drive up, even if they’re now mostly relying on word-of-mouth spreading about their situation for people to find them, and repeat customers.
Marco said they’re still hopeful they could make the move in a few months. That they could still get everything back on track, and this would only be a slight bump in all of their plans.
Even still, the confusion and uncertainty sting.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “We could lose everything.”
Photos credit: Tavarish/Jalopnik