The Car-Chasers of Hunts Point
Signs offering car parts and auto glass repair in Hunts Point in the Bronx. (Photo courtesy of Dan DeLuca, Wikimedia CC 2.0.)
It’s the middle of March and white flakes fall silently from the Bronx sky. David looks up and squints to avoid the snow from falling into his eyes. It collects on the rim of his black hoodie. He shakes his head, “Snow, rain, even the blasting heat. No matter what, we’re here.”
David is one of the dozen men standing in front of the row of auto repair shops on Garrison Avenue in Hunts Point, a bustling Bronx neighborhood that juts into the East River like a child sticking out its tongue. At times, the men are like sentinels guarding the entrance to the shops, the entrance to the Hunts Point peninsula. Mostly they are like hyper Wall Street traders, wildly waving their arms, jumping around and shouting out, “Auto Glass!” to lure cars into their respective shops. “Just as long as people have cars and those windshields break, they have to get them fixed. It’s the law, right?” says David.
David is what is known in Bronx argot as an auto-glass worker, and like the other men, he makes his living chasing cars and striking deals to have shattered windshields, cracked mirrors or busted taillights replaced. For four decades, these men have become iconic in Hunts Point, symbols of the neighborhood’s struggle as much as its resilience. Local lore dates their emergence to the early 1970s, around the time things started to go south for the neighborhood: not long after Hunts Point was cut off from the rest of the Bronx by Robert Moses’s aggressive plan to build the Bruckner Expressway, and when redlining and disinvestment by the banks and government was turning the Bronx into a national symbol of urban blight. Hunts Point, like the rest of the Bronx, was left to fend for itself. The auto glass and repair industry rose despite, and because of, these conditions.
“I do alright,” David says. “A worker can pull in as little as $24,000 a year or as much as $80,000, depending on how much work you want to do. We work for the shops, but we also do side stuff like fix the motors that roll down the windows or some auto repairs. That money is ours but we buy the part from one of the shops.”
It’s a slow moment in a busy day and David pauses to look down the wide street. From inside Master One Auto Glass salsa music plays so loudly that the men working shout to one another to be heard. One man dances by swinging his hips to the tropical rhythms. Then he smiles, nods his approval of the percussive beats, and returns to replacing a side view mirror. The clank of metal against metal and the puffs and whirs of air tools punctuate the music.
David never attended auto mechanic school, although he says that one of his comrades has a number of licenses to work on high-end cars like Jaguars and Lamborghinis. “He’s got all those diplomas in his wallet, because people look at him like they look at us, like we’re dirty. Like we don’t have skills. The only difference between that guy and one who works at a dealership is that they have a uniform. But we got skills out here, too.”
Those skills he learned right outside his doorstep. David grew up in Hunts Point. He stepped out onto the sidewalk and there was the auto-glass trade readily available to him. There are other trades on that same street, he acknowledges, but this one is honest and he doesn’t always have to be watching his back. Through his on-the-job training he, and his fellow auto glass workers, learned to spot a broken windshield two blocks away by using the reflection of the sunlight. “You have to be fast, sharp and see everything that’s moving.”
Out of the corner of his eye, David catches a car with a dangling side view mirror. He calls out to his buddy across the street. “Yo! Yo! The blue one. The Buick.” His buddy flags down the car and swoops in to make the deal.
These men come from all walks of Bronx life—some worked in maintenance, some did time in a local prison because of a drug dealing past, some have tried job training programs, and most have children and “baby mamas,” but not high school diplomas. The group assembled on Garrison Avenue between Hunts Point Avenue and Barretto Street are all Latino—different shades, different ages, all straight-appearing and macho, though one young member admits that he is bisexual.
David is about six feet tall, robust with a gap-toothed smile. Despite working in all weather and all seasons, which can be challenging, they all express a certain sense of freedom as a job perk. “But at the same time if I don’t show up for work, I don’t get paid,” David admits. “So, I show up to work.” The showing up is part of his tenacity, part of what needs to be done to eat, pay rent and provide for others in his life. “This job ain’t for everybody. You can’t be shy and be out here.”
David says that in the early days back in the 1970s, there were only two shops on Garrison Avenue and the competition was ruthless, even violent, with fights breaking out and guys competing for cars. There were even rumors that the car shops were fronts for drug dealing or that the auto-glass workers themselves would break windshields or steal side-view mirrors. David shakes his head, “I ain’t never done nothing like that. These cars out here belong to my neighbors. But I know some guys who have, but they stopped because it’s not worth it. If you steal a part, what are the chances that the car is gonna come to your shop? You get stuck with the part for months. It’s easier to just get the part you need from a shop or one of the junkyards.”
By 1997, when he started getting into the auto glass business, there was order. They developed a system to share the cars so everybody gets paid. Now, it’s like a tight family. David knits his hands together over his heart to emphasize his point. They’ve all got their piece of the pie and their area of expertise and no one can join their ranks unless brought in by someone already there.
Still, life in the auto-glass trade is not an easy one. “I don’t know how much longer I can be doing this. I’m out here 6 days a week from about 9am to 6pm. I started when I was 15. Now I’m 31. I need a change,” David says.
David has been saying he needs a change for several years now. He once saved up $10,000 and was going to open up his own shop in New Jersey. Why Jersey? An opportunity presented itself. He didn’t invest and is still on Garrison Avenue.
“I need to change because I want to start paying taxes. If you think about it, I don’t exist. I never paid taxes, so I ain’t got no Social Security. No health benefits. If something happens to me, no SSI Disablity [Social Security Disablity Insurance]. Sure, I made some money in my time but what have I got to show for it? I bought some nice cars, which I crashed, so they’re gone, and some women got some stuff to show, but me? I ain’t got nothing to show.”
Much like David, Hunts Point has been doing its own dance with change during the last decade or so. It is still one of the poorest neighborhoods in the poorest borough in New York City, but affordable housing, neighborhood development programs and community-based cultural centers have all risen like grass from concrete to join the auto glass business as neighborhood industries.
But change can be a funny thing. Now that the neighborhood is recovering from the shadowy seventies, thanks to community efforts, developers like Taconic Investment Partners and Denham Wolf, which bought the legendary American Bank Note Building on Garrison Avenue and Tiffany Street, have professed big plans to bring in creative industries. They claim that the economic downturn in 2008 slowed their original plans, and five years after they purchased the Bank Note building—and raised the rents which displaced the artists who were in the building—they haven’t brought up many architects or artists. The biggest tenant preparing to take up roughly half of the 400,000 square foot structure is New York City’s Human Resources Administration known locally simply as “The Welfare,” which serves the city’s poor with rent subsidies, cash stipends, food stamps, and other services.
As the snow continues to fall, David trudges back and forth to three different shops trying to find the right taillight for an old Chrylser—no luck. He has to go further into Hunts Point to find it. The car owner shrugs and goes into his car to wait. Then, David slogs along Garrison Avenue as the snow falls heavier. He returns with the right part. The customer drives off satisfied and David flashes his gap-toothed smile.
As parts of Brooklyn gentrify, neighborhoods like Brownsville are left wanting for a less superficial form of revitalization, Ginia Bellafante writes. Read all of the articles in The Nation’s special issue on New York City.