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.”