In Citi Field’s shadow, junk yards still thrive
Business owners worry about the city’s plans
by Meagan Morris and Almudena Toral
A man stood on top of a four-foot scrap metal pile, digging through the jagged-edge pieces, looking for something he wasn’t finding. Below the pile sat a stagnant pool of water mixed with oil and other runoff from the nearby car shops. Above him, a street sign that reads “Willets Point Boulevard.” A few yards away stands a man in a ratty sweatshirt, dirty jeans and ball cap, watching the people drive down the dirt road, each looking for cheap car repairs or parts.
“Look at it. It looks like downtown Kabul here,” Paul Cohen, Willets Point business and property owner said while standing in front of his business.
The chilly Tuesday afternoon was just another day in Willets Point, Queens, a 62-acre section of land comprised mostly of small, family-owned auto body and car part-shops. Many of the businesses have operated here for decades, with parents passing down the businesses to their children.
The torch may not be passed down to future generations, though. Thanks to a redevelopment plan spearheaded by Mayor Bloomberg and the city of New York, the businesses in the area are targets for relocation to make way for a new convention center, mixed-use housing and retail shops. Meanwhile, Willets Point—and the hundreds of workers and small business owners that earn their living there—are in limbo as the forces of change threaten to come charging into the area.
“They’ve been threatening this for 25 years,” said Sal Waloz, 27, owner of Fast Tire Shop in Willets Point. “It’s like a heart attack. I know it could happen, but I don’t spend my time worrying about it. If it happens then I’ll deal with it.”
Willets Point business owners first got wind that it might happen back in 2007 when Mayor Bloomberg announced a plan to redevelop the area, kicking it off with the construction of Citi Field, the home of baseball’s New York Mets, just outside of Willets Point. According to the New York City Economic Development Corporation, the Willets Point redevelopment plan would create more than 5,300 permanent jobs, 18,000 construction jobs and a $1.3 billion dollar boost to the New York City economy over the next 30 years.
“After a century of blight and neglect, this neighborhood’s future is very bright indeed,” Mayor Bloomberg told The New York Times after the announcement in 2007. “This will be the first truly green community, with buildings that use the latest energy efficient technology and parks and open spaces that give New Yorkers new places to play.”
Adamant opposition to the redevelopment plan arose almost immediately. Twenty-nine New York City Council members signed a letter opposing the plan, citing their doubt that “the displaced workers and small businesses will be treated fairly or compensated with meaningful benefits to the surrounding communities such as housing affordable to the average family.” A coalition of the 10 largest business owners filed a lawsuit against the city, asking for damages for years of neglect and the installation of sanitation and sewer systems to Willets Point. The lawsuit was later dismissed.
In 2008, the Queens Community Board 7, the City Planning Commission and the New York City Council approved the redevelopment plan. Several business owners, scared that the city would use their power of eminent domain, sold their property to the city. The remaining business owners are still waiting for the city to make them offers, hoping the city’s desperation will drive up the price.
“I’ve heard [the city] is paying anywhere from $400 to $600 per square foot,” “I have 60,000 square feet of property here, you do the math,” said Cohen, who bought the business 25 years ago from previous owners who started it back in the 1930s.
Cohen’s businesses, including Roosevelt’s Auto Wrecking, will remain open for the foreseeable future or until the city coughs up enough money to convince him to close up shop.
“My only emotional attachment is to my pocket,” Cohen said. “Best case scenario, I get a big fat check from the city and I can retire to the Caribbean. Worst-case scenario? I have to stay here.”
Cohen pauses to answer his cell phone. On the other end is his daughter.
“She just finished her finals. She goes to college in New Hampshire. I’m going to pick her up tomorrow,” he said. “I have a son too. He’s 27, went to Albany for college with a 4.0. He worked for Morgan Stanley, lost his job. Now he works for Merrill Lynch. Do you think I want them to end up here?”
For many business owners and workers at Willets Point, the future isn’t so cut and dry. There are over 2,000 people that work at Willets Point, according to Waloz, and large numbers of undocumented immigrants from Latin America and Asia. A lot of them worry if they’ll have jobs at all. Many have few options for jobs if the area is redeveloped.
“It’s every man for himself. If they take out Willets Point, who’s going to stay?” Alberto Garcia, an autoworker from the Dominican Republic said.
As part of the plan, the city is offering workers the opportunity to attend English, computer and mechanics regardless of immigration status. Few workers know about these classes.
“I feel like the city is saying a lot of things for public relations,” said Waloz, who opened his tire shop just a few months ago despite the uncertainty surrounding the neighborhood. His father also owned a business in Willets Point, so he’s worked in the area the majority of his life. He worries about what will happen to other workers if the plan does happen.
“Unemployment will skyrocket. There’s nowhere else for them to go,” he said. “Everything here is mom and pop. No one knows how to do anything else.”
They may have to learn though. Change is on its way—and in many ways it’s already arrived.
In the distance, the blaring sound of a Mr. Frosty ice cream truck cuts through the air, drowning out any other sounds as the driver makes his way down the bumpy gravel pathway. He finally stops at a small intersection and opens his window for waiting customers, all tired and dirty workers from the auto shops. Their greasy, calloused fingers delicately hold the sticks on their ice cream bars as they talk, mostly in Spanish. The reason for the truck’s presence in Willet’s Point is just another unknown in Willet’s Point.
“[The truck] started coming here in March. We don’t know why,” one worker said.
To see more about another changing industry in Queens, check out our feature about ethnic travel agencies’ success, despite competition from the internet.