Willets Point: The forgotten Iron Trinagle of New York

The Iron Triangle in New York might not mean anything to you unless you need a quick and relatively inexpensive way to get your car fixed. There is no particular reason to go here - it’s smelly, dirty, unkept and, some would say, unsafe. But, if, on-the-edge neighborhoods, migrant communities and their stories, and automotive junkyards spur your fancy, this is a photographer's paradise. It is home to over 200 auto shops that generate about a thousand jobs, across the spectrum of a car’s body and lifespan. Everything from new cars and old cars to broken cars, from windshields and chassis to transmissions and engines, from German made BMWs and British Jaguars to Detroit muscle and compact Hondas are serviced here. Every automotive related issue has a solution here, including if the car is beyond repair, it will be dismantled and the scraps sold or stored for use elsewhere.

Willets Point Boulevard is the main drag of the Iron Triangle with hundreds of auto, tire and muffler shops on either side of the street.

Willets Point Boulevard is the main drag of the Iron Triangle with hundreds of auto, tire and muffler shops on either side of the street.

Diversity is not just limited to cars and their parts, it very well extends to the people who work here. This 60 acre neighborhood is international – business owners and workers are Latinos, Asians, Arabs, Jews and Blacks. This is an employment factory for new immigrants, many of whom have spent decades here and now operate their own small business. For anyone good with hands, there is likely something to do here and make a living.

This man came here from Mexico 10 years ago to work in the area and now runs his own tire shop employing a few others.

This man came here from Mexico 10 years ago to work in the area and now runs his own tire shop employing a few others.

All sorts of wheels belonging to tiny compact cars or large, high end trucks are found and repaired here. 

All sorts of wheels belonging to tiny compact cars or large, high end trucks are found and repaired here. 

Although the entire stretch is owned by three major groups - Hispanic, Arabs and Jews - Spanish is the dominant language and Latino shops are most visibly seen. Workers come from Mexico, Puerto Rico, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic.

Although the entire stretch is owned by three major groups - Hispanic, Arabs and Jews - Spanish is the dominant language and Latino shops are most visibly seen. Workers come from Mexico, Puerto Rico, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic.

So what’s forgotten about this place? The stark contrast on either side of 126th street is immediately visible as one descends down the stairs from the Willets Point station on the 7 line. On one side is the grand and posh home of the NY Mets. On the other, in the shadow of Citifield, is the run-down, ignored, and absolutely ill-maintained Iron Triangle. Basic infrastructure like sewers and drains do not exist. Paved roads are at a minimum, and the few that exist are dotted with knee-deep potholes. All of this made worse by the nature of the business that is conducted here – leaking oil, toxic chemicals from auto fluids and heavy metals flood the surface that eventually seep into the area’s water table and into the bay.

Paved roads are a rarity while drains and sewers don't exist, making access and working conditions extremely challenging. Oils and auto fluids heavy in toxins just drain down to the naturally high water table and into the bay.

Paved roads are a rarity while drains and sewers don't exist, making access and working conditions extremely challenging. Oils and auto fluids heavy in toxins just drain down to the naturally high water table and into the bay.

Many of the business owners argue that lack of basic infrastructure is deliberate ignorance from the city council. The city is pursuing hard for ages to develop mixed-use residential and commercial property (apartments, malls etc.) at Willets Point, pushing out these warehouses and repair shops, much like Meat Packing was kicked out of Manhattan decades ago. 

Ali's garage, one of the bigger shops at Willets Point.

Ali's garage, one of the bigger shops at Willets Point.

Name a car, make, model and year, and the part will be found at Ali's garage.

Name a car, make, model and year, and the part will be found at Ali's garage.

Many are new migrants without readily available paperwork or documentation, and do not like being talked to or photographed. After a couple of shots, this man gave me a little piece of his mind with not so friendly hand gestures.

Many are new migrants without readily available paperwork or documentation, and do not like being talked to or photographed. After a couple of shots, this man gave me a little piece of his mind with not so friendly hand gestures.

City officials have long seen Willets Point as a contaminated wasteland and a magnet for unwanted activity after dark (drug addicts and alcoholics flock here after sun down). The Bloomberg (and subsequent) administration has pushed very hard to raze the entire area for redevelopment, which will inevitably displace these 1500 odd workers out of their daily wage employment.

Electricity is one of the few surviving public utilities. Working conditions are severely harsh, especially in the winter. Shops open by 8am and shut down before sun down, and the Iron Triangle feels like a haunted area after dark. 

Electricity is one of the few surviving public utilities. Working conditions are severely harsh, especially in the winter. Shops open by 8am and shut down before sun down, and the Iron Triangle feels like a haunted area after dark. 

There are very few residents at Willets Point - only 1 person going by the 2000 census, probably a few more now. Workers take short lunch, coffee and snack breaks right where they work. Most of them live around pockets of Queens and work here on hourly wages. 

There are very few residents at Willets Point - only 1 person going by the 2000 census, probably a few more now. Workers take short lunch, coffee and snack breaks right where they work. Most of them live around pockets of Queens and work here on hourly wages. 

Oscar points to parts of Willets Point where some redevelopment has already taken place. His hand was badly burnt in a recent chemicals accident at the shop.

Oscar points to parts of Willets Point where some redevelopment has already taken place. His hand was badly burnt in a recent chemicals accident at the shop.

Demolition is already underway at the southern tip of the Iron Triangle, and it is a matter of time before much of what exists here today is gone, soon to be replaced by a $4 billion redeveloped neighborhood with a mall, convention center and movie theater. Some of the existing shops have taken the money from the city and are moving to Hunt's Point in the Bronx. The city is footing the bill for the relocation and security costs, on top of funding the first two years of the lease, which gives some of the shop owners comfort that they have some place to go. Yet, others continue to fight the redevelopment at Willets Point, which has been home to many for the past forty or fifty years. 

It is very likely that the next generation or kin of the current owners will accept the city's relocation package and move elsewhere. Some of the youngsters don't fancy the hard, manual work in the shops and instead look forward to more glamorous options - music, modeling, dancing. 

It is very likely that the next generation or kin of the current owners will accept the city's relocation package and move elsewhere. Some of the youngsters don't fancy the hard, manual work in the shops and instead look forward to more glamorous options - music, modeling, dancing.