Fate of Bronx Auto Workers in City’s Hands

Flies take refuge from a Friday afternoon downpour inside the fluorescent-lit waiting room of Villa Auto Body and Collision, one of more than 200 car repair shops clustered along Jerome Avenue in the West Bronx.

The Number 4 train clatters above on the overhead tracks. A two-liter bottle of Pepsi sat next to an old microwave and a take-out container of leftover rice and beans.

On this two-mile stretch of Jerome Avenue from 167th Street to Fordham Road, shops like Villa Auto Body offer services for auto glass replacement, brake jobs, electronic repairs, oil changes, tires and more.

It’s not uncommon to walk down Jerome Avenue and see a car parked next to the curb with its hood popped open or someone laying down underneath, making repairs right on the street. This is not a strip defined by beauty, but by its ability to offer auto services either quickly, cheaply, or at a fair price.

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Its businesses are bound to an area that up to now has been zoned for commercial and manufacturing use.

But that could all change soon.

Last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city was in the middle of a housing crisis; New York had become more expensive than ever. So he presented a 10-year-plan to build or preserve 200,000 affordable homes across five boroughs in hopes of preserving the city’s working and middle class.

The Department of City Planning began studying Jerome Avenue last fall to consider placing several thousand affordable homes along the corridor by rezoning the area from commercial to residential. In the city’s language, additional affordable housing could “revitalize” Jerome Avenue and support the surrounding neighborhoods of the Bronx in Community Districts 4 and 5.

What may be considered revitalization to the city, could mean loss of livelihood/income for local auto business owners and their employees.

Pamphlets about a Bronx Coalition meeting a local community center (Tyler Pratt/The Ink)
Pamphlets about a Bronx Coalition meeting placed at a local community center (Tyler Pratt/The Ink).
Bronx Coalition pamphlets litter Jerome Avenue weeks after the meeting
Bronx Coalition pamphlets litter Jerome Avenue weeks after a meeting (Tyler Pratt/The Ink).

“Where are they planning to build them?” yelled Pedro Estevez from his office in the United Auto Merchants Association on Commerce Avenue. Tall, bald and broad shouldered, Estevez, the association’s president and co-founder, is also a commanding presence. “Look around, where do you see any space?”

Estevez is correct about space. The two-mile corridor along Jerome Avenue is lined with one business after another. All together the area employs 3,800 workers in 1,100 businesses, according to the Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision.

When the city began the Jerome Study last year, Estevez and other community leaders jumped into action to create this local advocacy group to help Jerome and the surrounding neighborhoods play a role in the redevelopment process. The coalition leaders have been working to inform the community about the rezoning process and include their voices in the process. This has included public meetings, pamphlet distribution and door-to-door campaigns.

But autoworkers have not attended in representative numbers. Estevez said this is because the meetings are mostly conducted in English and at times when the workers are still on the job. So Estevez serves as their voice.

Pedro Esteves shows a stack of checks he says he's never cashed
Pedro Esteves shows a stack of checks he says he’s never cashed (Tyler Pratt/The Ink).

Estevez, 62, has worked in the auto industry since emigrating from the Dominican Republic when he was a teenager. He founded the association in 2007, as a “bridge to a healthy automotive industry.” The group helps auto businesses stay in compliance with laws and assists members in business management, training in personnel and the latest automotive technology. He also acts as a liaison between shop owners and the city.

Estevez is passionate about New York’s automotive industry. He keeps a file in his cabinet of UAMA paychecks to himself he said he’s never cashed. “People have two essential needs,” Estevez says often, “food and transportation.”

Villa Auto Body and Collision shop is a member of UAMA. Its logo is posted next to the garage, presumably advertising best practices among a sea of auto shops, some with perhaps questionable methods.

Villa Auto Body belongs to Julio “Villa” Villanueva and his son, Julio “Billy.” The Villanueva’s body shop was filled with an assortment of stripped-down cars waiting to be rebuilt. Latin music blared amidst the whirring and rumbling of machinery and sounds of spray paint.

Villa Auto Body’s waiting room may also serve as a storage closet, but you can see the Villanueva’s passion for auto work in the only art hung on the walls. Three framed and matted car advertisements from issues of the Saturday Evening Post of 1930s vintage cars: A Chrysler, a Mercury, and an REO Flying Cloud.

“It’s hard to compete,” said Billy Villanueva, 19, standing against the painted-orange brick exterior of his shop at 1481 Jerome Avenue. Whereas, Billy’s father, Villa, who sat outside the shop unwinding from the long day, has a friendly, youthful face with short hair and an etched-in part, Billy’s face carries a look of perpetual concern under a thick mane of black hair, pulled back into a bun. “Work can be $400 dollars here,” he said, “and then $300 or $50 down the block.”

The Villanuevas said their shop specializes in doing dependable body work. A standard job, like replacing a bumper could cost anywhere between $250 and $500 depending on the vehicle. They may not do it as cheaply as someone else, but they guarantee it will be done right.

It’s not easy work running a body shop on Jerome, but it’s the Villanuevas’ livelihood and their expertise. The men work Monday through Saturday and sometimes on Sundays. Often they’ll have to work late into the night. Business will ebb and flow depending on the time of year. Billy said the school year is the toughest because everyone is so strapped for cash.

The last year has been especially difficult for the two because they were evicted from their former shop up the block last November and had to move to this new location. The rent, in turn, doubled from $5,000 to $10,000 for half the space.

“It’s been the worst year of my life,” Billy said, waiting for the screeching of the overhead train to pass. “We think we’re building something for ourselves. Then something takes us out. We had to start over and build a new company. We worked for two months not making any money.”

The Villanuevas have never been able to find out why they were forced to leave. Their former building at 10 West 172 St. is now boarded up. Besides their body shop, the address used to be home to a motorcycle repair shop, a mechanic shop, and a music store.

“The landlord said the roof was bad and we had to leave,” said Billy. “We had to meet with a judge, but he didn’t send anyone to inspect anything. A marshal came and changed the lock. It was weird. Nobody gave us an option, we just had to leave. We’d been their two or three years. We built that business.”

The Villanuevas were unable to find court documents from their ordeal with the city. And the office of the City Register lease lists the deed to their former building as still being held by the landlords, Julia S. Politi and Mid Bronx Realty, LLC, neither of whom could be reached for comment. The sign currently posted to scaffolding on the property reads, “Owner: NYC Dept. of HPD.”  But a representative for NYC Housing Preservation and Development says they have no record of a sale.

“I want to know why the city is buying up businesses along Jerome!” exclaimed Estevez as he pointed at an image of the Villanueva’s former storefront on his computer. He helped the Villanuevas find their new location along Jerome. “People have built their lives up since the burning of the Bronx. And now what will happen to the fruits of their labor?”

Estevez suspects that city officials are further along in their plans for Jerome Avenue than the official Department of City Planning documents indicate. Despite its gritty appearance, Jerome, Estevez believes is a desirable area.

“The Jerome strip is like the spinal chord of the Bronx,” said Estevez. “Jerome Avenue is the most accessible place because you have the 4 train right there. You have Yankee stadium, the mall, the river next door. Everything. It’s prime real state.”

In addition, the nearby B and D trains bring passengers into Uptown Manhattan in 15 minutes and to Midtown in 30 minutes. The Grand Concourse is three blocks away. Bronx Community College, Fordham University and the Bronx Zoo are all within walking distance. And nearby are stops for the second-busiest commuter line in the country, Metro-North, which has plans for more stops in the Bronx in the future.

If the city is looking new for places to house people, Jerome makes sense. Could the Bronx become the new Brooklyn? Are hip coffee shops, gastropubs, condos and the high rent associated with them be in the future for the northernmost borough?

These are questions the Bronx Coalition is asking. And the answers are still a long way off. The process of rezoning Jerome has many steps ahead before it ever makes it to City Council for approval, which is expected sometime in 2017. 

C3R Mega Auto Diagnostics is tucked off Jerome on 169th Street in Highbridge (Tyler Pratt/The Ink).
C3R Mega Auto Diagnostics is tucked off Jerome on 169th Street in Highbridge (Tyler Pratt/The Ink).

“The plan’s going to be approved,” said Estevez, who’s ready to envision the future. “No question about that. Fine. But if the city is going replace the auto business, get a plan. We have a study for building. We don’t have a study for relocation.”

Shawn Brede, deputy director of the Department of City Planning’s Bronx Office believes the city is being very thorough. He said the city is coordinating with other agencies, elected officials and community organizations as it studies the plans for Jerome. In terms of relocation, Brede said, “No one has to leave.”

Estevez doesn’t see how that’s possible.

“What landlord is going to allow it?” Estevez exclaimed pounding a fist on his desk. “There’s no guarantee when a lease renews. And there are no long-term leases anywhere. They are doubling, tripling rent. They want to sell the property!”

But not everyone is worried about the auto businesses moving. Jose Ruiz sat outside an auto glass store on the 1700 block of Jerome, holding a cardboard sign advertising the shop’s services.

“I’ll be fine,” said Ruiz. “I’m a mechanic. I do a lot of things. I’ll find work.”

But Ruiz seemed to be pretty clear about what he thought the future of the areas businesses might look like.

“This building will go, that building will go,” said Ruiz, signaling to all the shops around. “They’re going to come in and build up.”

Then pointing to a neighboring Dunkin Donuts/Baskin Robbins, Ruiz added, “They’ll be fine.”

Three auto shops along Jerome that own their own buildings will likely be grandfathered into any rezoning efforts.

Neftali Fuerte is one of the owners. The 55-year-old Dominican immigrant runs C3R Mega Auto Diagnostics, which is tucked off Jerome on 169th Street in Highbridge.

Fuerte, or “Rafaelo” as everyone knows him, bought his distinctive yellow and blue building with a roof covered in flags from around the world, a few years ago. “The bank owns it,” joked Fuerte, with his friendly face and great paunch.

Like the Villanuevas, Fuerte struggles to make ends meet, running an auto shop with seven or eight employees. To attract business, he’ll do jobs on credit. Some customers never return to pay. Fuerte keeps a drawer full of files he said amounts to $100,000 in unpaid debts.

“For me, I think it would be better if other shops left,” Fuerte said, referring to a Jerome rezoning. Makes sense, less competition would likely translate into more business. Still, it’s not that simple for Fuerte. “But I don’t want other people pushed out. We’re a community.”

One area of New York where auto shops were pushed out is Willets Point. The area surrounding Citi Field in Queens was once home to a mass of auto related businesses similar to Jerome Avenue. But a decade-long battle that began with the Bloomberg administration’s plans to develop a megamall and affordable housing eventually forced out most of the businesses. Presently, there are no new homes or shopping centers surrounding Citi Field, only a wasteland of deserted vehicles and auto garages.

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Earlier this year, a group of almost 50 Willets Point auto businesses won a multimillion-dollar settlement from the city to help them relocate to an industrial business zone in the South Bronx. Estevez said he helped orchestrate the relocation by securing an 84,000-square-foot space at 1080 Leggett Avenue, a new auto hub currently under construction in Hunts Point. If all goes as planned, Estevez said the Willets Point businesses can begin moving in at the beginning of next year.

Estevez sees the new hub as the future of New York’s auto industry, a variety of auto-related businesses under one roof. A one-stop shop for auto needs. Estevez is hoping to find more lots across the Bronx to house displaced auto shops and eventually start building up, vertically. His vision is to develop a multi-storied auto mall. And while he said his plan won’t cost the city “a red cent,” he hasn’t been able to swing as many city leaders as he’d like on board.

So for now, Estevez continues to advocate for Jerome’s autoworkers and work with the Coalition. The Coalition has been conducting its own study of Jerome and will release its findings, along with its demands for the city in regards to any rezoning this week, on Wednesday, October 21st.

Joe Marvilli, Press Officer for the Department of City Planning said over the telephone that department officials involved in the study would certainly take into account the Coalition’s findings and anyone else was welcome to submit their thoughts on the study. Marvilli added that the department plans to present their findings next year. He also passed along a quote from the mayor’s press office, in response to a recent photo exhibit highlighting the auto businesses along Jerome Avenue.

“Our mission is to help New Yorkers afford to stay in the city and they neighborhoods they call home,” said deputy press secretary, Wiley Norvell. “And as we build more affordable housing and protect the affordable housing that exists in places like Jerome Avenue, we’ll work to provide local businesses with the tools and support they need to thrive.”

And what do the Villanuevas want? They’d like to stay on Jerome and be able to afford their rent. Both live nearby, Billy with his mother in Morris Heights, and Villa off The Grand Concourse. Billy’s finishing up his last year at Bronx Community College with a degree in Criminal Justice and would like to get certified in auto body paint afterwards.

Neither of the Villanuevas want to relocate in the future. They’d just like to make it through the day.

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