The 1980s saw the beginnings of a new economic process for places like New York City.  Old, neglected, and crumbling post-industrial neighborhoods, where people had found cheap rent refuge from the 1940s through the 1970s, suddenly saw an influx of capital, otherwise known as gentrification.  In short order, affordable living and working spaces were renovated and became astronomically expensive, and a way of life was eliminated.

Drivers cruise the slow, unpaved streets of the Iron Triangle, shopping for parts. The giant Pepsi-Cola sign demarcates one border of the neighborhood: Citi Field. [Mike McCabe]
A few areas in the city resisted upscale transformation, because they were isolated from access to public transportation, dangerous, had no sewer lines, or were in old industrial zoning classifications. Willets Point in the borough of Queens survives today as such a place; it’s a watch-your-back, NOYFB (None Of Your Fucking Business) economic borderland on the downside of automobile retail culture. In recent years the area has picked up a nickname, The Iron Triangle, that describes the 75 acre, 13 block triangular intersection of 126th Street and Willets Point Boulevard, home to an under-the-radar scene that boasts just 10 permanent residents, who have somehow figured out how to reside there. There are no paved streets, just dirt access roads (that flood after a rain storm) where ramshackle garages house around 200 off-the-grid discount auto repair, muffler, rim, and tire businesses that employ a fluctuating average of 1200 daily workers.

Right back at you: a shot of Willets Point, The Iron Triangle, from Citi Field. [Jim Henderson via Wikipedia]
Most people who own cars in the five boroughs of NYC are familiar with the low-cost parts and repair options offered by Iron Triangle businesses.  But the rough, masculine, and dangerous vibe requires a sense of bravado to actually visit. Customers’ cars move slowly along the uneven, washed-out lanes as drivers rubber-neck at the neatly stacked pyramids of aluminum wheels and hanging muffler pipes glistening in the sun. Workers use subtle hand gestures to point out large, clumsily painted signs that simply read TIRES, RIMS and MUFFLERS to guide customers into a shop. Middle-aged women push carts between the cars and shops selling home cooked empanadas, wearing wide brim hats for both sun and identity protection. In the deeper shadows, a few sex workers try their luck.

The tin shacks were built decades ago with no permits, when nobody was looking, but land in NYC is valuable, and the Iron Triangle is a doomed ‘temporary autonomous zone.’ [Mike McCabe]
In the early 20th century, Willets Point was a barren, anonymous fly ash dump (a byproduct of coal burning), possibly the very locale described by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby as the ‘valley of ashes’:

“About half way between West Egg and New York the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes — a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.”

By the 1930s the area segued to become the final resting place for smashed cars and other hard-edged industrial refuse. Slowly, impromptu fix-it shops appeared, clustering around economic possibility. Word got out and a reputation took shape. City government noticed them during the early 1970s, and wondered what to do. Was any of this licensed? A push and pull contest between NYC government, property owners, business owners, sports stadium developers, affordable housing advocates and real estate carnivores tumbled through the courts for decades. Redevelopment plans included a mall, a hotel, parking lots, a school and parks. Under the threat of eminent domain, many businesses have already been razed, evicted, or relocated. Streets have been closed and the remaining businesses have lost customers. A final solution was approved by city government in 2018, but the Covid pandemic put everything on hold.

Wheels and tires…if you’ve bought them for your car, you know it’s a big expense. The source of these wheels is suspect, so buying here requires a suspension of moral belief. [Mike McCabe]
The ‘thickness’ of New York City’s social and economic landscape provides cover for undeclared, marginal situations. The scale of the city makes it impossible for the Man to keep an eye on everything, and in that space of permission-less freedom, the dynamism of the city nurtures growth in unpredictable and creative ways. The marginal economy of the Iron triangle survived in the vacuum of indecision, and continues to provide a much needed, budget-sensitive option for willing car owners. For over a decade, starting under Mayor Bloomberg, much-contested and renegotiated plans have been in the works to redevelop the Iron Triangle. Today, the fate of the Iron Triangle remains a mystery.

Not much space for a wrecking yard in other parts of NYC, but these provide a very useful and economical source of used parts for working-class mechanics. [Mike McCabe]
Heavy industry and freight hauling live here too. This shop was the source of Senator Dianne Feinstein‘s significant family wealth. Just kidding. [Mike McCabe]
Who are the owners and customers of Iron Triangle businesses? Clearly not denizens of the Upper East Side, nor the hipsters of nearby Williamsburg/Ridgewood in Brooklyn. It’s the working-class and recent immigrants, mostly. [Mike McCabe]


Michael McCabe is a New York City tattoo artist and cultural anthropologist. He is the author of New York City Horsepower, Kustom Japan, New York City Tattoo, Japanese Tattooing Now, Tattoos of Indochina, and Tattooing New York City. For New York City Horsepower, Mr. McCabe spent two years discovering and documenting underground custom motorcycle and car garages in the City, as rapid gentrification put their culture under tremendous pressure. He interviewed and photographed New York City customizers about their personal histories and creative sensibilities. More of Mike’s articles for The Vintagent can be found here.
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