Guatemalan photographer Jaime Permuth captured the everyday lives of the people working in the junkyards of Queens before its radical change in 2012. The ‘Yonkeros’, strip wreck cars to sell them as metal or parts. The term was born from the English word junk and conjugated in Spanish by the vast majority of immigrants living in Willets Point, Queens. What was once a bustling industrial area of commerce and business where the New York City’s Yonkeros made a living, is now a development area that will serve the modern daydream of glamour. Jaime says that with places like these disappearing, the city is losing its poetry.
Hello Jaime, how did you first encounter the Yonkeros?
For over four decades, Willets Point was home to New York City’s junkyards and scrap metal businesses. At the time I started my project in 2010, stories would sometimes crop up in the back pages of local newspapers. They focused on the mechanics’ ongoing struggle to survive despite the city’s best efforts to evict them. One spring morning I decided to take the train out there and see it for myself. I would continue going back over the course of the next year, photographing the landscape and working conditions with every passing season
What are the Yonkeros backgrounds?
Most of the Latin American mechanics hail from Mexico and Ecuador and none of them are professionally trained for the job. They learn by doing from other guys who learnt by doing. Much of it is artisanal and many tools are handmade. The mechanics are masters of improvisation and nothing ever goes to waste. Francisco Goldman who wrote the beautiful title essay for my monograph (Yonkeros, La Fabrica Editorial, 2013) compares them to magicians and mariners.
Are they proud of their jobs?
I believe they are. Mechanics come to Willets Point much like roustabouts come to a circus, they are men at the end of their rope, with nowhere left to turn to. In Willets Point they learn a trade. It is hard work but it gives them a steady, legitimate income. And the service they provide to working class families is absolutely essential. There’s also a great camaraderie and esprit de corps among them, which make the days more bearable.
What were some of your impressions of Willets Point in Queens?
The junkyards are located opposite Citi Field Stadium, where the New York Mets play baseball, and across the bay from La Guardia Airport. I think of Willets Point as a Middle Eastern bazaar where a string of shops exist side by side, crowded into a small area no larger than eight square city blocks. There is a lot of banter and bargaining that goes on before you select a mechanic to take care of your needs. Then, work begins as soon as the price is negotiated.
So did they actually live in the area?
Willets Point or ‘The Iron Triangle’ – as locals refer to it – it’s simply a place of business. With the exception of Joe Ardizzone, an elderly Italian man who has lived there without interruption since he was a child, nobody lives in the area.
What do you think is the role of places like this in a big city like New York?
Willets Point, The Fulton Fish Market and Coney Island were once havens for the city’s working class. All of them are gone now. I feel that over the years New York City traded its gritty and soulful character for the shallow glamour and glitz of the fast life. The city has become a playground for the rich. I feel like you have to look real hard to connect with the sense of poetry and wonder, which was everywhere when I first arrived here in the early 90s.
So now that the poetry is gone, what’s left?
Back then, Willets Point was in its heyday with over three hundred shops open for business. However, it was also facing the beginning of its own demise. After an epic battle for survival, which lasted more than forty years, the mechanics finally lost to New York City and the first eviction notices started arriving in 2012. Today, fully 70% of the businesses are shuttered and the place feels like a ghost town. The bulldozers will show up when the city has consolidated the considerable investment capital necessary to redevelop the area. Willets Point is already being touted as the “Next Great Neighborhood”. There will even be a casino there. Someday soon, the Iron Triangle will be the stuff of legend and urban myth. People will look at the land and refuse to believe it was once covered in rusting heaps of metal.
In a way you have witnessed and captured history. So, from your perspective as a photography teacher, what is the best advice you can give to student photographers embarking on projects?
I tell my students to embark on projects, which are an extension of who they are as individuals. Researching the socio-economic and political context of one’s subject matter is important. But one should always photograph from the heart, without preconceptions, and let the camera dictate its own truth in images. Finally, I encourage them to make sure to find a way of giving back to the community and the people who welcome them into their lives. It is a blessing and privilege to be a witness.
Article By: Laura Rodriguez Castro.