UPDATED: EYES ON THE STREET: Dereliction of Duty in the Heights and Inwood

How many trashed cars, vans and RVs can uptown neighborhoods take? DSNY and NYPD are inflicting an unnatural experiment on two low-income, Latino areas.

These two derelict RVs have been parked in front of 551 W. 178th St. for a long time — the one on the left apparently since 2016, locals have complained. Photo: Eve Kessler
These two derelict RVs have been parked in front of 551 W. 178th St. for a long time — the one on the left apparently since 2016, locals have complained. Photo: Eve Kessler

Abandoned vehicles, including large recreational vehicles, are cluttering the streets of Washington Heights and Inwood — some of them sitting in the same spots for years — and no city agency has done a thing about them, despite numerous 311 complaints, residents say.

Residents must tolerate the vehicles — including two large campers that have been parked for years on the north side of West 178th Street between St. Nicholas and Audubon avenues; two SUVs parked for many months on 10th Avenue under the stairs of the 215th Street subway stop; and junked cars at sundry locations — because of neglect and finger-pointing of the Sanitation and Police departments, they said.

All over the district, owners of these vehicles take advantage of gaps in jurisdiction to evade laws, locals said, describing a round-robin of sneaky subterfuges on the part of malefactor motorists.

How does it work? If the NYPD is giving a car owner too many parking tickets, he or she will just remove the vehicle’s plate, transforming the car into a “derelict” vehicle for the Sanitation Department to deal with. But before the DSNY is about to take action, the owner gets one last warning — and that’s when the vehicle’s owner slaps on a plate, any plate, which causes Sanitation workers to throw up their hands and punt it to the NYPD.

Fake plate? No problem. The NYPD will often ignore it and just issue another ticket. And so on.

So, residents wonder, how many squalid, unsafe, abandoned vehicles must they stomach on their streets because of official inaction? They also question whether such a situation could go on for years in a wealthier area or one that is not, as Washington Heights is, 78 percent people of color.

(That said, Washington Heights residents are not alone. As Streetsblog has reported many times over the years, the same problem stalks Harlem and other communities of color around the city. Yet the NYPD and Sanitation routinely close 311 complaints about illegal parking without taking any action — as Streetsblog has documented and was the subject of a City Council hearing late last year. Calling 311, moreover, can make the complainant subject to harassment.)

A Facebook group for Washington Heights and Inwood has many such complaints.

“Is there no street sweeping here? How has he not been towed?” a group member asked about the RVs.

At least one of the RVs on 178th Street — in plain sight of the Port Authority’s George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal  — has been there since at least October, 2016, according to archival photos provided by Google, even though city parking regulations state that RVs may not park in the same spot for more than 24 hours.

Josue Perez, a local high-school teacher who ran for City Council last year, had a succinct answer: Because it’s Washington Heights!

“This would not happen in downtown,” Perez wrote to the group. “There was an abandoned van around 187th St, they only moved after someone died of an overdose in it. This shouldn’t be allowed in any city; residents feel frustrated.” (Perez did not respond to further requests for comment.)

The RV was parked on West 178th Street in October 2016, per a satellite image. Photo: Google
The RV, then in better shape, was parked on West 178th Street in October 2016. Photo: Google

The RVs evidently frustrate their neighbors. Someone tagged the larger one (a Jay Flight trailer) with graffiti that selfishly screams: “Get out! Get out! Get out! We need the parking!” Graffiti curses daub the smaller trailer as well. The larger trailer, which has a plate, was cited three times (but not fined) in 2020 for “Overnight Parking of a Tractor Trailer,” and once in 2021 for a missing or expired registration sticker, according to HowsmydrivingNY.

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Neighbors say a family lives in each of the trailers, although no one responded to knocks last week when Streetsblog followed up. Bikes (including kids’ bikes), chairs, and planters surrounded the vehicles on the sidewalk. Last week, a tabby cat peered from one of the windows. And someone pasted a child’s drawing in one of the trailers’ windows. Clearly, this is not an abandoned car issue anymore — this is a humanitarian crisis in plain sight. The residents are clearly at risk from neighborhood harassment, and may be cut off from vital services. Neighbors don’t know and don’t seem to care. UPDATE: The hostile graffiti has driven this family out of the trailers, according to Patch.

The trailers sit to the side of 260 Audubon Ave., facing 586 W. 178th, just steps from the chain link fence protecting the open cut of Interstate 95 before it disappears under Manhattan to re-emerge as the Cross Bronx Expressway.

A man sits in front of the derelict RV on West 178th Street. He told Streetsblog he did not live there. Photo: Eve Kessler
A man sits in front of the RV parked on West 178th Street. He told Streetsblog he did not live there. Photo: Eve Kessler

The longtime presence of the vehicles is symptomatic of official indifference, but neighbors can only focus on “their” parking.

“Shoot I got a commercial truck on my residential block for the past six months,” wrote one Facebook member, Evelyn Cepeda. “I get tickets and somehow that truck doesn’t get any tickets. I’ve complained out my ass about it and 311 just keeps sending it to the precinct and they close it with nothing done.”

The SUVs have sat in front of the No. 1 subway stop at least since October 2021, according to archival Google photos. At least one of the cars is clearly abandoned (there is also a food truck at the location, which serves at night.). A 311 complaint for “Abandoned Vehicle-With License Plate” with the Service Request Number 09389169 that was submitted on Feb. 16 for the trash trucks was closed the same day. The reason? “The Police Department responded to the complaint and determined that police action was not necessary.”

One of the SUVs, in fact, a black Cadillac Escalade with a broken-off right-side mirror, has a number of official documents, including from the DOT and the state Department of Motor Vehicles, strewn on its dashboard. (Documents inside suggest it may once have been a livery car.) They sit at 4036 10th Ave., just across the street from the DSNY garage at 423 West 215th St.

Papers from the DOT and the DMV litter the dash of an abandoned SUV on Tenth Avenue. Photo: Eve Kessler
Papers from the DOT and the DMV litter the dash of a seemingly abandoned SUV on 10th Avenue. Photo: Eve Kessler

Last month, when Streetsblog first snapped the Escalade, it had a single license plate hanging off its back by one fastener. It has 28 violations totally $1,635.24 dating back to 2018, according to HowsmydrivingNY, 20 for “no-parking-street cleaning.” Eleven violations place it at a spot on 204th Street just east of Nagle Avenue for some months in 2020.

This derelict Escalade on Tenth Avenue at 215th Street sorta-kinda has a plate affixed to its back, but not its front. Photo: Eve Kessler
This apparently derelict Escalade on 10th Avenue at 215th Street sorta-kinda has a plate affixed to its back, but not its front. Photo: Eve Kessler

It apparently moved to the spot where it now rests in March 2021, judging by the seven “no-parking-street cleaning” tickets it has received citing that address from March 4 to June 17 of last year. The food cart shows one ticket, for $65, for no parking-street cleaning on March 25, 2021. It is attached to an SUV with a Florida plate for which Howsmydriving has no record.

State motor-vehicle data for the Cadillac Escalade parked at Tenth and 215th clear show it's derelict, as the cops well know despite claiming there's nothing that requires their attention. Photo: Eve Kessler
State motor-vehicle data for the Cadillac Escalade parked at 10th Avenue and 215th clearly show it’s abandoned, as the cops well know despite claiming in closing 311 reports that there’s nothing that requires their attention. Photo: Eve Kessler

Other complaints about abandoned vehicles get closed just as quickly, locals said.

For example, the NYPD closed two 311 complaints submitted on Feb. 16 (SRN 09389127 and 09389006, respectively) for “Abandoned Vehicle – With License Plate”  at 5094 Broadway, near the Broadway Bridge, and another at nearby at 433 W. 218 St. that same day, saying that it had “responded to the complaint and with the information available observed no evidence of the violation at that time.” (Indeed, given that most of the curbs in the city are free parking for all but a few hours per week, the vehicles might have been legally parked at the moment cops showed up.)

Another 311 service request (09370842), made on Feb. 14 for an “Abandoned Vehicle-Without License Plate” at 5100 Broadway was closed by DSNY because it “found the vehicle to have license plates, therefore it did not meet the criteria to be classified as an abandoned derelict vehicle.” And DSNY closed another (seen below in a screen shot) on Feb. 18 despite the complainant’s assurances that it had no license plate.

311-complaint-inwood

“Amusing or pathetic?” asked resident Karen Jolicoeur, who posted about it on Facebook. “Car with no plates other than bogus paper TX temporary in rear tinted window has been abandoned, blocking a lane and bike lane, in the middle of 218th St for more than a week. Multiple attempts with NYPD 34th Precinct and 311 have resulted in no action, tickets closed. It sits there still, and has now been mined for the grill that was hanging off the front and parts hanging underneath indicating catalytic converter taken. But tickets on the windshield, LOL.”

When Streetsblog revisited a month later, the vehicles cited in the Feb. 14 and Feb. 16 complaints had moved, but not the trailers on W. 178th Street or the three vehicles in front of the IRT entrance at 4036 10th Ave. Meanwhile, other seemingly abandoned vehicles have appeared in the vicinity to take their place. For example, a minibus with a paper Georgia temporary license plate that expired Feb. 5 now sits on front of the Sunoco station at 5080 Broadway.

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DSNY pushed back hard against the notion that it can do much about junk cars.

“We do not have legal jurisdiction to tow abandoned vehicles that are not ‘derelict,'” said spokesman Vincent Gragnani. “We have jurisdiction to tow derelict vehicles, and there is a distinct legal difference.”

Under state law, he said, to be considered derelict, a vehicle must lack license plates and have a value of less than $1,250. DSNY determines value by weighing the model year and a number of criteria, including whether a vehicle has:

  • Hood, grill, front bumper, front fender missing;
  • Door(s), trunk lid, and hood missing or damaged;
  • Front or rear end damage
  • Interior and glass damage
  • Engine or transmission missing
  • Damage to right or left side
  • Fire damage, or otherwise seriously burned
  • Vehicle of eight years or more that’s deteriorated or dilapidated.

DSNY also gives the owner an opportunity to claim the vehicle before towing, which happens within three business days (if it’s still at the location) of a dereliction determination, Gragnani said. The department tags vehicles that do not meet its standards for removal by the NYPD. In 2021, DSNY received 39,247 complaints for derelict vehicles and 4,062 were removed. The majority were either not on the location they were reported, had license plates or were claimed by their owners, Gragnani said.

“Should legislation be proposed to address issues of residents or businesses trying to evade towing, we would be happy to review,” he added.

A task for an enterprising legislator?

The area’s Council member, Carmen de la Rosa, said that she had not heard about the specific instances of abandonment described here, but that she would notify the relevant agencies. “I appreciate being notified as residents deserved to be heard and their requests should be taken seriously, not dismissed,” she said. “This is indicative of a much larger issue I’m working to address across District 10.”

Calls to the 34th Precinct Community Affairs Division went unreturned. At the 33rd Precinct, Officer Guttierez said, “Of course we are going to remove them,” when asked about the RVs on 178th Street, but then declined to speak further, referring us to the agency’s official spokespeople, who then declined to comment (the agency would not even provide a statistic for how many vehicles cops tow annually). DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez, who represented District 10 until Dec. 31, declined to comment via a spokesman.

This story has been updated to reflect that the family vacated the trailers.

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