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AWM: New York City’s Ultimate Placard Mystery

The AWM mystery. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

Placard abuse is the most confounding corruption in town — but there’s one form of it that’s so mysterious that the city and state DOT, the cops, and even the guy who created it remain baffled.

It's the AWM placard. No, the initials are not shorthand for "Association for Women in Mathematics" (though it obviously could be) or "Amalgamated Womb Massagers" or even "Allied Weapons Machinists." In fact, they're not shorthand for anything.

Amalgamated Womb Massagers parking only.
Amalgamated Womb Massagers parking only.
Amalgamated Womb Massagers parking only.

They're a super-secret code that is, in this day and age, laughable.

Back when he was city Traffic Commissioner, Sam Schwartz (who would later achieve his greatest renown as Gridlock Sam) created the initials AWM out of the blue. Schwartz told Streetsblog that the NYPD had contacted his agency requesting a special placard for “certain secretive federal agencies" that "did not want to advertise their presence or have their unmarked vehicles identified."

There's evidence that such a designation was needed. According to Schwartz, the request came after local cops towed away some cars being used by federal law enforcement agents for a sting. Apparently, the G-men had collared some suspects only to return to the street to find their vehicles were gone.

“I plucked three letters from my imagination” Schwartz said. “Nobody wanted parking permits to say 'FBI' or 'CIA' or some other federal agency."

But now, of course, officers use the AWM placard for free parking in Lower Manhattan, a benefit worth thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars for which they are likely not taxed.

Super secret, huh?
Super secret, huh?
Super secret, huh?

"The program was for undercover officers actively engaged and on-duty," Schwartz said. "It was never intended as an all-day parking permit."

It is unclear what blocks were originally set aside as AWM parking (a 2013 Times story doesn't offer locational clues), but the epicenter of AWM parking is now on Thomas Street between Broadway and Church Street in Lower Manhattan, where roughly 20 spots are set aside for the AWM placard class. Schwartz told Streetsblog that Thomas Street was one of of the original AWM zones because of its proximity to Federal Plaza (home to multiple federal law enforcement agencies) and the NSA Building at the 33 Thomas Street, a massive, windowless tower that screams, "Secret stuff going on inside" so loudly that employees can't really hide behind an AWM placard (especially when some employees also slap "Federal Law Enforcement" placards on their dash).

The ongoing mystery of the AWM placard

It's surprising that a parking permit program that was designed to be secretive continues to be carried on in plain sight for several decades.

What's not surprising at all is that public officials in charge of parking, parking enforcement and the issuance of placards play completely dumb about the program.

First off, the placards are amateurish, featuring only the letters AWM, a hand-written permit number, an arbitrary expiration date and the words “Department of Transportation.”

Which Department of Transportation? Who knows! The city DOT said it does not issue the placards (though the agency does install the "AWM" parking signs that block off the space). The state DOT confirmed that it does not issue such permits, but said the simplistic design made them very easy to copy. The federal DOT did not respond to emails about the program, but it does not seem likely that a federal agency is issuing New York City parking privileges.

The NYPD would not answer specific questions about the AWM placard, but confirmed that it "does issue parking permits to other law enforcement agencies and conducts enforcement in the AWM-designated parking areas.” (Meaning cops ticket cars that park in the AWM zone without an AWM placard.)

Cameras actually catch a lot more AWM miscreants than cops do. Of the 24 AWM cars we spotted on recent visits to Thomas Street, 10 had multiple camera-issued tickets, meaning that not only is the city providing free parking for these scofflaws, they are driving to or from their free parking in a reckless manner.

Calls to the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, and the FBI, where not returned. A spokesman for the Central Intelligence Agency did call Streetsblog back — but only to say that he could neither confirm nor deny anything, even whether the CIA even has an office in New York City. But all the placards have an expiration date of May 2023 — implying that someone minted a new batch of the placards recently.

Schwartz thinks they're all fugazy.

"There is no official placard without the designation of a city, state or federal agency," he said.

So, we have an on-street parking program for a made-up government agency, yet without clear details as to who issues the permits, to whom they are issued, or how many there are.

“To tell the truth, I am surprised it is still being used.”

— with Gersh Kuntzman and Noah Martz

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