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The Record

Where Motorists Grimace And Bear It; Manhattan's Tow Pound Will Cost You Time, And Money


July 28, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Record, Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

Eloy Lopez swears up and down that he parked that car legally. He fed the meter plenty of quarters. He walked 45th Street studying the various parking signs. Satisfied, he headed out to do a little shopping.

Lopez, 32, who flew from Puerto Rico to New York City on Thursday night, returned from the stores to find a boot on his rental car. It turned out the meter was only for commercial vehicles.

Fuming, Lopez headed to the hulking blue hangar in Manhattan where more than 50,000 vehicles landed last year: the tow pound.

Lopez's ordeal, like that of many drivers, was just beginning. While he was at the pound paying to get the boot removed, his car was towed, he said. He didn't have enough money on him, so he had to call a friend in Lyndhurst for help.

"You come here to do some shopping and this is what they do to you," said Lopez, who was seething in front of the pound Friday night, a camcorder slung over his shoulder. In the end, Lopez spent six hours and $370 to retrieve the car.

The tow pound is essentially a crumbling warehouse on Pier 76, on the edge of Hell's Kitchen. Ferries dock next door and in-line skaters whiz by, but the pound itself makes no attempt to blend in. It looks like a jail, surrounded by a barbed wire fence, plastered with odd signs about "no unauthorized vehicles" (aren't all vehicles that end up here unauthorized?), and guarded by a sleepy guy in a booth.

Don't even think about parking in front.

About every 10 minutes, a New York Police Department tow truck pulls in, dragging its catch: a teal minivan with New Jersey plates, a UPS truck, and the white Chevy Cavalier that Lopez rented the night before.

It's no surprise that in a city with a staggering debt, in a country with a sluggish economy, more and more drivers find themselves at the pound. In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2003, the NYPD towed 52,299 illegally parked vehicles, up from 46,367 the year before.

So on any particular Friday night, the tow pound looks like some place out of a "Star Wars" movie.

A cross-section of tourists, locals, hipsters, and suits pass through. They slouch deep in the plastic chairs, stare glassily at the holes punched by fists in the flimsy walls, and pick at their fingernails. There is no clock in the room, and it doesn't take long to figure out why.

Every so often, someone erupts. There is a stream of cursing, threats of knowing people high up in the system, claims of being towed without reason. They blame the people behind the glass, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and even the war with Iraq.

"There's no recourse, it's an obvious revenue device and you can't do anything about it," said Tim Dugan, whose car was plucked from a No Standing spot on Houston Street.

Towing fees start at $185. Drivers with unpaid tickets are sent to City Hall.

That's where Dugan, 48, was told to go to pay $941 in unpaid tickets. There was one week when his emissions inspection expired and cops put a new ticket on his car each day, Dugan explained.

"I'm leaving my car here. I'm going to contest this," said Dugan, who had to find another way to get home to the Bronx.

And not claiming his car will cost $20 a day for storage fees at the pound.

On many days, the pound is filled with people who jammed the city's clubs the night before. Phillip Green, 22, and Hitomi Suzuki, 23, said they recognized people at the tow from Nells, a club in the Village where they went to dance Thursday night. When the SUNY-New Paltz students came outside at 4 a.m., the bouncer told them their car had been towed.

"I was a little intoxicated last night, so I guess this is better than a DWI," said Green, trying to stay positive. Green said he parked his car at a meter, read all the signs, looked up and down the street, and, confident the spot was legal, went inside. He doesn't know why his car was towed.

A newcomer to the city's tow system, Green learned quickly that his parking job was going to cost him. First, there was $185 for the tow, then he had to go to City Hall and pay $140 in outstanding parking tickets. He came back to the pound to learn he needed a copy of the car's registration, which meant a bus trip back to upstate New Paltz.

Other drivers have come to accept the visits to the pound as the price of doing business. UPS drivers frequently hike to the pound to retrieve their trademark brown trucks.

"You'll go into a building to deliver a package and come out and the truck will be gone. Who's going to steal a UPS truck? It's obviously been towed," said Gene Harte, 36, whose truck has been towed half a dozen times in the past year. "After a while, it doesn't even faze you. I mean, what am I going to do?"

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