The threat of a $12 million parking ticket by Governor Andrew Cuomo finally got NYPD to depart Pier 76 this weekend. Since 1998, the state and local pols had been trying to force the police to move their Manhattan Tow Pound from 12th Avenue and W36th Street, so that Hudson River Park can take on the development of the five-acre site for community open space.
“It’s been over two decades, it’s time for the city to move off the pier and give that open space to the community as was proposed,” said Senator Brad Hoylman last April, when Cuomo announced the proposed fine.
The NYPD Tow Pound has been in this location since 1977, when the waterfront was a very different place, home to “truckers and the homeless and salt piles, bus garages, sanitation facilities, a prison, concrete plants,” Tom Fox told The City.
It certainly was a rough and tough place back then. The New York Times reported in 1979 that 112 tires on 49 tow trucks were slashed. In 1989, Victor Rosen — the chief of violations at the tow pound — explained to the Times that there were ways of getting around being towed. “Our policy is not to tow if people or animals are in the car,” Rosen explained. “There have been mistakes,” he acknowledged, like the time a car with a woman asleep in the back was inadvertently picked up. “When the woman awoke three hours later in the pound, all she said was, ‘Where did the party go?'”
Back then, when the city introduced the Overnight Tow Patrol (known as the Disco Tow), Rosen became an authority on NYC nightlife. “This month the hottest clubs are the Red Zone, Ritz, Chevys, Limelight, Cafe Iguana and Johnny Rock-It, but by next month, they could be passe,” he shared.
John O’Mahoney, who has worked in Hell’s Kitchen at the Circle Line and Press Lounge, remembers those days well. “I took a date to Cafe Iguana in Gramercy and a car pulled out of a spot on the filled side street, which I took. Thought I was luckiest dude. Iguana was a wild scene back then, people used to dance on the bar with everyone cheering,” he recalls. “When I came out of the club the block had no cars and I had been towed to the pound. I should’ve read the parking signs. The pound was like a nightclub itself: all these inebriated people getting their cars back. Cash only, $150. I had to borrow money off my date.”
John and his date Alyson’s story continued, with a happy ending: “You did not want to come out of the pound at 2am without your car as the area was desolate. I stopped at a light on 12th Avenue, and a squeegee man approached the car. I told him I was broke from the pound fee. He saw the grease pencil markings tagging my windshield and said, ‘man, let me take that off for free’ — and he did.” John added: “FYI I married that date!”
We asked other W42ST readers about their memories of the tow pound, and were surprised by the nostalgia and enthusiasm to share their tales.
English Teacher Mark Guay had to get home to Beacon for a 5am start, but stayed a little too late in the city with friends. He went back to his parking spot at 11:15pm to find his car missing. When he eventually got to the west side tow pound, he recalls. “It was a writer’s dream. There was every stereotype you would expect to see in New York City. If I had the skillset to write a novel, I could have written an amazing book just watching all these people,” he said. “At one point a cross-dresser offered me pills. She said: ‘Oh, sweetheart, it’s going to be much better if you take one of these’.”
Nicki Lindheimer from Domus remembers the day her car went missing. “I was on my own with a store full of people when I noticed a tow truck pulling a car strangely similar to ours. Then I realized OMG that IS our car! I couldn’t even run after it because of the customers and because I was in a bit of shock and couldn’t figure out why I was being towed,” she told us. “Apparently, just the day before they had changed the parking rules on that part of W44th Street to commercial only, but because I’m there every day I didn’t pay attention to what the signs said! Ugh.”
Street parking signs are confusing for the locals, but it’s even worse for unsuspecting out-of-towners. Murat Yilmaz from The Jolly Goat Coffee Shop sees the NYPD Tow Trucks waiting to pounce outside his shop all the time. “One super hot summer’s day, a man in his late 60s and his daughter from Connecticut had been visiting Intrepid. They walked into the shop and asked me if I had seen their car. The guy was struggling to walk and exhausted with the heat.” Murat recalls. “I felt bad for them and offered to give them a ride and the guy hugged me and said ‘oh, you’re an angel’. He wanted to pay me, which I didn’t accept of course. I told him, next time someone says New Yorkers are rude, you tell them this story.”
Tom Fervoy offers a “public service” on his street to try and keep NYPD Traffic Enforcement Division from ticketing Broadway show-goers. “I’ve seen countless drivers pull up in front of our building on W49th Street, squint to read the closest parking sign, strain to figure out what it meant, and finally decide that they were OK to park. Those that I’ve witnessed… I’ve warned. As a kind of Public Service Announcement,” Tom told us. “Most are out-of-towners. Many are coming to the city to have dinner somewhere nearby before a Broadway show. My opinion, after nearly 25 years at this address, is that the City knows perfectly well that the parking signs nearby are vague and open to some interpretation, and are ultimately designed to confuse — and especially to confuse folks coming in for a show. It’s a gravy train, easy money, like shooting ducks in a barrel, for the City. A tried-and-true revenue stream, every single weekday plus Saturdays until 7pm — all year long, every year. The City waits until late in the afternoon, when the crop of matinee audiences still parked may overlap with evening show audiences arriving early for pre-show dinner — optimal hunting time for the City’s fleet of tow trucks.” Back in 1991, the Broadway catch net even snagged the silver Lincoln Town Car of actor Jonathan Pryce outside the theater as he performed in the show Miss Saigon.
Abel Castro from Ñaño Ecuadorian Restaurant had a truck full of props for a shoot when his ride went missing. “I was a prop master on an independent film in the 90s. I parked the prop van on Tenth Avenue to pick something up. Ten minutes later the prop van was gone. I had the props for the next day’s shoot inside so I had to make sure I got the van back that night. $200 and 3 hours later I got it back. Phew!” he told us.
“I remember getting towed three times, personally, and maybe half a dozen times with trucks for my business. They didn’t mess around,” shared Emile LaFargue. “It cost $5 per day if you couldn’t pick up straight away. I remember one time going to pick up a vehicle that had been towed a few weeks later. They couldn’t find it. I thought it had gone. Eventually, we found it hidden behind a couple of dumpsters.”
Emile remembered the tragic night in 2006, when an 18-year-old New Jersey girl, Jennifer Moore, had her car towed — and ended up murdered. The gruesome killing, after Moore wandered off from the pound intoxicated, was a significant factor in New York City tightening up on ID checks to discourage underage drinking.
Governor Cuomo has always had a challenging time with the NYPD, and Erik Bottcher fell victim to that when working for the Governor’s Office. “I had to pay a visit to the tow pound to retrieve a car in 2013. I was working for Governor Cuomo at the time, and I was using a vehicle from the state fleet for a work assignment. I parked the car on the street near the Governor’s office in East Midtown. When I came back downstairs, it was gone. I thought I had parked it legally. Well, I was later told that all of the cars from the state fleet had been towed, because at the time there was a bit of a ‘turf war’ happening between the State Police and the NYPD. I don’t know if this is true, but I had to go to Pier 76 to retrieve the vehicle.” Erik shared.
Many recall loaning their cars to friends and family, and then having to pick up the pieces (or their car from the tow pound). Steve Olsen at West Bank Cafe had to go get his car after his brother ran foul of the merciless justice of the tow squad.
Similarly, Holly-Anne Devlin had the challenge of a friend getting her car towed — and then retrieving the car while under the influence! “Last June, I had been working myself to the bone trying to get our musical pop-ups out on the street and decided to mark off ONE Saturday for myself. It was going to be a fantastic Saturday OFF — a long walk, brunch, a massage, all planned out. The previous Thursday I had let a friend borrow my car for a few days with the explicit instructions ‘No matter what you do, don’t park it on the street’,” she recounts. “I’m an hour and three Bloody Marys into my ‘me day’ when I get the call. ‘Holly, I can’t find the car.’ This is a joke, right? Of course my friend had parked on the street and my day was suddenly blown up by having to go to Pier 76 …the problem was I’m three Bloody Marys in. FURIOUS with my friend for ruining the day and costing me almost $400 (because of course he got a ticket too), I had to march down 18 blocks dragging my poor dog who was also luxuriating in the day, lining up in a sea of fury and masks to get the car back. Reeking of booze.
“I explained what happened and they were quite brisk in finding my car for me, but I was in no position to DRIVE even though my garage is only around the corner from the pound. One of the gentlemen working in the pound offered to drive my dog and me to the garage. But as we pulled out onto the West Side Highway we both agreed it was a lovely day and we should enjoy it. So the man drove Roscoe and me downtown with the windows open, taking in the breeze, and back around to 42nd Street for a hilarious joyride that could only happen in New York. I tried to tip him but he refused, saying that I had made his day, and he certainly made mine,” she told us.
It’s the end of an era. If you get towed above 59th Street, you will need to go find your car in the Bronx. And below 59th Street — it’s a trip to Brooklyn (as one reader, Michael Montanaro, found out last week). “I’ve been staying out in Connecticut for most of the pandemic but popped back to my place on W49th Street last Saturday morning. I saw a spot and thought I would save the $16 that I usually pay at the Skyline Parking Garage. After 30 mins, I saw that I’d got a ticket. I thought ‘OK, I’ll leave it now — they won’t give me another ticket’. A little while later, my buddy called to say ‘have you seen what’s happened to your car?’ I looked, and it was being towed away. There were 4 other cars with tickets — but they all had New York plates. Mine had CT plates and was the only one towed,” Michael recalls. “I headed to the tow pound on 12th Avenue, but they told me they were closed and sent me to Brooklyn. I got an Uber and I beat the tow truck getting there. Next time, I won’t save the $16!”
Maybe someone will write the book or film the movie of the NYPD tow pound. In the meantime, Holly-Anne has the last word: “Au revoir, Tow Pound. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out…”
Did you get towed? Please add your West Side Story of the NYPD Tow Pound in the comments below