Preparing Workers for Jobs After the Junkyards Go
By FERNANDA SANTOS
May 27, 2009
It takes a certain humility to head back to school at the age of 52 and learn as a child would, through picture books and basic words sketched on a blackboard.
But Gustavo Zerón, a Honduran immigrant who works nine hours a day at a junkyard, swallowed his pride and signed up for the classes, which the city is offering in an effort to give laborers of soon-to-disappear businesses in Willets Point skills to find new work.
“That’s the only opportunity I have to get out of this place,” Mr. Zerón explained in Spanish as he headed for the No. 7 train to travel the 12 stops to class one recent evening.
He is not the only worker who wants to escape Willets Point, a bedraggled industrial triangle that neighbors the Mets’ new ballpark in Queens. Inside auto shops with names like Stubborn Used Tires and Latin American Mechanic and Muffler, summers are so hot and winters so cold that fingers become deformed with time, making a worker’s hands look like claws. Underground, there are no water or waste pipes. Outside, the landscape of unpaved streets resembles a muddied quilt of rivers and lagoons.
Neglected for many years, Willets Point is now poised for transformation. A $3 billion, 10-year redevelopment plan approved late last year calls for razing all of the businesses — auto shops, scrap yards, an Indian food manufacturer and a few construction companies — and replacing them with a hotel, homes, a conference center and stores.
As part of the deal, the area’s workers are being offered free training to learn to use a computer, wait on tables, keep books, fix cars or simply speak English.
It is a challenging student body, made up primarily of illegal immigrants, who by law are not allowed to work. The city has devoted $2.5 million to the program, known as Willets Point Worker Assistance, and instituted a sort of don’t ask, don’t tell policy: School is open to all, regardless of immigration status.
“We made a decision not to think about this,” Madelyn Wils, executive vice president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, said in an interview. She added: “Look, they have to support their families, they live here, and we didn’t want them to fall through the cracks.”
The program has faced intense opposition, not from anti-immigrant groups, but from some of Willets Point’s small-business owners and their workers, who said the money would be better used to help them relocate.
When a team of instructors from LaGuardia Community College, which is carrying out the program, brought a mobile classroom to Willets Point in October, protesters surrounded the vehicle. When the team returned on foot in February, some business owners refused to let the instructors speak to their workers.
“I don’t see the point in training people who can’t work if there’s no guarantee they’ll ever find jobs,” said Marcos Neira, a Colombian immigrant who owns Master Express Deli and Restaurant on Willets Point Boulevard.
Protesters also gathered in March outside a community center in Corona, Queens, where the college was holding an open house, heckling the workers who filed past them on their way inside.
“That’s when we realized we had broken through,” said Linda Barlow, the program’s director.
The program has 183 students, just a fraction of the estimated 2,000 people who work in Willets Point. There are some workers who oppose the program and have refused to join it. But most who have not signed up fear that by registering, they might end up being deported, Ms. Barlow said.
The first class was held on April 2, at LaGuardia’s Long Island City campus, about 20 minutes from Willets Point on the Manhattan-bound No. 7 train. There have been a few snags, like the constant changes in classrooms that Ms. Barlow blamed on the college’s growing enrollment, which has made it hard to manage the available space. The program will have its own dedicated space starting next month, she said.
The students are a microcosm of the Willets Point work force: 145 are men, 115 are illegal immigrants and most know little or no English, she said. Ages vary, as do the workers’ education levels.
There are those who want to learn English. Others have bigger ambitions, like Mr. Zerón, who spends his days climbing in and out of the piles of cars in the junkyard, fetching mufflers, radiators, bumpers and other used parts that customers want.
He came here from his country’s capital of Tegucigalpa in 1999, after a hurricane left him unemployed and destitute. He has made a living at Willets Point since then, and with the money he has earned, he put his four children through school, paid for the youngest to spend a year in Denmark as an exchange student and is building a house for his family back home.
He said he had a degree in mechanics from a Honduran technical school and worked as a contractor for the American Embassy in Tegucigalpa before the hurricane, fixing typewriters. His goal is to return there and open his own business, this time fixing computers. The problem is that he knows nothing about computers, so in addition to English classes, he is taking a Spanish-language course called Aprenda Microsoft Windows y la Internet, or Learn Microsoft Windows and the Internet.
“I want to update my knowledge,” Mr. Zerón said.
In his English as a second language class on May 7, 21 students convened around large wooden desks, rehearsing the words in a dialogue between a factory foreman and his apprentice: supply closet, log book, conveyor belt.
The students seemed to share similar goals. Jary Alvarez, 27, of Washington Heights, who had two years of college in Honduras and works fixing flat tires in Willets Point, is learning English because “it could help me for the rest of my life, wherever I am,” he said.
Daniel Maldonado, 45, of Corona, who had no more than an elementary school education in Ecuador, said he was tired of losing clients to other mechanics who were able to speak the language.
Victor Espinoza, 59, a Peruvian who now lives in Elmhurst, Queens, fell short of receiving a bachelor’s degree in economics back home because he failed to complete his final project. He is now learning English “because I don’t want to be an island in this country,” he said. Mr. Espinoza, who works at a junkyard, said that he hoped to be a bell captain or a receptionist at a hotel.
“Of course, we would rather know that our jobs will be there, that the businesses in Willets Point aren’t going anywhere,” he said. “We couldn’t win the fight against the city, so we should take advantage of what the city is giving us.”