On a record-breaking 68-degree January day, New Yorkers were unnerved, enjoying the weather and wary of what it meant. But for the guerrilla carwash guys of Upper Manhattan, it was only good news. As of 11 a.m. that Saturday, there were at least six carwashes set up on Ninth Avenue from 201st Street to 207th, with numerous Fords, BMWs and a Toyota already soaped up, and more were waiting.
For as long as anyone can remember, there has been a thriving cottage industry, operating out of vans and without conveyor belts, mechanized brushes or complicated hydraulic systems, along an industrial stretch near the Harlem River in Inwood.
“Park right here so I can wash it for you,” a car washer said in her raspy voice to a car that had pulled up. The driver crept to her, then sped off. There would be others.
The car washers are there every day of the year, rain or shine, and a full-service wash, inside and out, will run you $20.
This off-the-books economy is, strictly speaking, not legal. But it is crucial to dozens of residents from Inwood and the Bronx, many of them recent immigrants.
Each carwash operates with informal teams of two to four people. When a customer stops, a symphony of tasks begins: One person dunks two large giant sponges into a bucket and soaps down the roof of the car, the doors, hood and the trunk by hand. Another person rinses the car with a hose with a power-washer attached to it. Another pulls out the car mats and hoses them down until they glint in the light. The exterior of the car is usually done in 10 minutes or less.
As reliable as they are, the carwashes are threatened by future development. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has opened this area to rezoning. A 27-story apartment building is part of the proposal being considered.
Until then, there’s not much for the car washers to do but keep washing cars.
In November, on what felt like the coldest day of the fall, there were just a few young men on 201st Street and 9th Avenue washing cars. They were working quickly — a black sedan and a silver S.U.V. were waiting in line. One man wasn’t wearing gloves, and his hands had turned an orangy red. But he was moving too fast to be bothered.
“When you start washing the cars you don’t really feel the cold,” said Willy Jimenez, 22, who was rinsing the side of a sedan.
Some car washers pool their money to buy a van to store their materials and water tanks. Others, like Mr. Jimenez, rent vans with water tanks ready to go.
“My plan is to buy more vans and rent them out and create more opportunity for people like me,” said Mr. Jimenez, who was born in the Dominican Republic and arrived in the United States when he was 5. “Now I understand the business, I can buy my own materials and rent them out and create some cash flow.”
In the summer, car washers can make up to $1,000 a week, including tips, Mr. Jimenez said. But on snowy or rainy days, it’s a lot slower. They can go home empty-handed. The unseasonably warm January day was promising.
“It’s like summer today,” a man in a red van drove by and yelled. Several men hollered back in accordance.
Down the street, four men scurried around a cream-colored Ford Expedition. One of those men was Pedro Ermosen. He was 52 years old and has been washing cars since he arrived to the United States from the Dominican Republic, in 2014.
“I saw people doing it and got involved,” Mr. Ermosen said. “All of us have children and we support them and pay our high rents with the money that we earn here.”
“Washing a car is not as easy as people think,” he said. “Some days we don’t make any money and some days we wash 20 cars. We do it,” he added, “because we do not want to do illegal things like sell drugs.”
Those descending from the elevated 1 Train at 207th Street will find Dominican restaurants, a burger shop on the corner and, if you head uptown a couple of blocks, a row of dirty cars waiting their turn.
“These guys do a good job,” said Fahri Krisniqi, 37, a repeat customer who watched as his gray BMW was washed. “They clean well and the prices are not too high.”
Mr. Krisniqi said that he usually brings his car for a wash from Peekskill, N.Y., when he drops his wife off at work in the city.
“If I go to Manhattan I stop there, I pay $10 for them to clean the inside and wash the outside,” Mr. Krisniqi said. “You need to help people that are working.”
But the car washers will be out of work if the rezoning plan for the area goes through, which would convert the industrial fringe of Inwood into a mixed-use residential and commercial zone. Proposed apartment towers could be as high as 295 feet tall. The rezoning was initially struck down in court, because of the displacement it would cause, but the city is appealing the ruling.
Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, who represents the 10th District and is in favor of the rezoning, supports the car washers but not more than development.
“We should train those workers such as the car washers,” he said, “and provide options for them to have other choices or put them in a position where they can be placed in a good job.”
Altagracia Betances, 48, came to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1977. She has been a car washer for over three years. Before that she sold fruit with her husband on the street. When she and her husband divorced, she became the breadwinner and started working on Ninth Avenue.
“I raised my children with the money I made washing cars,” Ms. Betances, who goes by Bebé, said.
Her daughter is now in college, and her son is a dental hygienist.
There are some days when the sun starts to set and Ms. Betances has had no customers, and she prays for at least one car so she can leave with some money in her pocket.
“Sometimes I come out and I don’t wash a single car,” Ms. Betances said. “Either it is too cold or it is going to rain and people don’t stop.”
Ms. Betances said she worries about money every day. She hopes the city is honest about wanting to retrain car washers.
“I wish I could get a better job so that I would not have to do this anymore,” Ms. Betances said. “A job that could help me cover my rent, buy my food and have a few dollars without having to work so hard.”
As for Mr. Jimenez, he is not worried about being displaced, because he has a plan to move on from washing cars.
He’s hoping to get into real estate.