By Sarah Maslin Nir
Photographs and Video by Brittainy Newman
It was the middle of the night, and hundreds of people were gathered in an empty parking lot in industrial Queens, wedged between a Home Depot and a self-storage warehouse.
The throng ringed the lot the way a crowd encircles a break dancer, phones held up, documenting the spectacle: souped-up cars spinning doughnuts, tires spewing plumes of acrid smoke. Passengers hung out the windows of some of the cars, taking selfies. The noise was almost overwhelming.
At times, people in the crowd couldn’t help wincing at the gunshot popping of tricked-out vehicles without mufflers, but most roared in approval. It was a guerrilla car meet in a desolate pocket of the city. Loudness was the point.
But when those cars roar across New York en route to the meet-ups, they’re just as loud. Earlier that night, drivers convened first in Astoria, Queens. As each pulled up, the sounds of exhaust-on-steroids spooked al fresco diners and set off alarms in other cars. Some nights, the gunning of engines shakes people awake through their apartment walls.
Gear heads, hot rods and their impromptu, sometimes dicey rallies, have long existed in corners of the city where subways are sparse and car ownership is not a foreign concept. But in the long, boring months of the pandemic lockdown, more people seem to have flocked to the hobby, according to interviews and noise complaints.
With engines snarling across quieted streets, these noise complaints — coded innocuously by the city as “engine idling” — have increased by more than 40 percent over the same period last year. Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens have the greatest number of the complaints, but in the Bronx, calls went up by about 150 percent, and in Staten Island they rose by about 75 percent.
To those devoted to remaking their rides, like Zejy Rodriguez, 20, every painstaking modification is a point of pride; each clandestine chase between friends or down-low rally provides a much-needed something-to-do in a season of cancellations.
“After putting a lot of effort into your car, your car is like you. You and your car, you’re like one being,” Mr. Rodriguez said, beaming as he idled in front of St. James Deli in Astoria, waiting for the Saturday night meet to start. Mr. Rodriguez spent the lockdown tricking out his used BMW with obsidian rims, custom headlights, a subwoofer in the trunk and, of course, an extra-rumbly engine.
“I get happy with my car. My mom don’t like it, but whatever,” said Mr. Rodriguez, a college student who also works two jobs, as an Amazon shopper and at B.J.’s Wholesale Club, to afford his hobby. “It sounds good! And people look at it!”
For many other New Yorkers — those trying to put babies down for the night, outdoor diners unnerved by engines revving, anyone alarmed by tailpipes that sound like gunshots — the uptick in the roaring cars seems to compound the already frayed emotional state of the city in the wake of the coronavirus.
“The constant sirens were their own sort of horror,” said Stephen Parkhurst, 35, a video producer. Since April, the snarl of modified exhaust pipes has been inescapable most nights in his ground-floor apartment in Astoria, he said. “Now with the car noise, you can’t even just have a moment.”
Along with that annoyance comes a perceived insult. “We are all in this together,” Mr. Parkhurst said, “and then there are a bunch of people that don’t really seem to care and are causing people’s lives to be just a little worse.”
The rise in noise complaints has come as bored young men (it’s mostly men) have sought a diversion that’s social but somewhat socially distant. Each person is sealed in his own car, after all.
While few city mechanics reported a boom in orders to modify cars, devotees say the pandemic has given them time to make the modifications themselves. Some said their stimulus checks helped; half of what Mr. Rodriguez got from the government this spring went straight into his BMW.
Never mind that modifying an engine to be louder is in fact illegal in New York State. Last month, State Senator Andrew Gounardes, a Democrat from Brooklyn, proposed revising the law to specify a decibel limit for exhaust (it now targets only noise that is “excessive or unusual”), equip police with decibel meters and raise the maximum penalty for violators to $1,000 from the current $125.
“This has always been a problem, but it seems it has been worse lately as the roads emptied,” Mr. Gounardes said in an email. “This is a stressful time, and the last thing people need is to be kept up by jerks who are clearly compensating for something missing in their lives.”
There are varying degrees of loudness, however. One particular point of rage among those who detest these cars — an issue that divides even their fans — is a tweak called a straight pipe. These tailpipes, after an adjustment to a car’s computer, make exhaust sound like gunfire, expelling a buildup of air with a rapid-fire pow-pow-pow.
Manmeet Nijjar, 26, an aviation administration student at Farmingdale State College, said he finds inner peace in the Midtown Tunnel. That is where he rolls down his windows, turns off his radio and revs his engine (of course, his car is muffler-free). “I just love that sound!” Mr. Nijjar said from a mechanic shop in Willets Point, Queens, while a technician added more bells and whistles to his car.
But for Mr. Nijjar and several other drivers interviewed, straight pipes are too much. They keep him and his German shepherd awake when they are trying to relax at home in Bellerose, along the border of Queens, he said.
“I endure the sound,” Mr. Nijjar said. “So I personally couldn’t put anyone through that.”
Back in Willets Point, Ali Ratib, 45, stood before an array of sound-heightening tailpipes in the auto shop he runs, and disagreed. “It’s a little noise pollution, but it’s New York, the city that doesn’t sleep,” Mr. Ratib said. “Where do you not find noise pollution?”
To avoid being shut down, rallies tend to take place in industrial or out-of-the-way corners, like a Home Depot parking lot. Each night’s secret location is shared via WhatsApp messages — along with backup spots in case the police show up. The Queens rally site was the second choice of the evening; a list of five options pinged on the cellphones of attendees, who ranged from teenagers to a few middle-aged adults, including a handful of mothers pushing children in strollers amid the fumes.
Most drivers and fans that evening seemed to align themselves with car clubs. The rear windows of various cars boasted decals reflecting their affiliation, like Mpireboyz, a popular BMW group. The slogan #SorryBoutYaNeck, a riff on how the loud engine noise makes heads swivel, was on many bumper stickers.
“It’s the new hip-hop,” said Marc Esannason, an associate producer of “Street Gods,” a Vice documentary series on the Mpireboyz and others; he dates the scene’s rise to about 2010. “Everybody knows what rap is, and now it’s a billion-dollar industry because corporate America got behind it. But there was a need for another culture, and the next culture was this underground motor sport world.”
But as that culture revs in the streets, it has clashed with a wave of New Yorkers who have become accustomed to spending more time than usual outside.
At Shanghai Mong, a Midtown restaurant, patio diners are regularly startled by the din of cars streaking by, said Tora Yi, the chef and owner. The zooming cars, along with rising unemployment and crime, contribute to the sense of a metropolis in decline, he said.
“People are kind of tense, they have something in their mind all the time that, ‘Oh, the city is not safe anymore.’ Then you hear that kind of noise all of a sudden, and it’s scary,” Mr. Yi said.
But Mr. Esannason, the documentary producer, said any distress the cars cause is inadvertent collateral damage, an unintended consequence of a lifestyle gaining popularity.
“If you’re outside the culture, you really don’t understand the narrative of what it really is,” he said. “It’s not bad people. I look at it as the next generation, and this is how they express themselves.”
Jacob Meschke contributed reporting.
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