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Shipping Containers Pit West African Immigrants Against Bronx Neighbors

Police eventually towed a large shipping container that was illegally parked for several days outside of Trinity Methodist Church at 1076 Washington Ave. in The Bronx.
Police eventually towed a large shipping container that was illegally parked for several days outside of Trinity Methodist Church at 1076 Washington Ave. in The Bronx.
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Bert Irons

SOUTH BRONX — The 40-foot-long red metal shipping container languished outside of Trinity Methodist Church in Morrisania for more than a week before Bert Irons decided he had enough.

Irons, who lives down the block from the church at 166th Street and Washington Avenue, snapped some photos of the container mounted atop a trailer, typed up a letter with the heading "Detached Trailer Lawlessness," and hand-delivered it with the photos to the local 42nd Precinct.

The next day, he said, cops showed up. After several hours and with the help of an Emergency Service team to unlock the trailer’s brakes, the giant metal box was towed away.

Although Morrisania is nowhere near a shipping port, the giant containers are a common sight in the neighborhood — where a large West African population relies on them to cheaply transport clothes, cars and other items to their families back home.

But the widespread custom has pitted some immigrants against neighbors, who say the illegal trailers are a dangerous eyesore, sparking a crackdown by police.

"Some people get very upset," said Irons, the chairman of the Evangelical Church of God at 168th Street and Washington Avenue. "It degrades the neighborhood... Neighbors complain about them taking up two, three, four parking spaces. And the street cleaners can’t get through."

Irons said that at least a dozen residents approached his church with concerns about the trailer-mounted containers, another of which was left outside an elementary school on 168th Street.

Capt. Jon Bloch, commander of the 42nd Precinct, said his officers have towed a dozen of the illegally parked trailers out of the area in the past month, under a partnership with the Department of Transportation.

"Eventually they'll get the message that they can't do it," said Bloch, noting that it is illegal to park a trailer on any city street, except while loading or unloading.

But local business owners who rely on the containers explained that people who store them on the street are the outliers in an otherwise lawful and thriving local trade: shipping goods, from diapers and T-shirts to furniture and even small vans, from The Bronx to West Africa.

Some 32,600 immigrants from West African countries including Ghana, Nigeria and Mali live in The Bronx — more than any other borough — according to the most recent American Community Survey.

However, community leaders believe the actual number may exceed 100,000 people.

Most are concentrated in the central Bronx, in neighborhoods such as Morrisania, Highbridge and Tremont, and many send and receive goods from Africa on a regular basis, according to Jane Kani Edward, a clinical assistant professor at Fordham University, who was born in Sudan.

Some people use the containers to send necessities or gifts to loved ones or charities, while others ship coveted American merchandise to be sold in African markets, Edward explained. Others who use the containers are business owners importing African goods, such as specialty foods or movies, that they can sell to homesick immigrants.

Bourema Niambele, a Bronx activist who emigrated from Mali in 1996, said he has shipped computers, phones, stereos, shoes and the occasional “I ♥ New York” T-shirt to his wife and four children in Africa.

“With any developing countries,” said Niambele, “when you are here [in the U.S.], it’s often easier for you to buy things and send them back there.”

The containers are rented out by exporting companies in The Bronx that typically get them from seaports in New York and New Jersey for between $3,000 and $4,000. They then transport them to The Bronx, where customers pay a fee to use a portion of the containers to ship their goods to Africa, according to several exporters.

At Unique World Shipping, on 163rd Street, people from as far away as Detroit stop by to drop off used cars and boxes of items, including bottles of water, diapers and sneakers, to ship to West Africa, said Stephen Funa, an employee.

He said some people maintain homes in Africa and the U.S., and want access to quality products — including cars — in both places.

Some African stores sell items comparable to those in the US, Funa said, “but people like the American stuff.”

The shipping costs vary by weight, exporters said, from approximately $80 for a plastic drum filled with goods to $1,200 to $1,500 for a full car.

While it is considerably cheaper than sending goods on airplanes, it can take a month or longer for the containers to be shipped to their final destinations.

The containers sometimes sit on the street until they're full enough to ship, exporters said.

Fatima Baba, who runs Dakar Transportation on E. 166th Street, said her company rents the containers and then delivers them wherever the customers ask.

Some people use parking lots, while others pay to store the containers in empty lots between buildings. Others ask for the trailers to be parked right outside their buildings.

But Baba said fewer people have chosen to park the containers on the street since residents have started to complain.

“They call the police,” she said, “and then they come and tow it away.”