MORRISANIA — Bert Irons’ life is bound to a single block of Washington Avenue, between East 167th and East 168th streets, where he has lived for 65 years.
Across the street from his present-day apartment, on the site where his childhood house once stood, there sits a leafy park named for his mother, the Rev. Lena Irons. Next door to his apartment is the Evangelical Church of God, where she was pastor for more than three decades and he is now the board of trustees chairman.
And so, when he strolls down this street today and sees empty lots, not primed for redevelopment or reclaimed as community gardens, but crammed with rows of shabby cars, he gets more than a little miffed.
The residential block “has experienced over a decade of abysmal, unsightly, hazardous and community degrading non-conforming abuse of these lots,” Irons fumed in a letter this year to the Department of Building’s Bronx commissioner.
Irons has spearheaded a crusade against the illegal junkyards, in which he photographs the sites, pores over documents, scrutinizes zoning laws and lobbies city officials.
“They never expected anybody to come in and really get down in the weeds like this,” he said recently, with highlighted property records, maps and letters sprawled before him on a church table.
Three vacant lots on the street are filled with used cars, in apparent violation of the block’s residential zoning. Some of the vehicles are waiting to be repaired and resold, while others will be shipped by immigrants back to business partners or families in West Africa.
A fourth lot, at the corner of East 168th Street, has been illegally converted into an ice distribution facility.
A DOB hearing on the matter is scheduled for later this month.
The lot that most vexes Irons is the one directly across from the church, at 1190 Washington Ave., which abuts an auto-repair shop and is used by a mechanic to store broken-down cars, many without license plates.
The lot’s rusted gate is open by day and easily scaled by night, inviting children and vagrants, Irons said. In 2011, someone set fire to a car there, he said, which could have ended far worse than it did since many of the surrounding vehicles likely contain fuel.
“There are appropriate locations for junk yards,” Irons said, “but it’s not in residential areas where kids live.”
DOB inspectors have ticketed the lot’s owners multiple times over the past decade for the same violation: using a residential lot as a vehicular junkyard.
An open $4,800 violation from 2011 says the current owner, Julius Ausch, filed a certificate claiming he cleared the lot of about 20 vehicles, but that inspectors later found more cars at the site and his certificate was rejected.
Reached by phone, Ausch, who is based in Brooklyn, briefly acknowledged that people use his lot to store cars, but said that is not his intention.
“We tried to get them out,” he said, before ending the call.
The mechanic who parks busted cars there, Youssouf Kony, said he does not pay Ausch to use the lot and that whenever Ausch tells him to, he removes the cars.
He said cars rest there only temporarily before he fixes them at the repair shop or has them loaded into large shipping containers and sent by boat to Africa.
No one in the neighborhood has complained about the illegal junkyard, Kony insisted, except for Irons.
“The only problem we have here is this old man,” Kony said.
Another of the lots, at 1167 Washington Ave., has three open DOB violations, worth $16,500 in fines, for illegal car storage, parking and sales. The third car-storing lot has not been fined.
After many months and letters, Irons finally met with the Bronx DOB commissioner, Werner deFoe, in April.
While the meeting was productive, Irons said, he still can’t understand why the agency has allowed the junkyards to linger for so long. Perhaps, he suggested, the inspectors value his neighborhood less than he does.
“You wonder what plays into their failure to enforce,” he said.
Kelly Magee, a DOB spokeswoman, said Monday that the agency's Padlock Enforcement Unit is scheduled to inspect the Washington Ave. junkyards, which they will do twice before a hearing is held on the matter.
That process can take up to six months to complete, she added.
In the meantime, Irons said he and his congregation will continue to stand up for their street.
“We’re a church that believes it’s not enough just to pray,” he said.