Cars transformed America’s landscape and cityscape—and hardly for the better. In 1925, a million vehicles jammed the nation’s junkyards. Before the decade was out, nearly three million cars a year were stopping in their tracks. “A good number ended up working as stationary engines to run farm equipment,” tells Tom McCarthy in Auto Mania. Old cars ended up as landfill, pushed into abandoned quarries or into foundations for new buildings. Along the Mississippi River cars found an afterlife bulking up levees.
“Wrecking and scrapping” became big business. But abandoned cars soon hogged the majority of dump space. So, more and more often they were simply left where they stopped. Best guess: by the mid-1960s, the nation had 30,000,000 car carcasses littering the landscape. That’s a 47-square-mile problem, big enough to blanket more than a third of the entire city of Philadelphia.
Abandoned cars were thought to be “breeding places for rats and mosquitoes” and, worse than eyesores, curbside wrecks “provided a prominent visual index” for the “deteriorating quality of urban life.”
In Detroit, Motor City itself, the number of abandoned cars grew from 2,000 in 1964 to 13,000 two years later. New York’s count quintupled between 1960 and 1963 and again between 1964 and 1969, growing to 70,000. By the late 1980s, New York’s population of abandoned cars would double. But then the New Yorkers successfully cracked down, heading into the Millennium with less than 10,000.
Hmmm. If New York could do it, figured the campaigning candidate John Street as the mayoral election of 1999 approached, certainly Philadelphia could, too.
Philadelphia’s own formidable backlog of abandoned cars also seemed countless, and bottomless. More than 12,500 had been hauled off the streets in 1985. Three years later, authorities towed twice that number. A decade later, 23,000 replacements sat curbside. What better a campaign promise than to rid the city of its most visible and most unwanted?
Through the Millennium Winter, Philadelphians counted curbside carcasses. Forty thousand. Though the target wasn’t moving, it was expanding. Every week, citizens called in another thousand.
Removing all the wrecks would be a Herculean effort, but Street was committed to “blight removal.” In addition to towing cars, he aimed “to raze dangerous houses and commercial buildings around town in a $250 million program” to be named the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative—NTI. And, as some liked to point out, it launched, in the Spring of 2000, a promise of “biblical” proportions, a gigantic 40,000-car disappearing act that would last for 40 days.
On the very first day 1,028 vehicles were hauled away from the streets of West and North Philadelphia. Authorities slapped large electric-green stickers onto “trashcars without vehicle identification numbers, those “valued at less than $500.” More than two dozen salvagers directing 127 tow-trucks targeted the stickered vehicles for immediate crushing. For every wreck removed and recycled, the city earned $25.
The whole operation depended on a healthy market for scrap steel, something that had been missing for many decades.
McCarthy writes: “The postwar scrap metal market peaked in 1956,” when 41,000,000 tons of scrap were sold “to domestic and foreign steel makers.” Soon after that, the scrap market collapsed. Steelmakers modernized, replacing open-hearth furnaces that could work with a higher proportion of scrap metal. “The new basic oxygen furnaces used just 20-25 percent scrap. This change alone effectively halved the steel industry’s demand for scrap metal. … When steelmakers began substantially to reduce their overall demand for scrap, the market…practically vanished.”
And American cities found themselves awash in abandoned cars.
Philadelphia salvagers sold their steel at the going rates, which plummeted from $80 to $55 a ton just before Mayor Street’s campaign got underway. The value of a “crushed Chevy” dropped by nearly a third.
So. Was Philly’s biblical-slash-millennial sweep the stuff of legend, or merely urban legend?
Depends who’s asking, who’s talking and how they’re framing the facts. In 2002, Mayor Street spoke of removing 100,000 cars. Before she left office, Councilwoman Marian Tasco reminisced NTI’s “removal of 224,886 abandoned cars.” Deborah Lynn Becher writes of a more modest, but still impressive, 60,000 disappearing cars. But Haverford College political scientist Stephen J. McGovern claimed the city towed 33,318 cars in forty days.
Not quite 40K in 40 days. But in its modest asymmetry, moving, crushing and recycling 33,318 abandoned cars has the makings of a good tale—and maybe even a believable one.
[Sources include: Tom McCarthy, Auto Mania: Cars, Consumers, and the Environment (Yale University Press, 2007); “Fighting the Abandoned Car Problem,” by Bill Price, Philadelphia Inquirer, August 20, 1989; “Street Plans Sweep of 40,000 Junk Cars Starting Monday,” by Cynthia Burton, Philadelphia Inquirer, March 29, 2000; “Abandoned Car Crushes Man Trying To Tow It Away On The 2d Day of Phila.’s Cleanup,” by Monica Yant and Maria Panaritis, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 5, 2000; “What’s Next For Street’s Towing Plan,” by Monica Yant, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 25, 2000.]