Jon-Nicholas Kiouvas has been working at McGuinness Management Corporation, a taxi dispatcher at the corner of McGuinness Boulevard and Huron Street just south of the Pulaski Bridge, since 1996. "I'm the runner," he says, "Meaning I run around and do everything." For the last seven months, Kiouvas has come into work at 7:30 a.m., and methodically moved dozens of unused yellow cabs out of their parking spaces on surrounding residential and industrial streets, in order to avoid parking tickets.
When he can, Kiouvas moves the cabs directly from one spot to another while still abiding by alternate side parking rules. More often, he parks them in the dispatcher's crowded lot temporarily. When street cleaning ends at 1:00 p.m. dispatchers, mechanics, and body men pitch in to help Kiouvas get all of the cabs back onto the street—quickly, before neighbors' cars fill in. Otherwise, when the 5:00 p.m. shift change rolls around, the lot is at capacity and there's no room for drivers to pull in and hand over their keys.
Dozens upon dozens of yellow cabs have been shuffled this way for the better part of the year, throughout the blocks contained by Huron Street to the south, Freeman to the north, Provost to the east and Manhattan Avenue to the west. McGuinness Management is the heart of what one frustrated neighbor recently dubbed the "taxi graveyard."
Hossam Yossri has been working at McGuinness for five years. "Business is getting so bad, that people are just dropping their cabs off here," he told us on Tuesday. "Everyone is going to Uber, where they don't have to pay a lease, and they don't have to deal with a dispatch."
Recently, Yossri says a handful of drivers have been quitting every week. Those who drive their own cabs (instead of leasing from McGuinness's fleet) have been ditching them on the lot, where they end up in Kiouvas's Sisyphean rotation. McGuinness has 341 associated medallions, dispersed across the five boroughs. A year ago, only 50 of them sat on his lot. As more and more drivers quit, the number has crept up to 171, and counting.
As the number of drivers continues to dwindle, between 80 and 120 cabs sit empty on any given shift. Yossri recalls one day recently when there were only enough drivers to send out 24 cabs, and 147 of them sat empty.
Jon-Nicholas Kiouvas (Emma Whitford/Gothamist)
"Our waiting room used to be full between shifts. You couldn't even hear yourself talk, because it was so noisy," said Yossri. "We'd have drivers waiting three hours to get in a cab, and then we'd run out and have to turn them away."
Now there's a promotion posted outside the dispatcher's office offering two lease-free shifts to anyone who manages to refer a new driver. After the 5:00 p.m. shift change, dozens of keys are still hanging on their hooks.
Moving cabs that spend the rest of the day out of commission is a thankless job. Recently, Kiouvas has started photocopying his own hand-drawn, aerial map of the lot and surrounding blocks in order to keep track of where he parks. He'll grab three sets of keys at a time from the dispatcher, running back and forth from sidewalk to lot. Kiouvas says that neighbors have called the police on him. A few weeks ago, someone threw eggs at several cabs, and Kiouvas had to clean it up. Every once in a while, he'll get a ticket.
There's no alternate side parking on Provost Street, so cabs parked along it only have to move for street cleaning between midnight and 3:00 a.m. on Mondays and Thursdays. The overnight dispatcher and mechanic are assigned to the task. McGuinness also owns the Gulf station across the street, so the overnight pump attendant chips in, too.
But this week, the entire stretch of Provost was blocked off for "The Mysteries of Laura," an NBC show staring Debra Messing. Yossri crammed as many of the taxis as possible into the lot, and dispersed the rest around the neighborhood.
"It's gonna get worse," he said. "In the garage, we've actually been piling the cabs on top of each other on car lifts."
Keys to all of the cabs didn't go out on Wednesday's p.m. shift (Emma Whitford/Gothamist)
Gus Kodogiannis, 66, wears two gold crosses and smokes cigarettes end-to-end inside the dispatcher's office. He immigrated to New York from Greece in the late 1960s, started driving a cab in 1970 at age 19, and opened McGuinness Management Corp. in 1986. "Honestly, yes, it's Uber," he said on Wednesday evening.
"We've lost 40% of our business in the last year and a half," he said. "They say yellow cab drivers are bums. But let me ask you this—who's driving Uber?" Leaning against a cab, Kodogiannis swept his hand across his bumper-to-bumper lot. "Maybe two more will go out on shift tonight."
According to Kodogiannis, Uber's got "the money and the lobbyist and the politicians." (Granted, cab owners and medallion brokers were some of Mayor de Blasio's biggest donors when he ran for mayor in 2013.) Last month, the ride-sharing company used its assets to wage a PR war against city hall, and managed to push back legislation that would have temporarily capped its growth.
Asked if he believes that Uber is indeed chipping away at the taxi industry, TLC spokesman Allan Fromberg said, "Of course, we've heard that drivers like the flexibility Uber offers," adding, "We are in the midst of re-evaluating our lease rules to provide yellow drivers with this kind of flexibility."
Kodogiannis also blames green cabs for the slowdown. He won't add them to his fleet as a point of pride. Khalid Usmari has been driving for McGuinness for 25 years. "First the green cab affected us, and then Uber," he said. "I used to make $400 in a shift, and take home around $300. Now it's dropped down to $250 total, taking home barely $100 a night."
Gus Kodogiannis in his lot (Emma Whitford/Gothamist)
Asked if he's tried to rent a second lot for his empty cabs, Kodogiannis said he hasn't been able to find one within walking distance. "I get a lot of complaints," he admitted. "And I don't blame the neighbors. Where are they going to put their cars?" So he's in the process of drafting a letter to the medallion owners he leases from. If things keep getting worse, "Either I'm going to ask to reduce my rent, or they have to come pick up their medallions," he said.
Kodogiannis hasn't added a new medallion to his fleet in two years. This week, eight of them sat in a dusty pile in the dispatch office, since he can't justify buying new cabs to affix them to. The TLC mandates that out-of-commision medallions have to be sold within six months. "But who's going to buy them?" Yossri echoed the sentiment, shaking his head. "There's no point in these stupid things," he said.
McGuinness Management hasn't experienced such a serious slowdown since the weeks after September 11, 2001. Then, according to Kodogiannis, "nobody was driving. The city was blocked in a lot of places, and people were nervous." But that episode only lasted for one month.
Everyone we spoke to on the lot—drivers, managers, dispatchers— acknowledged that August is slow for the industry, regardless, because many drivers go on vacation. But not this slow. "I've never seen it like this," said Chris, who's been the dispatch manager for 15 years.
Still, Kodogiannis is hopeful that business will pick up after Labor Day. One driver, Refat, started at McGuinness only four weeks ago. "The lease is not bad here," he said, shrugging.
Ben Hamedane has been driving for McGuinness for two years. "A lot of drivers are quitting and leaving because of Uber, but I'm not one of them," he said on Tuesday. "I make my money. I drive all over the city and I've got my own customers." As he spoke, he grabbed a set of keys for the night shift. One of those customers was out in the lot waiting for him.