Donk the World

Philadelphia's car outlaws battle for respect on the streets.

By Christopher Maag
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 16 | Posted May. 19, 2009

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The short white man in the Toyota looks over and sees this car snorting up beside him at the stoplight in a cloud of tire smoke. The man’s eyes flash wide and the look on his face is: fear. Just look at it! That thing has simply enormous wheels. How do they even fit under the car—those shiny chrome disks blasting white waves of refracted sunlight bright enough to burn the human retina? The man can’t see who’s driving because of the blacked-out windows. The whole car is painted white, from its growling snout to its slope-backed tail, which somehow makes it even more menacing.


The light goes green. The long white Dodge turns away from Toyota man and into the Fairmount Park flats. But the turn doesn’t stop. It continues in this dreamy slo-mo—the car’s long white hood swims left and right. The engine howls and the rear end squishes sideways like it’s driving on a road of marshmallows. The car burns rubber for a good 20 seconds, then finally it lopes into a gravel parking lot just inside the flats. The doors pop out and open at 45 degrees, like a Lamborghini’s. About a hundred black men, all of them car fanatics, turn and say, “Damn! Who is that ?”


Out climbs Terrance Robinson, a massive security guard with three kids and a high-pitched laugh. He points to his car’s door locks, customized to resemble giant diamond rings. He laughs.


“Oh, yeah, lots of people think I’m a drug dealer in this car,” says Robinson, 34. “That’s all right. I do this because I love it.” 


Drug dealers do drive cars like this. And so do cops, garbage men, Philadelphia Eagles linebackers and barbers. The typical owner of a car like this is anybody who grew up poor in an American city, mostly African-American men but not exclusively, between the ages of 17 and about 45. They call their cars all kinds of names—boxes, bubbles, Monties, Cutties—based on different makes and shapes, but the most widely accepted term is “donk.” 


Theories of the term’s origins vary, but the most widely accepted etymology is that donk derives from “ba-donk-a-donk,” urban slang for a woman’s large, protruding posterior. 


And what all donks have in common is huge, eye-grabbing wheels. Aside from that, it’s one big free-for-all. Go ahead—donk your Dodge, your Hyundai, your Suzuki four-wheeler. Because if one hopes to understand these cars and the culture that has grown up around them—and, by extension, gain a little insight into class and status in a commercial culture where everything from ringtones to neighborhoodies to newspaper content can be individualized, customized, pimped-up and tricked-out—then Philadelphia’s urban car culture is a pretty good place to start.


“This is what it’s all about nowadays,” says Robinson. “You gotta personalize it, make it your own to get respect.”


Max Jean-Gilles is stuck. So is his friend and NFL teammate, Eagles offensive guard Nick Cole. Together they are 708 pounds of speed and power, but they’re not going anywhere today. All forward movement is blocked by a dozen shiny bass-booming V8 Fords and Chevrolets and Pontiacs all jammed into the parking lot of the Wheel Thing, a custom car shop on North Broad Street that is the financial and technological hub of Philadelphia donk culture. 


The football players are trying to decide how to fix Jean-Gilles’ white Cadillac Fleetwood. He fit the sedan with 26-inch rims, but now the beast can’t turn a corner without shredding its tires. And these tires cost $750 each. The Cadillac must be lifted four inches into the air, an engineering challenge complicated by the fact that Jean-Gilles packed a few thousand pounds of speakers, flat-screen TVs and air horns into the trunk. 


“I don’t know how I’m gonna do it yet,” says Drew Lake, the Wheel Thing’s custom suspension expert. “It’s going to be expensive. I do know that.”


It’s a busy day in the world of tricked-out rides, so Jean-Gilles and Cole sit in their SUVs going nowhere fast, their path blocked by Michael Jeffries and his busted-up blue Buick Regal, which sits on smallish, chrome wheels. 


“It’s springtime, so I gotta get my car hooked up, you know?” says Jeffries, 41, a barber. He opens the trunk to show his sound system to Steve, the Wheel Thing’s top stereo man. Jeffries explains that the stereo turns to mush whenever he cranks the bass. Steve, who refuses to give his last name, says he can fix it with $950 worth of subwoofers and amplifiers.


Jeffries opens a wad of $20 bills in his hand and says, “Man, I ain’t got but $550.” 


So they haggle out a compromise, halving the number of speakers. But even now, the football players aren’t free to leave because Karim Ali’s silver Ford Expedition SUV sits in front of them on the sidewalk. Some joker tried to steel Ali’s 24-inch wheels last spring, so today he’s here to buy new hubcap screws. The truck has 15 speakers, three amplifiers and a television cradled in the stereo console. Next he wants a 20-inch fold-down TV and an Xbox 360 with wireless controllers.


And the oversized, $5,500 wheels? Well, it’s not what some people think.


“People look at the rims and say, ‘drug dealer,’” says Ali, “which is a big misconception. Everybody wants their car to look nice.”


Ali and his compatriots at the Wheel Thing know how people judge them, call them ghetto trash. A salesman from the Snap-On tool company, a middle-aged man whose sewn-in name patch reads “Dave,” walks around the Wheel Thing’s stereo shop. He shakes his head and grumbles.


“None of this bullshit makes any sense,” he says. By which he means the tens of thousands of dollars these men will blow today on wheels, stereos, alarms, et cetera. And of course he has a point. From a certain perspective, none of this makes any sense at all.


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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 16 of 16
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1. lalaw9833 said... on May 19, 2009 at 10:35PM

“It's good to know where some people's priorities stand in these tough economic times we are dealing with.”

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2. Eric said... on May 20, 2009 at 08:44AM

“When I see cars like the ones mentioned I don't think drug dealer. I think, "Wow, I guess that's how we spend our money." I understand the concept of growing up poor and wanted a "dope" car but come on now. I have yet to purchase my first car...why? Because I don't need it, I am a firm believer in public transportation and walking.

Although if I won something on the Price is Right, I would gladly accept it :).”

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3. MC1968 said... on May 20, 2009 at 11:02AM

“Yeah, meanwhile they are probably living in dumps.”

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4. Anonymous said... on May 20, 2009 at 11:48AM

“worst article ever, thse ppl are pathetic”

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5. floridastyle said... on May 20, 2009 at 12:10PM

“this style comes from florida, though the rims are not as large as the ones here in florida and the cars are not as lifted as those seen in the miami and orlando area. let the people enjoy their lifestyle how they wish. who cares if you think its a waste of money. we dont tell you how to spend your money on. you probably blow your money on iphones, ipods, xbox's and playstations. to each his own.”

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6. Anonymous said... on May 20, 2009 at 12:14PM

“First I think the statement - "The typical owner of a car like this is anybody who grew up poor in an American city, mostly African-American men but not exclusively, between the ages of 17 and about 45" is racist, in that the comments are direct to AA men between the ages of 17 & 45. Well than does that mean that every law binding, tax paying citizen in Phila who did or did not grow up in a poor city. AKA Ghetto is POOR. Dang, where are we going with such talk? So does that mean that "PW" stands for Poor Whites? and that's who reads it because of such ill-regarded comments the editor made.”

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7. Anonymous said... on May 20, 2009 at 12:14PM

“First I think the statement - "The typical owner of a car like this is anybody who grew up poor in an American city, mostly African-American men but not exclusively, between the ages of 17 and about 45" is racist, in that the comments are direct to AA men between the ages of 17 & 45. Well than does that mean that every law binding, tax paying citizen in Phila who did or did not grow up in a poor city. AKA Ghetto is POOR. Dang, where are we going with such talk? So does that mean that "PW" stands for Poor Whites? and that's who reads it because of such ill-regarded comments the editor made.”

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8. Anonymous said... on May 20, 2009 at 07:11PM

“@ MC1968: "Yeah, meanwhile they are probably living in dumps." ---------- Wow, you sure showed them, didn't you? I guess it's "If you can't join them, denigrate them," huh? Look, I don't think that this is the best way to spend one's money (and it's certainly not something that I would do myself, even if I could afford to do it), but I wouldn't look at one of these guys with their tricked-out cars and have my first thought be "They are probably living in dumps." No one's making you pay for it, so stop hating.”

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9. DJ CHOC said... on May 21, 2009 at 04:08PM

“wow it's crazy how i'm the one with that trick out tahoe in the pic and now i'm sitting here reading all your comments and all of u sound like the rest of these people in the streets i'm sorry haters if u can't do it like i can do it and to the people who think i live in the dumps go head and keep assuming because while u waiting for that next hot iphone to come out with all the extra features i will be riding right by you while u snapping pics for your next screen saver lol blog about that clown”

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10. Anonymous said... on May 28, 2009 at 04:26PM

“@DJ CHOC: You just confirmed every negative comment readers have made so far. I live in a neighborhood where one of these "donk" shops are. It is a complete blight on the community. There's constant loud noise, junk cars parked everywhere, trash all over the place, barking dogs, etc. But all that is ok, because you have your tricked out Tahoe and people who don't are "haters". The article was horribly written, not because of it's topic, but the way it seemed to reinforce firmly held stereotypes about inner city AA males. It also appeared to glorify how AA men with children, possibly living in low income neighborhoods, are frivolously spending money on cars. I found it striking at the beginning, the comparison of the white man's Toyota and the black man who had the car that stirred a look of fear on the white man's face. Unbelievable. Some of the terms and phrases used to describe the black man's car was snorting, blacked out windows, enormous, growling and menacing. I just can't understand why anyone would make a negative assumption about you? Not that it matters what others think, but how about a little consideration of the image and values you portray to our youth??? How about contributing positively to the neighborhoods you seem to selfishly do business in??? I have more suggestions, but I guess I'm just a "hater". I'm curious to know how proud you will be of that Tahoe twenty years from now.”

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11. DONK KINGS said... on Jun 8, 2009 at 11:05AM

“WE DO THESE LIFT KITS! www.donkkings.com”

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12. ChevyRidinHI said... on Jul 31, 2009 at 12:19PM

“People spend their money how they want. Some lift trucks some lift cars some fix up hot rods, lowriders the list goes on. In the end we are all the same. MEN WITH THE LOVE FOR CARS. On another note. As far as cars with big rims goes. I didnt grow up poor, in the ghetto, or slums. I am 24 and I make $85000 a year working for the government. I am in Pensacola, FL just to pinpoint my location.”

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13. Evan Yates said... on Sep 6, 2010 at 06:40PM

“What a bs article and borderline racist. Christopher Maag totally took what I told him out of context and twisted around my words to make it seem like I was talking negatively about these cars. Christopher called me pretending to do a positive article about a new trend he was noticing and contacted myself and others so he would have the proper side of the story, or so he led us to believe. I should have just let you do your own research but I figured I would help you set the record straight, in hopes this particular culture would get some respect. Christopher, you need to man up and admit that you LIED. The MAIN thing I told you is that this particular culture IS NOT CALLED 'DONK'. I mentioned THAT many times, Christopher. I told you exactly what the definition of each type of vehicle were. I should have known this type of article would be the result. Very shady, Christopher.”

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14. Frustrated said... on Sep 6, 2010 at 11:00PM

“This article is a fail in so many ways. Considering the fact that I've been involved in this "game" since it started, I'll educate you a little bit. First off, the term "donk" refers to 71-76 Chevy Caprices and Impalas ONLY. Donk does not refer to wheels. You cannot "donk" a Cutlass. You can't "donk" anything. A donk = 71-76 Caprices/Impalas and that's it. Anything else is just a car on big rims. The term was actually derived from "dunk" which referred to the way the Imapalas/Caprices rear-ends were "dunked" down in the back. The 71-76 Caprices sat with this stance from the factory. The term didn't come from "ba-donk-a-donk". That's just a ridiculous assumption. LOL. Smack yourself. Next time you want to know about this "culture" then ask somebody from South Florida, the home of it.”

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15. fuk_your_article_cuz said... on Sep 6, 2010 at 11:58PM

“This article is as gay as the cracker who wrote it. Ol lollipop sucking, childrens isle book store creepin whitey”

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16. Matic said... on Sep 7, 2010 at 12:25PM

“This is honestly one of the most condescending, misleading articles I have ever read. Pure garbage. I hope they kept this bullshit online. The "journalist" should be ashamed. To write a good article you need to submerse yourself in the culture. This shit sounds like something who hung around but was scared to ask or say too much would write.”

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