Meet at the southwest corner of 53rd Street and 6th Avenue, under the large statue across from the Hilton Hotel, the tour guide will be holding a “Social Justice Tours” sign.
That is what The Municipal Arts Society of New York website counsels, and indeed, Dan is there … Social Justice Tours being the non-profit he started three years ago, that is taking off quite nicely, nicely enough—thank you very much—to have its website hacked by someone with a Russian IP address. You might have a little trouble reaching them at socialjusticetours.com for at least the next week or so, until the volunteer IT guy gets things fixed.
But this much I could get from my web search “Social Justice Tours engages New Yorkers in critical dialogue by exposing injustice & highlighting inequality in an effort to encourage thought & inspire action.” So who better than to run a Jane’s Walk—the grassroots celebration of the famous urban activist Jane Jacobs—called Trump Walking Tour.
Sounds like the walking tour for me. Last week a tourist on 5th Avenue gingerly approached me in halting English to ask for directions to”Tower Trump?”, so maybe I should know a bit more about Trump’s New York than just simple directions when standing a half a block away from the famed (sometimes inflamed) building.
This is a tour about Trump history, not Trump presidency. Dan assures us that he has read four books about Donald Trump. We are going to stick to the facts about the man himself. But we also recognize that other agents—whether the shady underworld, the commercial banks, the criminal justice system, or failures of public policy—facilitated his rise: he is not just an individual.
His story shows us how the real estate industry has shaped New York into a billionaire’s city, in many ways trampling over the commoners, but not without observing some lessons about the importance of organizing and collectively fighting back against bullies and bulldozers.
This is a social justice tour after all.
“I have yet to have a Trump supporter on my tour.” The crowd of 16 New Yorkers cheers this opening line with approval, one proudly proclaiming “I’m a Never Trumper.” And we’re off.
The roots of the Trump wealth is in sex work. Frederich the grandfather comes to New York in the late 1800s dodging the draft in his native Germany, but quickly moves to Seattle running something called The Dairy restaurant, offering curtained rooms in the back for “sporting ladies.” He uses the same formula in The Yukon, mining the miners for their gold dust, and leaving town before the rush collapsed.
Grandpa Trump returns to Germany, but gets kicked out, returning to New York essentially as a refugee in the early 1900s where he starts a barber shop, something that certainly offers plenty of opportunity for “networking”, and is likely a crime front with possibly a brothel in the back. Fredrich dies in 1909 after a son, Fred, is born.
The first public mention of Fred is in a newspaper report of his arrest at a KKK rally, but he goes on to be a well-known developer, building as many as 29,000 housing units for the working class in Brooklyn and Queen’s, public housing with financing from the federal government.
One of his more famous tenants is the folk-singer Woody Guthrie, who lived in the Beach Haven Apartments in the early 1950s, and sang about the racist housing policies pursued by the landlord, “old man Trump.”
Eventually the Federal Government begins to probe Father Trump’s housing policies, using what we economists would call an “audit study”, separately sending white and black apartment hunters with similar credentials to apply for apartments. The audit finds that blacks are systematically turned away with no vacancy excuses. A massive lawsuit is brought down upon Trump the elder, the biggest in the country up to that time.
Donald has just graduated college, and in returning to the City befriends Roy Cohen, a lawyer who becomes a mentor encouraging him to strike back against the federal government. And so Donald arranges a press conference at the Hilton Hotel, right across where we are standing, on the northwest corner of 53rd and 6th, to announce a counter-suit. Eventually the matter is settled out of court.
Walk east down 53rd Street to 5th Avenue, and then north on 5th, crossing to the east side at 55th Street to view the St. Regis Hotel on the south side of 55th.
Okay, this is not a chronological tour of Donald Trump’s New York career, the next thing he did happens at 42nd Street, but we are sticking to the geography around 5th and 6th Streets, just below Central Park.
We are in the early 1990s now. A lot is happening in the world: the first Gulf war is heating up in Iraq, Nelson Mandela has just been released from a life long prison sentence in South Africa, … and in New York City? The headlines in the New York Post are consumed with a six-hour “lunch” that Donald had with Marla Maples at the St. Regis Hotel.
This is not kept discrete, after all Trump is married. The story is leaked to the Post, apparently by Trump, calling up reporters and using the name he gives his alter ego, either John Miller or John Baron, and then happily answering the inevitable calls from reporters for clarification.
This is Trump the man. Someone entirely focused on himself, trying to continually capture and amplify the high of seeing his name in the papers, something that first happened to him as a boy when a local newspaper, as a part of its regular community reporting, noted that he hit a homerun for his baseball team.
To the extent that Trump is religious, it is as a believer of Norman Vincent Peale, in the power of positive thinking, amped up to leave no room for self-reflection. He was first married in Peale’s church, and somewhat oddly his father Fred is the best man as he doesn’t really have friends.
You can get a sense of the personality in the book The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President. The following sad story presumably comes from this book, and is meant to illustrate a dangerous level of narcissism. Donald asks his toddler Don Jr.: “Who do you trust?” The boy responds: “I trust you Daddy.” “No,” the father says, “don’t trust anyone, not even me, only yourself.”
Return to 5th Avenue and turn right to head north to Trump Tower.
The building of Trump Tower in the early 1980s turned New Yorkers against the real estate mogul. A beloved department store stood on this site, the flagship store of Bonwit Teller & Co., and there was particular affection for the entrance area and a grill that was apparently an architectural gem.
Trump promised to save the grill, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art promised to incorporate it into the Museum’s collection. But the grill was destroyed, Trump saying that he consulted art experts and they told him that it had no artistic value.
It was also a trying experience for some of the demolition workers, 200 or so Polish immigrants nicknamed the Polish Brigade who toiled in dangerous working conditions only to feel they were severely underpaid and exploited. But through their union they fought back, and a contested lawsuit filed in 1983 dragged on and on, only settled in 1999. It was sealed. No charges laid, no fines paid.
Dan also tells a story about the concrete for the building, a tricky building material that has to be poured shortly after being produced, and how this continued to arrive in a timely way to the site. I did not get the details, nor the insinuation that this had something to do with Mafia control of this industry.
You have the right to visit Trump Tower through something called POPS: Privately Owned Public Spaces, a planning regulation that allows developers leeway to build taller buildings under the condition that public areas are built and maintained within them.
You can easily enter the building, visit cafés and bars, and ride an escalator up six floors. Though there is more, this has been reported to sometimes be contested terrain. At any rate, I walked in, and the accommodating doorman even gave me permission to take his picture.
Jewelry and empty boxes
Walk north along 5th avenue to 57th street, cross 5th and walk in a bit to stand alongside Bergdorf and Goodman, across the street from BULGARI.
Billionaire’s row is what New Yorkers call it, this stretch of 57th street book-ended, from Columbus Circle in the west to Park Avenue in the east, by towers to the sky, one of them purportedly the tallest residential tower in the hemisphere.
Money has reshaped this part of New York. But this stop in the tour is also about the sense of entitlement that convinces money it need not pay taxes, and a justice system that criminalizes poverty.
On the south of the street we are looking at BVLGARI, the high-end jeweler, where Trump and many others would buy their spouses, or I guess other acquaintances, stones worth tens of thousands of dollars. But with such purchases comes New York State retail taxes, and so the empty box scheme.
Buy the jewelry, have the lady walk out wearing it, and have the jeweler mail an empty box to an address in a state with much lower, or no, retail tax.
Eventually Bulgari and its executives are taken to court, charged, and either plead or are found guilty. Fines are paid, Mr. Bulgari goes to jail, but none of the customers—reportedly prominent citizens—are charged, or identified. Trump is implicated in this.
We are encouraged to imagine the course of presidential history if there had been a criminal record as part of the fallout.
Meanwhile everywhere beyond billionaires row, the number one criminal conviction is “turnstile jumping“, hopping over the entrance barricades in the subway stations to avoid paying the $2.75 fare … basically what many have suggested is the criminalization of poverty, an argument that recently led the City to halt prosecutions.
Too big to fail
Head north on 5th avenue, walking on the west side and standing in front of the Pultizer Fountain between 58th and 59th streets.
The Pulitzer Fountain anchors the plaza at the base of the southeast entrance to Central Park, and is flanked on its west side by the entrance to the Plaza Hotel, with huge flags of Saudi Arabia and India among those proudly displayed.
Trump buys the Plaza Hotel, but this is over-reach and he is on the verge bankruptcy. The banks, however, consider him too big to fail, and they support him to the tune of $45 million a month. Eventually he sells his majority shares.
Yet again, outsiders support him. This has been the case since the beginning, when he first bought The Commodore Hotel on 42nd Street, now known as the Grand Hyatt New York, with a major tax subsidy from the City. His empire has been publicly supported from the start, and there is a sense in which the tax system is used to actively incentivize real estate developers.
[On another note, the statue on top of the fountain is apparently Audrey Munson, the City’s first super-model who is immortalized repeatedly in Manhattan … another story of patriarchy worthy of its own tour.]
Learn to skate
Walk up 5th Avenue along the eastern edge of Central Park to the entrance at 61st Street. Stroll into the park, veering left and south, past the horse-drawn carriages and back into the Park to Wollman Rink.
I have to admit that one of the treats for a Canadian living in New York City is to take friends to Wollman Rink in Central Park, and teach them how to skate. Not only that, you can pretend to be super cool by avoiding the skate rental fee … as if all Canadians take their ice skates with them wherever they go.
When I first went there some years ago, the TRUMP name splashed across the boards surrounding the rink was a surprise to me: how is it he has the right to advertise in this otherwise public, ad-free park?
Public dysfunction, that is how. Wollman Rink was falling into disrepair, and either through lack of funding or through incompetence, the City administration was making a mess of it. Trump takes it on in the late 1980s, renovating on-time and under-budget, and returning a handsome profit in the first year of operation.
(Actually, the skate rentals to my mind are pretty steep, but then again I take my skates with me wherever I go.)
So what have we got here? The City of New York, and other governments, can give hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidizes to real estate developers, and they in turn thump their chests proudly about running successful businesses. They do all they can to avoid taxes, maybe even skirting the law. But the public sector doesn’t have the revenue or skills to maintain a skating rink?
Trump’s motives? Hardly altruistic. It is all ego: a challenge to a politician like Major Koch, to demonstrate private prowess and public incompetence.
Stand up to Bullies
There are other stories about Trump and Central Park, notably the case of the Central Park Five, but our tour ends at the base of the Park overlooking 100 Central Park, an apartment building now called Trump Parc, but largely a rent-controlled building when he bought it in the early 1980s.
He wanted the tenants out in order to demolish and rebuild, but they stood their ground and eventually won the right to stay. Apparently, his neglect of the tradition of placing a Christmas tree in the lobby earned him the moniker “Donald Humbug”, and it is certainly not a winnable public relations battle to harass elderly women by turning off their heat. Ahh … social justice at last.
[ This post is based on notes I made during the tour I took on May 5th 2018, but all the links to supporting information is provided by me. I apologize in advance if my notes are not entirely faithful to what was said on the tour, or if they are a misrepresentation in any way. Please feel free to use the comments section to suggest any corrections, or offer more information. All photographs are my own. ]