President Trump will take his final ride from the White House Wednesday to settle into his Twitter-less Florida dotage. Most New Yorkers will say good riddance. But behind Gotham’s smug self-righteousness over its wayward scion, the city should remember: New York made Trump, and it made him exactly what he is.
If small misdemeanors beget high crimes, under the broken-windows theory of policing, New York could have policed Trump decades ago and avoided the national ignominy of two impeachments.
How did the future president come to fame? When he destroyed the Art Deco facade of the Bonwit Teller department store in 1980 to make way for Trump Tower, he wasn’t well-known. The Times described him as a “real-estate developer” and didn’t get to his name until the fifth paragraph.
Nowhere in the Times’s handwringing over Trump’s destruction of the Met-worthy sculptures did the paper acknowledge that the city government could have avoided it, by landmarking the outside of the building. Trump knew that when it came down to it, the city didn’t really care — and he was right.
It wasn’t until the mid-’80s, though, that the myth of Trump as a civic-minded leader who got things done emerged. And how did that happen?
Gross New York City incompetence, is how.
Since the early ’70s, the city had planned a reconstruction of Central Park’s Wollman Rink, a Moses-era ice-skating facility that was sinking. The city finally closed the rink in late 1980 for a $5 million rebuild, to take just a year. Another year went by, then another, then another, then two more — and the project ballooned to $12 million.
The savior? Trump.
In the summer of 1986, he swooped in and offered to rebuild the rink in time for fall, on a new $3 million budget — and delivered below this price tag. Mayor Ed Koch joked, “I am now renting him out to other cities.”
Trump, through this no-bid contract, had gotten exactly what he wanted: “I’m not used to having nice things said about me.” For years after, the answer to everything from falling-down homeless hotels to slow post-9/11 rebuilding was: Let Trump take over.
Lost in the adulation for this miracle-working was the truth. Building a skating rink is not that hard.
New York had failed because it had embarked on a bizarre, untested scheme for a rink that would be frozen in winter and turn into a naturalistic pond in summer (kind of like, 20 years later, an Oculus downtown that was supposed to open and close its roof in response to changing light conditions).
This simple project also fell prey to New York’s Byzantine construction laws, as well as contractor overbilling.
By the time Trump showed up with his offer, the Koch administration had already decided to scrap the whole thing and start over, trying the usual way for building a skating rink; Trump’s rescue was superficial.
The mayor and top city officials let Trump take over anyway, because they could use the showman for their own showmanship — and distract everyone from their own failings. With fickle and finite attention on Trump, Koch and others escaped blame.
The same infrastructure failings had led to things like cables of the Brooklyn Bridge snapping onto a Kyoto photographer in 1981, killing him.
Moving ahead in time, what about Trump’s closest associates? Three years ago, the city’s Department of Buildings levied Kushner Companies, past and likely future home base of the president’s son-in-law, with a six-figure fine for falsely filing construction permits at least 42 separate times.
Fraudulent construction self-certification: just the way New York does business, with little long-term blowback for the perpetrators. Former Trump fixer Michael Cohen’s property firm faces similar allegations.
Paul Manafort, Trump’s federally convicted former campaign chief, whom the president pardoned last year? To make extra cash in the mid-2010s, Manafort converted a downtown condo into an illegal short-term hotel rental — another common violation that New York inconsistently enforces. Contempt for the law doesn’t confine itself to federal crimes.
Where did Trump learn to exploit long-term government failures, turning them into an opportunity for demagoguery? Don’t blame the president’s voters for Trump’s rise to power. He and his cronies learned everything they needed to know from Trump’s hometown.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor of City Journal.