Donald Trump’s legacy of luxury

Published Aug 16, 2015


London - As he continues to up-end the Republican Party and defy the normal rules of political gravity, Donald Trump was drawn into a brief reflection on the man who first set him on the road to fame, frivolity and fabulous wealth - his altogether more level-headed father, Fred C Trump.

The elder Mr Trump, who died aged 93 in 1999, in theory offers his son a useful narrative of a family empire. The business, while not entirely altruistic in its mission, nonetheless was focused, notably in the years after World War 2, on providing simple but decent housing to New York's working middle class - as well as returning soldiers - frequently on the back of federal housing programmes.

“My legacy has its roots in my father's legacy,” the mogul turned presidential hopeful acknowledged, responding to a Washington Post examination of the very expansive footprint that Trump Sr left on New York City, mostly in the form of red-brick housing complexes in its outer boroughs, like the very large Trump Village completed in Coney Island in 1964.

The younger Trump, of course, took the business in a different direction, aiming higher - which is to say skyscrapers. While his father put his name only on that one Coney Island development, he has stuck it atop luxury towers everywhere. His first trophy project, the Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, is where he announced his campaign in June.

In Mr Trump's mind, his success moving the family firm from its middle class roots to the unabashedly luxury end of the market offers voters an important measure of his brilliance. “Dreaming about building a skyscraper and actually getting it built are two very different scenarios,” he noted. “I know the difference. I understand the value of a blueprint and that can carry over into many endeavours.”

The message is easy to discern. The 69-year-old Mr Trump is a can-do guy who can do for America, or, as it says on his cap, “Make America Great Again”. Yet if the old rules do ever reassert themselves, he may face a problem. The transformation of Trump Industries from socially responsible to high-society rapacious could equally be seen as a symbol of one of the things that gets voters most exercised: income inequality.

This same sense of anxiety sparked last year's furore about the so-called “poor doors” in New York City, where developers attach a few affordable housing units to new luxury residential buildings, but with separate entrances for the tenants occupying them.

Mr Trump is one face of a housing crisis that bedevils New York, where the focus on luxury projects has meant the shutting out of the middle class.

Mr Trump does have his name attached to two of the most cherished landmarks in the city, the carousel and the Wollman ice skating rink, both in Central Park. Yet disclosures filed last month with the federal authorities showed that even they are first and foremost about cash receipts.

Since it took control of attraction in 2010, Trump Carousel LLC has generated $600 000 at $3 a ride. The rink, though, did much better - $8.7m earned in 18 months. (Have $11.25 ready if you want to get on the ice.)

Meanwhile, a golf course built with city money on an old stretch of rubbish-strewn wilderness on the south shore of the Bronx has also drawn attention for the contrast it offers between the deprived neighbourhoods it abuts and its country-club sensibilities. “Trumps Golf Course, a Lesson in Inequality”, read a recent New York Times headline.

In future, it might serve Donald well to pay tribute to Fred, a man who leveraged federal government subsidy programmes to build homes for those who most needed them. But his problem is clear. He abandoned that mission in favour of building homes for people who most often don't.


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