NEW YORK — Donald Trump took one look at city workers planting a 10-foot-tall tree in his honor in Central Park and urged them to deliver a message to City Hall.
Tell the mayor, a worker recalled Trump snarling in so many indelicate words, that he could shove that tree into a part of his anatomy otherwise unaccustomed to harboring vegetation.
The “Trump Tree,” as christened in 1986 by an aide to Mayor Edward I. Koch, was intended to acknowledge the billionaire for rebuilding the Wollman ice rink at whiplash speed after the city had squandered millions of dollars and six years on the project.
But Trump “was expecting something more like the tree at Rockefeller Center,” recalled Henry Stern, who was parks commissioner in 1986. “He was upset when he saw it. He thought he was being teased, but it wasn’t so. It was a perfectly respectable tree.”
Fresh from the park’s nursery, the Japanese pine eventually grew to 40 feet alongside the rink, where it remains, unmarked, with a clear view of Trump Tower, whose owner has upended the 2016 presidential campaign.
As a candidate, Trump, who did not respond to requests for an interview, has generated rousing poll numbers and boisterous crowds, with many of his supporters touting him as a refreshing, towel-snapping alternative to the same old, same old.
Yet, long before he became a political upstart, Trump’s theater-in-the-round was New York City, his home town, the incubator for his evolution into a television star, casino king and worldwide brand.
Here is where Trump became “The Donald,” a headline-spewing smokestack, his narrative defined by roaring political feuds (Koch once referred to him as “greedy, greedy, greedy”); spectacular scandal (“Best Sex I’ve Ever Had,” crowed his mistress in a New York Post headline); and fierce opposition from civic groups appalled by his skyline-altering projects (“Trump Tower,” for example, not to be confused with “Trump World Tower,” not to be confused with “Trump International Hotel and Tower”).
In previous generations, Trump’s brutish tone, if not his three marriages, probably would have doomed his presidential ambitions (especially as a Republican). More problematic, perhaps, would have been his identity as a New Yorker, an altogether abrasive, not to mention liberal species that Americans have largely rejected in national elections.
But Trump’s current success may be new evidence that Americans view New York with a certain admiration, especially after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, made the city the object of worldwide affection.
“New York arrogance was not a virtue until 2001,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant based here. “New York is in vogue. Thank you, Seinfeld. Thank you, all these television shows that make New York a city of levity. And along comes Donald Trump, the embodiment of all that. He’s more fun than the Staten Island Ferry, and he says things no one believes he’s saying.”
The city forever has been a playground for outlandish, caustic types such as Koch and Al Sharpton, Rudolph Giuliani and George Steinbrenner, perennial tabloid rogues who have inspired a blend of respect and wrath.
“He seemed like a caricature,” said Kurt Andersen, editor of the now-defunct Spy magazine, which branded Trump the “short-fingered vulgarian” in the 1980s. “He was the rich guy, happy to be rich. Unconflicted. The total me-ness of his act was extraordinary.”
To New Yorkers questioning whether actual life exists beyond the city’s borders, Trump’s foray into national politics is evidence not of his power, but of his irrelevance in the only town that matters.
“Billionaires are a dime a dozen in New York, and Trump had to run for president because he’s not rich enough to stand out anymore,” sniffed Mitchell Moss, a New York University professor of urban policy.
“No self-respecting billionaire would spend more than a minute in Iowa. But Trump is doing it because this is a way to make his mark.”
Trump’s mark in New York is as indelible as his many towers, and New Yorkers did not need to hear his fulminations about, say, Mexican immigrants to have already formed impressions of him.
“An egotistical SOB,” bellowed Benet Doloboff, a retired accountant, citing grievances that include the Trump project that screwed up his view of the Hudson River and led to the closure of the West 72nd Street exit — his exit — on the West Side Highway.
Walk east to West 59th Street and Central Park West and here’s Sonom Tsering, 37, a street vendor, recalling that he admired Trump until the mogul installed a phalanx of bulky planters that blocked peddlers from selling outside Trump Tower.
Tsering moved his table to 59th Street, across from the Trump International Hotel and Tower, where he sells photos of the Chrysler building, the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, but nothing that includes the letters T-R-U-M-P.
“No one would buy them,” he said.
In Harlem, New York state Sen. Bill Perkins (D) keeps a 26-year-old Trump artifact in a frame on his office wall as a reminder of what he considers the developer at his worst. It’s the full-page ad Trump bought in the city’s four newspapers in 1989 after police questioned a group of African American teenagers suspected of raping and beating a female jogger in Central Park.
“BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!” blared a headline over a letter in which Trump referred to “roving bands of wild criminals” and declared: “They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.”
“He was like a one-man lynch mob,” Perkins said. “It was not a moment of civic righteousness that propelled him to do that. It was the Donald Trump Show for whatever misguided purposes he had.”
The five teens originally implicated in the attack were later exonerated.
New York is too large and diverse for universal agreement. On First Avenue, near the United Nations, the sign at the entrance to Beekman Bar and Books reads, “SIR DONALD TRUMP.” Raju Mirchandani, the Beekman’s owner, said he’s getting endless grief for the sign from patrons who vow never to return.
The sign stays.
“He’s a genius,” said Mirchandani, praising Trump’s business acumen and political views. “I just never thought he’d make it this far.”
Three blocks away, Trump erected a 72-story apartment building, unleashing outrage among neighbors who found themselves robbed of their views of the Chrysler building, among other landmarks.
Paul Rosen, 53, a comedy club sales manager, said he has nothing against Trump World Tower, as the building is called, because “it didn’t block my view,” and he said he thinks Trump’s campaign for president “is fine.”
But he added: “What he spews is not fine,” which is why Rosen, at that moment, stood outside Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue.
In the lobby, famous for its pink marble, a Trump employee sold Trump books, Trump teddy bears, Trump hats, and Trump perfume. Outside, Rosen peddled bumper stickers bearing the billionaire’s unmistakable visage and his unrepentant hairstyle.
“We Shall Overcomb,” read the stickers.
Twenty miles south of Trump Tower, Brooklyn’s Neptune Avenue is lined with auto repair shops, elevated train tracks, a liquor store, a pizza parlor, and a complex of 23-story apartment buildings that are a testimonial to Trump’s New York roots.
His father, Fred C. Trump, amassed a fortune building middle-class housing in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. At Trump Village in Coney Island, Fred Trump was a quiet presence who came and went in a navy blue Cadillac, his arrival signaled by the license plate “FCT.” Some days, he could be found parked outside the McDonald’s, waiting for his driver to bring him lunch.
“We really loved this man,” said Leslie Turton, a janitor at Trump Village starting in 1975. “When you saw him, you didn’t have to get up and run. He treated you like a human being. He’d shake your hand and tell you to go home – you did your work for the day.”
A couple of blocks away, Seth Steigbigel, a retired social worker, sat on a bench in a Mets jersey with “Seaver” stitched on the back. He said he considered Fred Trump an authentic New Yorker “because he knew Brooklyn.”
As for Fred’s famous son, Steigbigel said: “There are two New Yorks: the city — Manhattan — where the people with money live, and then the rest where the working class lives. Donald doesn’t know Brooklyn. He doesn’t know the working people. He knows Manhattan.”
Fred Trump provided financial resources when Donald entered the Manhattan real estate market in the 1970s and “redefined what it meant to be a New York builder,” said Wayne Barrett, a Trump biographer. “We never had someone play it so boldly and brazenly and with such great glamour. The more visible it was, the more he wanted to do it.”
Donald Trump’s first splash in Manhattan was in 1975, when the city was on the verge of bankruptcy. He bought a dilapidated hotel next to Grand Central Terminal, which he rebuilt as a sleek, modern Grand Hyatt that the New York Times described as “an out-of-towner’s vision of city life.”
His father’s political connections helped procure tax abatements for the project that were derided in some quarters. But no one questioned the hotel’s public relations value at a time when Americans viewed New York as a dump. Soon, reporters were fawning over New York’s newest star, describing Trump’s Cadillac (license plate: “DJT”), his “dazzling white teeth” and referring to him as “movie star handsome.”
A few years later, he stripped his name across Trump Tower on famously elegant Fifth Avenue, alongside Tiffany & Co., appalling those who viewed his glass high-rise as the equivalent of sticking a gold tooth in Queen Elizabeth’s smile.
To make room for his tower, Trump razed Bonwit Teller and, in the process, destroyed a pair of Art Deco friezes that curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art had wanted to preserve.
Architectural purists and editorial writers dropped their proverbial tea cups.
Although he later expressed “regret” for the demolition, Trump took pains to point out that the negative coverage created free publicity and helped him sell apartments.
“Bonwit Teller established him as a bad guy,” said Kent Barwick, then chairman of New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. “Afterwards, rightly or wrongly, there was a question of trust.”
From his new apartment at Trump Tower, a penthouse triplex, Trump had an unobstructed view of Central Park, and the city-run Wollman ice rink that year after year remained shuttered and broken.
By 1986, Trump couldn’t take the view anymore. He volunteered to oversee the rebuilding of the rink — an offer that then-Mayor Koch accepted — then starred at a parade of his own news conferences, crowing about the project’s progress.
When the rink reopened two months early, Trump was the toast of New York, portrayed as the can-do maestro in a dysfunctional city. “It was the only thing he did that was praised and approved by everyone,” said Joyce Matz, a New York preservationist and perennial Trump critic.
Trump, recalled Stern, parks commissioner at the time, wanted the city to name the rink for him. Instead, Stern offered the “Trump Tree,” which the tycoon, in “The Art of the Deal” dismissed as one of “the ugliest, scrawniest little trees you’re ever likely to see.”
Whatever goodwill New Yorkers felt toward Trump was mixed with the fury he provoked with plans to build a wall of skyscrapers that would include the world’s tallest building — 150 stories — on Manhattan’s West Side waterfront.
“I looked at this monster and I knew this was the death knell,” recalled Roberta Gratz, a leader of the opposition who writes about architecture.
Then, over the course of a few years, the city’s economy soured, Trump’s marriage to his glamorous, tabloid-magnet first wife, Ivana, unspooled, and his finances tanked. Suddenly, if ever so briefly, his foot-stomping swagger turned into a soft-shoe willingness to compromise.
Instead of 150 stories, he agreed to build nothing more than 48 floors and add a 21-acre park, setting the stage for a 13-block development that some in the neighborhood still refer to acidly as Trumpistan long after the developer sold his stake.
Downtown, in Soho, Sean Sweeney, 69, still feels a sense of euphoria nearly a decade after his neighborhood’s fierce battle with the magnate over his plan to build the Trump Soho Hotel.
“I have caused Donald Trump unnecessary anxiety, and I want that on my gravestone,” Sweeney said.
Enough time has passed that he can admit to being “entertained” by Trump’s bombast and found himself agreeing with Trump on issues such as immigration.
Yet, whatever commonality he may feel inevitably dissipates when Sweeney gazes out his living room window at the Trump Soho Hotel, a 46-story glass monolith a half-mile away, dwarfing a vista once defined by low-rise buildings and rooftop water towers.
Donald Trump, the candidate, may eventually fade. But the ego-celebrating edifices are not going anywhere.
“Look at the top of that building,” Sweeney said, eyeing in the distance the hotel’s roof and its jumble of irregular lines.
“What’s going on with it? What is that thing? It looks like his hair, you know?”