The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trumps were once one of many immigrant families in the working-class Bronx

A photograph of Fred Trump sits on President Trump’s desk. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

President Trump’s grandfather, Friedrich Trump, never intended to come back to the United States.

He’d lived here for a few years, first staying with his sister in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and then moving to the state of Washington, where he became a citizen in 1892. He later returned to Germany to marry Elizabeth Christ, whom he brought back to New York. Elizabeth didn’t like the city, though, so the couple moved back to Germany where, it seems, he planned to stay.

German authorities, however, took issue with the fact that Friedrich Trump had conveniently been gone for the period in which he was eligible to be conscripted into the military, as author Gwenda Blair wrote in her 2000 book “The Trumps.” So Friedrich and his family — his pregnant wife and their daughter, also named Elizabeth — were forced to return to the United States. They arrived back in New York City in July 1905. Three months later, the president’s father, Fred Trump, was born.

There are several odd echoes between Friedrich’s life and his grandson’s politics: The issues with the draft, the forced emigration. But there’s a more interesting second layer, as well. Friedrich Trump was himself an immigrant to the United States, moving into the Bronx at a time when it was densely populated with German immigrants and their children. It’s an area that’s still home to many immigrant families — but mostly not immigrants from Germany.

Fred Trump was born at home on Oct. 11, 1905. Where “home” was, though, is confusing. His birth certificate identifies the address as 539 East 177th Street in the Bronx, an address that does not now exist. At some point, the stretch of 177th Street where the Trump home was located was renamed Tremont Avenue. A street map from a 1915 insurance company atlas shows the block on which the address would have been located.

You’ll notice, though, that the street numbers end at 535. The lot next to the building that occupies 531 to 535 177th Street (Tremont) was identified as an “air dome,” a temporary structure built by inflating a flexible material with pressurized air. (Earlier maps don’t show buildings on that site.) The air dome is now gone, replaced by a low building that houses a pawnshop and Chinese restaurant.

It seems unlikely that this is where Trump’s father was born. What’s more, Blair’s book indicates that the Trump home was adjacent to the Third Avenue elevated train line, suggesting that the building at right in the below archival photo of the now-demolished Tremont-177th Street elevated station is the actual site of Fred Trump’s birth. A sign over the main entrance identifies it, as in the insurance map, as the Bronx Building.

These days, the building is mostly empty. The top two floors are being leased as potential office space, presumably appealing given that the Bronx borough hall is just across Tremont Avenue to the south. If Trump’s family lived on the third or fourth floors, the apartment where the president’s father was born is now an antiseptic space ready for a small business to move in. If they lived on the second floor, their home is now an event space, used regularly for birthdays and quinceaneras.

The first floor is currently occupied primarily by a small store, Twakl Family Deli. “Twakl” is Turkish for “relying on God,” according to Mohammed Abas, 28, whose father owns the store.

Abas is himself an immigrant like many of those who live in the surrounding community.

“Basically you have Mexicans, Hondurans, Colombians, Dominicans, Arabs, Yemenis, stuff like that,” he said when The Washington Post reached him by phone. (He is from the west African country of Mauritania, a region once disparaged by Trump.) Abas described the area as poor, with many of those living nearby relying on public assistance to make ends meet. Trump’s presidency hadn’t done much for them, he added, since poor people aren’t “moving their money on Wall Street.”

He said he understood why Trump focused on immigrants during the 2016 campaign as a way to entice middle-income voters. But he was also unnerved by the rhetoric.

“When he won I started thinking about moving back to another country, honestly,” Abas said. “It was scary.”

As for Trump’s father coming from an immigrant community? “The irony,” Abas said, “is not missed.”

Nor was it missed by Lloyd Ultan, Bronx’s borough historian, who spoke by phone with The Post on Thursday.

The path followed by the Trumps was a common one for German immigrants at the turn of the last century, Ultan said. Friedrich Trump had lived with his sister on the Lower East Side when he first came to the U.S., but after marrying, joined her in the Bronx. That move almost certainly followed the then-recent extension of the subway into the northern borough.

“That, of course, caused a massive shift of population from the overcrowded Lower East Side and areas of Manhattan to the wide open spaces of the Bronx,” Ultan said. “Wherever the subway lines were, that is where developers started to build apartment houses and shops and things like that.”

Friedrich and Elizabeth’s first home in the Bronx (before she got homesick) was at 1006 Westchester Avenue — right near his sister and immediately adjacent to an elevated train line. The building, Blair writes in her book, had “hot water, steam heat, electricity, and a private bathroom,” the sorts of rarities that a British visitor to the Bronx in 1912 noted did “not even exist for the wealthy in Europe.” Friedrich Trump wasn’t poor, but his work in those days was modest, Blair writes, mirroring what he did when he first came to the U.S.: working as a barber and managing restaurants and hotels.

The Bronx was for decades seen as an aspirational destination, a “step up the socio-economic ladder,” Ultan said. German immigrants began migrating north in the 1850s, peaking around 1900 or so, shortly after the borough joined New York City. Soon, the most commonly spoken language in the borough was German. Ultan noted one metric by which German influence could be measured: local politicians. The first borough president was Louis Haffen, whose father was from Bavaria.

It continued to attract immigrants and new arrivals as the years passed. By 1930, with more new arrivals from Eastern Europe, about half the borough was Jewish. Shortly after the end of World War II, when the most-desired living arrangement changed from a subway-adjacent apartment to a suburban home accessible with a car, people began moving out of the Bronx. When they did so, they left behind affordable homes for a new generation of arrivals from Spanish-speaking countries and areas of Manhattan like Harlem. The South Bronx, once heavily German, became heavily black and Hispanic.

The population of the Bronx is probably more heavily immigrant now than it was at the time of Fred Trump’s birth, Ultan said, in part because so many of the Germans living in the borough at that point were second-generation. After the Bronx’s reputation faltered in the 1970s (Ultan mentioned “The Bronx is Burning” with something like a sigh), it is again the fastest-growing borough in New York.

The Trump apartment at 1006 Westchester is no longer there, torn down at some point in favor of what Ultan called a “taxpayer” — a single-story string of commercial shops that would earn a leasing company much more in revenue. That specific address is now a nail salon, where a dozen employees of Asian descent worked on Thursday afternoon, assisting a small group of customers. Most of the employees spoke no English, one informed me, and most of the customers weren’t interested in talking.

Ashley G., 29, was happy to talk as she smoked a cigarette outside the store before her nail treatment. Of Puerto Rican heritage, hair styled in thin black braids, she said she’d lived in the neighborhood her whole life. She was surprised to learn that the Trump family got its start there as well.

“I thought they started in Manhattan or something,” she said. “I thought they were always rich.”

I asked her how it made her feel.

“Proud,” she said. “That means that maybe we could make it out one day.”

Abas seemed similarly inspired. Friedrich Trump may not have intended to return to the United States, but he did, and his son — the future father of a president — appears to have been born in that building on what is now Tremont Avenue. For Abas, the irony of the third generation Trump’s politics was secondary to another remarkably Trumpian impulse.

I asked him what his initial response was to the news that Fred Trump might have been born in that building.

“My initial response?” he said. “It’s going to give me some good publicity.”