[Photography: Celeste Sloman, Rex]
With business mogul and reality TV star Donald Trump vying to be US president, Nick Leftley examines what his building reveals about him
Despite having lived in NYC for more than seven years, I’d never actually been inside Trump Tower, The Donald’s gaudy monument to his own ego that sits on Fifth Avenue near the southeast corner of Central Park. I was familiar with its reputation – a gold-plated, luxurious middle finger at taste, restraint, common sense and every other attribute that Trump himself would presumably decry in a Twitter rant as being “lame” – which is why walking into the public atrium for the first time was such a disappointment.
Yes, there is gold – gold everywhere. The escalators are gold. The railings are gold. The acres of marble are a browny-yellow shade intended to suggest gold. The enormous waterfall that sputters down the inside of the atrium is lit to make it shine like gold. But under the glitz, there’s a depressing shabbiness to everything: the mismatching, scratched wooden tables in the public seating area; the old-fashioned food in the cafeteria that looks like it escaped, reheated, from a cheap wedding buffet; the scuffed leather armchairs sitting atop the threadbare carpet in the Trump Bar. It’s undeniably tacky, but not in the grand way that I’d imagined. I had expected to walk into an absurd recreation of the Palace Of Versailles – instead, the experience is more akin to being smothered with an oversized box of Ferrero Rocher.
All that gold is more than just Trump’s signature crassness – the building’s ostentatiousness is deliberate, and was always intended to appeal to a very specific type of clientele. Trump’s father spent decades building middle-class housing out in the boroughs, but Trump Jr was after bigger, flashier fish. He didn’t want to sell to the middle class, or even the quietly rich – he wooed those who would throw their cash around for the sake of it, and he quickly became the figurehead for the new Yuppie movement that actively sought to showcase its money. When Trump Tower – one of the first glass skyscrapers in the city – opened in 1983, it stuck out like a sore, albeit spectacular, thumb, its message clear to anyone who cared to read it: “Sod off, peasants.”
“Trump was part of a new generation that was very proud of its wealth,” says Dr Matthew Lasner, an associate professor at Hunter College who specialises in urban planning. “He understood that there was a clientele that was not ashamed or embarrassed of its wealth, and he catered to that by choosing to build something flashy and loud – just like him."
A central figure among the “greed is good” set of the Eighties (Lasner describes Trump as “the Gordon Gekko of developers”), Trump successfully attracted the conspicuously rich, some of whom are still there. Inside the bar, a few feet from an old man in red power-suspenders, sits a middle-aged woman, skin stretched and lips inflated, sipping a glass of white wine with a Henri Bendel bag between her feet, while her dog – a white Pekingese with a purple bow on its head and a gold, gem-studded collar – slumps next to her. An ageing trophy wife cliché come to life.
But these types are now the exception in the Tower’s public spaces. Thanks to the nature of Trump’s race-baiting, lowest common denominator, you-know-me-from-my-reality-TV-show presidential campaign, the Tower is less a destination for the Young Urban Professional than it is a place for old, blimp-like white people to take selfies. A schlubby guy wearing a T-shirt bearing the logo of some permanently outraged Southern Baptist Church sits at the Trump Grill bar. A mustachioed middle-aged man in a red Make America Great Again wife-beater poses, thumbs-up, for a photo in the extravagantly gold-plated entrance. In the men’s toilets, an obese gentleman is giving himself a sponge bath with paper towels. The whole place seems weirdly off-kilter, run-down and hopelessly out of touch with modern sensibilities. This is all, of course, still the perfect monument to Trump.
Donald Trump’s most famous erection
As with most things regarding Donald Trump, things get darker the further you dig past the shiny veneer. Much like his Loony Tunes presidential campaign – in which he has miraculously become the Republican frontrunner simply by hurling insults at other candidates, while never putting forward a single workable policy of his own – the construction of his building was mired in controversy from the ground up.
Actually, from several feet below the ground, if you count the foundations. Rumours persist to this day that Trump was in cahoots with prominent Mafia figure Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno, thanks to his decision to award the contract for concrete to Salerno’s company, S&A Concrete. This would have been no small deal – as well as the huge amount required for the foundations, the building itself was constructed largely from concrete, an unusual choice at a time when almost all New York skyscrapers were built with steel.
Trump has been able to safely shrug off such accusations, simply due to the inherently shady nature of the construction business at the time. Back then, every developer colluded, on some level, with organised crime – in Eighties New York, it was impossible to build anything without them.
“I don’t think there’s any smoking gun as far as Trump’s concerned, because it would go for every other builder and construction worker, too,” says Dr Howard Abadinsky, professor of criminal justice at St John’s University. “If you said, ‘I don’t want to have anything that’s involved with organised crime,’ I’d say, ‘Well, just don’t build in New York!’”
Thanks to the Mafia’s role as enforcers of deals made between the various construction firms to drive up prices, as well as their hold on the unions, some form of mob connection was essentially forced on any developer who wanted to build. And while Trump wasn’t exactly a victim – the artificially inflated cost would have been passed on to his tenants, just as with every other building in the city – there’s no compelling argument to say he was in bed with the mob.
There are other, less juicy scandals, however. A lawsuit that would drag on for 16 years alleged that Trump was aware of the 200 undocumented Polish immigrants claimed to have been used as labour on the construction, which, if true, seems more than appropriate, considering Trump’s presidential campaign has likewise been built on the backs of illegal immigrants – more specifically,
the deporting of them.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he bellowed at a speech on 16 June 2015 – the speech in which he announced his intention to run for president. “They’re bringing drugs! They’re bringing crime! They’re rapists!” He would later pledge to build a wall between the two countries, and also ban all Muslims. Because of – not despite – these statements and others like them, his supporters (the same gullible, old tourists paying $9 for a bag of jelly beans in Trump’s Sweet Shop downstairs) now want to put him in charge of the country.
Another notorious incident occurred during the demolition of the Bonwit Teller flagship store, which Trump Tower replaced. Two beautiful art deco sculptures of female figures – appraised by the Metropolitan Museum Of Art to be worth around $200,000 – originally adorned the front of the building, and were promised to the museum by Trump. Instead, he secretly ordered them to be torn down and smashed with jackhammers, claiming they were “without artistic merit”, according to the New York Times.
His dealings with flesh and blood women has not been dissimilar, with Trump alienating the vast majority of female voters with a string of mind-bogglingly sexist comments, ranging from his claim that all women are gold diggers, to insisting that sexual assaults against women in the military should be a given. But hey, he’s not worried about what anyone says – he has a hot wife! As per an interview with Esquire in 1991: “You know, it doesn’t really matter what [the media] writes as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.”
Hidden house of horrors
Everyone – perhaps, except Trump himself – would say that it’s what’s on the inside that counts, and if that’s true, what’s inside Trump Tower should terrify us.
Firstly, there’s Trump’s penthouse, a Louis XIV-inspired migraine of 24K gold, marble and candelabras. “The stunning penthouse apartment is the epitome
of elegance and perfection,” dribbled one blogger when faced with the unenviable chore of writing about this eyesore, maybe while a gold-plated antique musket was pressed to the back of their head.
The sad part is, that it’s exactly what his supporters want to see. Donald Trump is a dirt-poor fantasist’s idea of what a successful businessman looks
like – a mutant splicing of Scrooge McDuck, Lex Luthor and a three-week-old deflating satsuma – and “dirt-poor fantasist” accurately describes the vast majority of those who believe in his risible promise to “make America great again”.
These same people would no doubt be shocked if they saw inside Trump’s campaign HQ, which is also based within the Tower. An industrial-looking, windowless room with exposed wiring and a few makeshift tables thrown together, it bears no resemblance whatsoever to the signature Trump glitz. If this is the heart of the Trumpster’s presidential bid, it’s one that’s wildly at odds with the extravagant façade on display to the public. If his renowned love of being surrounded by luxury is anything to go by, it’s probably also a good indication of how much time he actually spends there.
All this pales next to the list of some of those who have resided inside Trump Tower’s multimillion-dollar apartments, though. It’s a who’s who of terrible, terrible people that includes the likes of Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier, monstrous ex-dictator of Haiti; José Maria Marin, the former president of the Brazilian Football Confederation who’s currently living there under house arrest; and Chuck Blazer, the former Fifa Executive Committee member and FBI informant who was found guilty of racketeering and money laundering.
This list probably sounds like an aside, but it’s an important glimpse into what Trump represents, and what he and his ilk have done to New York City. As one of the first developers to successfully sell condos – flats that worked independently of the city’s more regular co-op system, in which potential owners would be vetted by a board of residents – Trump helped open the gates to a flood of sometimes highly dubious outside investors and speculators.
“Back then it would have been very difficult to buy an apartment if you were an offshore, absentee owner, but the condominium system is a lot more unfettered,” explains Lasner. “Trump Tower had one of the early successes because anyone could buy there, with no questions asked.”
The upshot of this has been continuously skyrocketing prices, making most of the city completely unaffordable for regular people. And yet, for reasons still a mystery to most, this is the man that the poor and the desperate of the US think will help them get back on their feet if he becomes president.
Showy, obnoxious, a tribute to vulgarity but also a little bit ragged and sad, Trump Tower is Donald writ large on the Manhattan skyline. As I gratefully exit the chintzy monolith, a cluster of Trump fans are engaged in a shouting match with some locals on the pavement outside.
“We should be grateful for Trump!” one woman bellows. “He doesn’t need this job! We should be thanking him for wanting to do it! Thankful that someone powerful can finally come in and fix things!” And somehow I wonder if, up in his gilded penthouse, Trump is watching his most faithful defenders and laughing his saggy old arse off.
[Images: Rex, Getty]