Donald J. Trump gladly takes credit for things he hasn’t done, like erecting many of the buildings that bear his name, but one of his truly significant deeds has unfortunately been left uncredited. Trump was the midwife for the rebirth of midtown Manhattan—altering its skyline, its economic architecture, and the makeup of its upper class. And that accomplishment spotlights some of the contradictions that make him a simultaneously compelling and repellant character.
Trump was always a huckster, but he started his career developing and selling something fresh and innovative, a new kind of apartment building that, three-plus decades later, has drawn the world’s wealthiest to New York’s Billionaire’s Belt, the swath of condo towers that stretch across midtown’s belly from Columbus Circle (home to Fifteen Central Park West, the Time-Warner Center and Trump International Hotel & Tower), past the so-called supertalls of Fifty-seventh Street, to Beacon Court aka the Bloomberg Building just west of Third Avenue.
Trump set the stage for the ascendance of New York City’s new plutocracy, the moneyed scrum of bankers, alternative investment managers, corporate chieftains, infotainment and tech wizards and foreigners of provenances both reputable and dubious who comprise our latest upper class, the .01 percent who have rendered New York’s old aristocracies, from the WASPS of the 18th and 19th centuries to the private equity and venture capital nabobs of the late 20th, irrelevant and obsolete.
Have you seen these little piggies, whether in their starched white shirts or their hoodies? Probably not. They own the eight- and lately nine-figure homes in those condo fortresses, but really, they reside in the bubbles of their fortunes, intersecting only with others like themselves in general aviation terminals, four-star restaurants and at Davos and Art Basel. They leave almost no mark on the city that serves as their piggy bank.
For good and ill, Trump actually lives here. And he isn’t hiding behind a limited liability company, either; his name is right over his front door on the corner of Fifty-seventh Street and Fifth Avenue, New York’s most visible intersection.
Many find that embarrassing but Trump has been embarrassing—even to himself—since he first crossed the river from his childhood Queens home and the Brooklyn source of his fortune, his father’s real estate business. He wore maroon suits and matching shoes before quickly learning the value of appearances and printing up business cards with the address of his first Manhattan apartment, an Upper East Side studio overlooking a water tower.
Trump scored a better crib in 1980 when he rented an apartment in Olympic Tower, across the street from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Built by the Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis, Olympic was New York’s first luxury condominium tower, and the first new luxury apartment house erected since the mid-Sixties. Onassis offered the exclusivity and secrecy of old-school co-op apartments to foreigners who wanted a foothold or an investment in Manhattan, giving wealthy folks wary of the intrusive inspection of co-op boards a way into New York’s upper crust—even though they were not of it.
Despite inheriting political connections and his interest in a business worth a fortune from his father, Trump was also an outsider, so he loved Olympic Tower, and after a party at the over-the-top home of a neighbor there, the Saudi fixer Adnan Khashoggi, Trump tore up the plans for his latest project, six blocks to the north, and conceived his glitzy Trump Tower. When it opened in 1983, New York’s nabobs were appalled, thinking, there goes the neighborhood. And eventually, there went the neighborhood.
Trump’s prescience won him little honor at home, where Park and Fifth Avenue co-ops briefly remained the gold standard. But he’d seen the future. As surely as Olympic Tower was followed by the Galleria and Museum Tower, Trump’s next buildings, most designed by Costas Kondylis, a Congo-born, Swiss-educated architect, became the latest models of a nascent cosmopolitanism. Designed to attract rootless new money types, Trump-Kondylis condominiums boasted splendid lobbies and views, and amenities and glittery design that aspired to the iconic. The apartments within were boxy and undistinguished, their kitchens, closets and bathrooms tiny, but that didn’t matter to pied-a-terre and investment buyers. Living in them wasn’t the point. The appearance of affluence wasn’t an end, but a means toward attaining the real thing.
More midtown condos marketed to the wealthy —CitySpire, Metropolitan Tower, the Millennium towers on Lincoln Square—followed. But the next game-changer would also be a Trump project—as well as a comeback after a near-death-spiral of debt laid him low in the Nineties.
Trump wasn’t the first developer to see the then-decrepit Columbus Circle as a diamond in the rough — Mortimer Zuckerman was already trying to build on the site of what would eventually become the Related Companies’ Time-Warner Center — but Trump International, a redevelopment of the 1970 Gulf & Western Building across the street, opened first. Though his name is on the building and his company manages it, Trump wasn’t the owner; a General Electric subsidiary owned and sold the property. But GE helped Trump find his true worth and calling when its executives banked on his expertise to re-invent the place, and his name to sell its apartments to foreign and out-of-town buyers. They didn’t trust him entirely, but it all worked out, marking the moment Trump pivoted from real estate development to one-man brand and licensing phenomenon. Once again, appearance trumped reality. Appearances on reality TV followed.
Trump International and Time-Warner inspired the sale and development of lots one block north that are now home to Fifteen Central Park West and its collection of uber-rich residents. Fifteen, where apartments sold out quickly—netting the developers over $2 billion--and promptly doubled in value, set the stage for One57, 432 Park, the Baccarat, and the under-construction Nordstrom, Steinway and MoMA towers. But Trump laid the foundation for them all by creating the template for New York luxury condominiums.
Inevitably, there’s now a belated backlash against both the shadow-casting towers and their sometimes shadowy residents. The New York Times dubbed the high-end condos Towers of Secrecy—and it wasn’t a compliment — and the de Blasio administration targeted their owners, trying to slow the flow of funny money into our real estate. But that effort coincided with a slowdown in the market for luxury condos set off by oversupply, slackening demand due to economic turmoil overseas, and the emergent angry populism of Bernie Sanders and none other than Donald J. Trump.
The pileup of unintended consequences of Trump’s real estate innovation has risen almost as high as a 57th Street supertall.