Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 November 2019

Donald Trump's old New York neighbourhood retains clues to 2020

The diversity of Queens does not disguise the divides he capitalised on

President Donald Trump walks onto the stage during a "Keep America Great" campaign rally at BancorpSouth Arena on November 1, 2019 in Tupelo, Mississippi. AFP
President Donald Trump walks onto the stage during a "Keep America Great" campaign rally at BancorpSouth Arena on November 1, 2019 in Tupelo, Mississippi. AFP

Asked in 2015 what it was like to grow up in Queens, Donald Trump called it an oasis.

The largest of New York's five boroughs – home to more than 2.3 million people – it is considered the city's most ethnically diverse area.

But it was not always so.

Number 85-15 Wareham Place, on Queens' upper-middle-class Jamaica Estates, retains the quiet character its famous former resident spoke of. Built by the construction company owned by his father, Fred Trump Jr, the future US president spent his earliest years here before the family moved to a larger house across the back fence on Midland Parkway.

Donald Trump’s childhood home 85-15 Wareham Place, Jamaica Estates, Queens, New York
Donald Trump’s childhood home 85-15 Wareham Place, Jamaica Estates, Queens, New York. Arthur MacMillan for The National

For all its cosiness, the Jamaica Estates was white and exclusive, its homeowners predominantly business types and professionals. Yet only one street away is Hillside Avenue. It is the kind of Queens neighbourhood that Mr Trump, in the same interview, described as rough.

The contrast echoes the national battleground for America's 2020 election now just one year away. Mr Trump's voters tend to come from the country's white suburbs rather than urban and ethnically mixed areas such as Hillside Avenue, made up of African-Americans and immigrants.

The bombastic rhetoric he deployed in 2016 may be about to get more so.

“I don't think the country is calming down. If anything, the anger is simmering. It could get worse,” said Jennifer Hutchinson, 36, who grew up Dalny Road, a few hundred metres from Wareham Place.

Mr Trump's approval rating as president has never reached 50 per cent. The most recent Washington Post and ABC News poll put it at 38 per cent, with Republican support falling eight points to 74 per cent.

Despite those numbers, Mr Trump is not attempting to bridge political or racial divides. In the past week he triumphantly announced the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, a development met with near-uniform approval.

Donald Trump’s second home at 85-14 Midland Parkway, Jamaica Estates, Queens, New York 
Donald Trump’s second home at 85-14 Midland Parkway, Jamaica Estates, Queens, New York

But a normally bipartisan area of policy – national security – was tarnished by Mr Trump's repeated criticism of his predecessor Barack Obama. And days later, when speaking to police chiefs in Chicago – a Democratic Party stronghold and Mr Obama's home city – Mr Trump said it was less safe than Afghanistan.

The decision of House Democrats to move ahead with impeachment proceedings will be a stage for arguments on whether Mr Trump abused his powers by withholding military aid to Ukraine while seeking dirt on his possible presidential opponent, Joe Biden.

But with no sign of backing from the Republican-led Senate, impeachment looks like adding to America's political narrative rather than being a definitive event.

Confirming he would run for re-election, the president's Chicago speech was the kind of race-laden, divisive and territorial language that propelled him into the White House.

In Queens, such remarks are noticed.

Mrs Hutchinson did not vote in 2016, but she says she is motivated to do so next year.

“He's kind of reviled here,” she said of the president. “We all know the stories. How he ripped people off when he was a developer. How he smears anyone who disagrees with him. We New Yorkers had seen all that before. The world's just gotten a taste now.”

Mr Trump announced on Thursday that he was relinquishing New York as his primary residence, opting for Mar-a-Lago, his private club and estate in Palm Beach, Florida, instead. The move will save him millions in tax and end an era in which Manhattan, and Trump Tower, was seen as his home.

“I'm not surprised that he has bailed,” Mrs Hutchinson said, referencing the president's age, 73, as indicative of a generation that flocks to the sun in their last years.

More people - 17,959 - left Queens than any other New York borough in the 12 months ending in July 2018, according to census data, almost half the 39,523 who moved out of the city.

The president's association with Queens appears ever more tenuous but it retains insight into the complexity of picking a winner in next year's election.

When pressed about the chances of a Democrat defeating Mr Trump, Mrs Hutchinson was not confident. Mr Biden has “a lot of baggage,” Elizabeth Warren “isn't connecting”. Despite the investigations, the scandals of his past business conduct, and the chaos of his presidency, Mr Trump remains ascendant.

The economy, which continues to grow, is a strong card to play.

To Malkiat Singh, owner of Discount Wine and Liquors, on Hillside Avenue, the numbers matter. As long as the economy grows, he believes Mr Trump will be re-elected. His thoughts on immigration also illustrate that there is no uniform disagreement between those Americans who are white and those who are not, but rather a mixture of often confounding opinions.

A Sikh, from Amritsar in north-western India, Mr Singh arrived in the US in 1991, becoming a citizen five years later. Asked about Mr Trump's bellicose tone on Mexicans and other non-nationals, the 60-year-old store owner replied: “I agree with him about that. There are too many illegals. If you go seven streets from here you'll find places where 18 Bangladeshis are sharing one room.”

Back at 85-15 Wareham Place, the door was answered by Misha Haghani, an impeccably dressed real estate agent who is in the process of auctioning off the house, having previously failed to reach a $2.9 million asking price.

The sales tactics he is using ahead of the November 14 closing date are ones Mr Trump would likely approve of.

“There is no fixed price, rather a process of sealed bids,” Mr Haghani said, noting that the home's value lay in its notoriety rather than the mere bricks and mortar.

Updated: November 2, 2019 07:00 PM

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