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How the Trumps tried — and failed — to keep black families like mine out of their neighborhood

Donald Trump says the inner city is hell. He doesn't talk about his family's role in creating segregated neighborhoods.

Fred Trump, boxing promoter Don King, and Donald Trump in 1987
Fred Trump, boxing promoter Don King, and Donald Trump in 1987

I grew up in a neighborhood in Queens called Jamaica Estates, in an apartment building that was owned and managed by Donald Trump’s father, Fred.

Significant portions of my childhood were spent in and around that building, playing kickball with the other kids, wolfing down piles of candy, and teaching each other dance moves we thought we were amazing at.

Around early 1995, one friend, Leah, was leaving the neighborhood. So our crew of girls — black, Latina, and Southeast Asian 8- to 12-year-olds — decided to throw a party. We bought as many bags of chips from the corner store as we could afford. Like pint-sized sommeliers, we paired them with those little plastic jugs of juice that we all believed gave you cancer (and we drank them anyway — we were 10!). We planned a Friday afternoon filled with Chinese Checkers, telling spooky stories, and watching MTV.

After getting hopped up on radioactive-blue juice, the song Leah and I were obsessed with came on: Soul for Real’s “Candy Rain.” We made everyone Tootsie Roll and Cabbage Patch their way through the song, teaching our Pakistani friends how to roll their upper bodies just right.

“We have to show you one of our dances now,” Saadia said, grabbing the remote and flipping up — way up — through the cable channels. We landed on more music videos, but they were Bollywood videos, exported from India and playing to a group of preteen girls, half of whom knew not one word of Hindi or Urdu. Saadia showed us how to flick our wrists and swivel our hips, and we continued into the night, until it was time to go home.

If Donald Trump had his way, Jamaica Estates would have looked totally different. That idyllic multi-cultural goodbye party would have never happened.

Trump and his father had to be sued before they would let people of color live in their buildings in this neighborhood and others. My father was among the first wave of black people to move into Jamaica Estates in the ’70s, after years of activism (and in Trump’s case, lawsuits) forced this gated community to welcome more people of color.

By the time I was a kid there, my family resided in a friendly, diverse neighborhood with good schools. But far too many other people of color are still living in deeply segregated neighborhoods with neglected schools, environmental hazards, and few job prospects.

On the campaign trail, Trump talks about how America’s inner cities are a living hell. What he doesn’t talk about is how he is one of the many developers, realtors, brokers, mortgage lenders, landlords, and public figures who have had a hand in creating this structure of segregated neighborhoods.

Even still, what he doesn’t seem to realize is that “the inner city” isn’t the problem: Segregation is. And the solution is the very thing he and his family fought against in the ’70s and his campaign is fighting against now: more diverse neighborhoods like Jamaica Estates, and by extension a more diverse America.

New York’s people of color have largely been steered into specific neighborhoods

A common refrain at Donald Trump rallies for the past few months is to ask people of color, particularly black people, “what do you have to lose?” in voting for him. He doubled down on this idea at the final debate against Hillary Clinton.

"Our inner cities are a disaster," Trump said. "You get shot walking to the store. They have no education; they have no jobs."

Donald Trump is right about one thing: American communities are segregated by race, and that segregation affects policing, schools, housing, and jobs.

The story of Jamaica Estates is a clear example of this. As Jason Horowitz of the New York Times described the Jamaica Estates of the 1950s, it was “an exclusive and nearly all-white place, resistant to outsiders and largely impenetrable to minorities.” Donald Trump himself grew up there, first in a modest home plucked out of a storybook, and then a big brick colonial home about three blocks up from the building where my family would live decades later. His father Fred developed these houses and some others in the neighborhood, and his company owned and managed about a half dozen apartment buildings there.

Two of the Trump family homes in Jamaica Estates
Trump family homes in Jamaica Estates.
Getty Images (left), AP (right)

Here this neighborhood stood at the end of the F train line, close enough to Manhattan to commute every day with relative ease, but far away enough to let you sometimes forget you were still in New York City. Streets with noble, Anglo names like Edgerton, Surrey, and McLaughlin were populated with uniquely crafted homes and big beautiful trees. It was safe enough that an 11-year-old kid could ride a bike anywhere in the neighborhood. Simply put, it was a good place to live.

And it was segregated. The segregation of Jamaica Estates, then a gated community, was emblematic of what was going on within the city as a whole during that time. A 1965 report by the New York Urban League showed that 80 percent of New York’s nonwhite population were confined to five neighborhoods (or 10 percent of the city’s area): Harlem in Manhattan, the Southeast Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, and Elmhurst and South Jamaica in Queens.

The Trumps, along with many other figures, created and benefitted from this system. As previously reported by the Washington Post and New York Times, landlords and others who managed the Trump’s 14,000 apartments throughout the outer boroughs said they were directed to mark applications for apartments by people of color with a “C” for “colored.” Pretty simple filing system.

During an investigation by the Department of Justice in 1970s, the Trump Management Corporation — with 39 buildings across Brooklyn, Queen, and Staten Island — was found to have some buildings where as little as 1 percent of residents were nonwhite. One building had no black residents at all. It’s quite jarring when you realize New York was a quarter black by 1980, and 47% of its population was made of racial minority groups.

The Department of Justice sued several landlords, including the Trumps and the LeFrak Organization, another local developer, for violating the Fair Housing Act. The Trumps were sued in 1973. Donald Trump has defended the company he and his father ran back then during this election cycle.

“As far as the lawsuit, yes, when I was very young, I went into my father’s company, had a real estate company in Brooklyn and Queens, and we, along with many, many other companies throughout the country — it was a federal lawsuit — were sued,” he said during a debate in September. “We settled the suit with zero — with no admission of guilt.”

The suit against the Trumps, like the other suits, ended in consent decrees, requiring landlords to prove they would not discriminate against renters of color. The Trumps entered their consent decree in 1975 after a two-year fight in the courts.

Meanwhile, by the late ’70s Jamaica Estate’s gates had come down, after years of concerted efforts by organizations like the Urban League’s Project Open City.

The Garcias (eventually) move to Jamaica Estates

In 1977, my father, looking for an upgrade to his studio in Jamaica, applied for an apartment in Jamaica Estates. He was turned down by one of the buildings in the neighborhood, which was not owned by the Trumps. He didn’t think much of it at first.

“All they told me was that there was no vacancy,” my dad recalls. “So what are you going to do?”

But six months later, a newspaper article caught his eye; Trump Management Corporation was still failing to rent to black and Latino applicants nearly three years after signing its consent decree. He knew there were Trump buildings in the same neighborhood where he had just applied to live. It made him wonder if the building he had applied to was denying people of color, too.

“I come to find out that they’re sending white people in there, and they’re getting apartments,” he says. “I was working, my credit was good, I was making enough money — so why are they getting apartments and I’m not?”

That’s when he said he made contact with the local NAACP, and found out he was on a list of prospective Jamaica Estate renters who were likely discriminated against on the basis of his race.

Victor Goode, an associate law professor at the City University of New York, told me it’s rare that people who are discriminated against in the process of looking for housing receive any retribution for the biased treatment they experienced.

“Typically when people of color are looking for housing — especially when you’re in a city like New York where there’s always a housing shortage — you’re pretty desperate to find a place,” Goode says. “And so when you’re turned down, even if you suspect it was for discrimination, you’re faced with a double problem of, ‘Well, do I fight to get into this particular building, or do I work on my housing needs and go somewhere else?’ Frequently people say, ‘I know I got turned down because of my race, but I don’t have time to fight that battle now. I need to find a new place by the end of the month’ and they move on.”

My dad applied to the Jamaica Estates apartment again, and this time was accepted with little fuss. And yes, he initially was hounded by the private security guards that patrolled the neighborhood; he said he’d hear about the Jamaica Estates homeowners association, which, back then had concerns that “the riffraff would come out of the train station and walk into the Estates,” he says. But it didn’t matter in the long run. He had an apartment.

A few years later, he met my mom, and she moved in, too. Then I was born, and my sister was born. The public elementary school we were zoned for was not up to my parents’ standards, so we went to the nearby Immaculate Conception School for a lovely (and stern) Catholic education. Eventually, we needed a larger apartment. So we looked across the street: A Trump building.

Now, this was not the ornate, glistening tower that you may associate with Donald Trump, like his gold-plated building on the Las Vegas strip, or the stately Trump Tower in Midtown Manhattan. This was simply a well-kept, affordable New York City apartment building.

I remember our family walking in the front door of our new building in 1992, opened by one of the doormen I would come to know, Vinnie. We walked past the Christmas tree in the lobby to the superintendent’s office, and my parents signed a stack of papers. We would move in after the new year.

A few images from my last day at the Immaculate Conception School, 1994.

A simple move across the street made us eligible to attend a vibrant, high-performing public school, P.S. 131. My sister and I soon enrolled. Both schools of my youth seemed just as racially diverse as the private United Nations school nestled in the neighborhood, somewhere between Immaculate and 131.

Most of my friends were people of color, and many of their parents were doctors, lawyers, judges, chemists, pharmacists, and every other aspirational profession you could think of. Some families were immigrant families. And we all called Jamaica Estates home.

Those families prove the idea that integration, and more open housing opportunities, can be incredibly beneficial. As my colleague Alvin Chang explained earlier this year, moving to a better neighborhood from a low-income one can have long term positive effects. He cited Harvard researchers Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence Katz, who found that people who left public housing for nicer neighborhoods, for example, later earned significantly more money.

Conversely, I know what it looks like for white people to be shielded from people of color. Right before high school, my parents split up. Mom stayed in Jamaica Estates, and my sister and I stayed with her during summers, weekends, and holidays. But Dad took us to the cookie-cutter suburbs of Suffolk County in Long Island.

I attended a great school and established solid friendships, a few of which continue today. I cherish the seasons I spent on the varsity track team (a true refuge for me), and appreciated the ability to see stars at night.

But being one of very few people of color at a massive high school (more than 1,000 students in my graduating class) presented a lot of ignorance. I was asked if I had been shot at. Kids in the neighborhood asked if I tasted like chocolate. Some classmates expected me to have drugs for sale. I was “complimented,” more than once for being a black person and not a nigger, as Chris Rock joked in his famous 1996 standup special Bring the Pain. Despite graduating with good grades and a decent SAT score, my high school guidance counselor seemed surprised that I wanted to go to college.

I know high school is terrible for everyone, but I could go on.

I often felt isolated because of my race. But I also felt sad for my peers who had experienced very little outside of their very small, very white worlds. They were isolated, too.

One neighborhood in Eastern Queens isn’t the norm for everyone

All these decades later, did the lawsuits against the Trumps and other developers work? Did they change anything?

You could say that welcoming families of color into Jamaica Estates was a general success. There are fewer white people there, and yet, the neighborhood didn’t come crumbling down. The schools are still good and the streets are still safe. If anything, there are more McMansions these days, but that’s just a matter of new-money taste.

collage of personal photos
With friends (left), Easter Sunday in front of our apartment building, circa 1999 (right).

There’s a mosque on McLaughlin Avenue. The shops on Hillside Avenue sell roti and Jamaican beef patties. A ride in the elevator of my mom’s building looks like a representative gathering of one of the most diverse counties in America.

But Jamaica Estates is sort of an anomaly. Particularly these days in New York, where all anyone can talk about is gentrification and outlandish rental costs, there’s still housing discrimination. It just looks different.

“What’s happened in New York City in the past 25 years is a convergence of race and class issues,” CUNY Law School’s Goode says. “Neighborhoods are being gentrified, new apartments are being [built]. And of course the cost of these new apartments are beyond the reach of the median income of the average or typical person from African-American and Latino communities. So is this class discrimination? Is there some sort of race discrimination going on? A little bit of both? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.”

A New York Times map using data from the 2010 Census shows how things have changed, and how they’ve also stayed the same. Black populations are still concentrated in eastern Brooklyn, Harlem, South Jamaica, and the South Bronx, just as it was during the 1965 Urban League study. But many black areas also share a heavy influence of Hispanic and Southeast Asian neighbors in some areas, such as the South Bronx and neighborhoods around South Jamaica like Queens Village and Ozone Park. In fact, looking at Queens, Jamaica Estates and the surrounding neighborhoods act as a sort of nexus point for racial diversity.

These days, I live in Brooklyn, and I know how the old-school tactics of housing discrimination are shaking out in a new generation. After nearly a decade in Los Angeles, my husband and I moved back to New York two years ago so I could change jobs. He wasn’t working as we looked for apartments, and I couldn’t miss a moment in my new office. So he went out to look for a new home for us.

My husband, who is white, found a small, workable place near Park Slope. It would be a good launch pad as we got resettled back into New York. It had a dishwasher (a rarity here), one bedroom, and was across the street from Prospect Park.

He met the broker, an old white guy, who told him the apartment would be available pretty quickly if we filled out the application that weekend. He was sure we’d be able to afford this apartment solely on my salary, and with our good renting history. The broker even empathized with the fact that my husband was then without a job and said he’d introduce him to his son, who might be able to hire him.

But my husband insisted that I had to come see the apartment, and I couldn’t do so until that Saturday. Sure, sure, he told my husband. He could hold off the landlord until then.

That Saturday, we walked around the neighborhood dreaming about our lives to come. Coffees in hand, that misty morning, we walked past an antique map store, and a Thai restaurant, and a yarn shop. I felt good about this.

The broker arrived in his car, and parked in front of the building. I could see his face subtly drop when he saw me.

The broker barely made eye contact with me. Suddenly, he said we might not qualify for the apartment. Suddenly, I didn’t make enough money. Suddenly, the landlord might not approve us since there’s only one income. He asked, What if we got divorced before the lease was up? Then what? Would it be possible to provide three months’ rent as an additional deposit (on top of the broker’s fee) to ensure we’ll be able to handle this apartment?

Disappointed, I figured maybe it was just the building. I asked if there were any other apartments in his roster that might not come with so many hang-ups.

That’s when he sent us to an apartment in South Slope. It was on a busy street, with hideous bars on the window, fluorescent lighting, and an awkward layout. It was the same price as the apartment we wanted to live in, but in a building with other Puerto Ricans. He must’ve noticed my last name.

We marched right back into his real estate office. I told him sending us to that apartment was an insult, and we marched back out.

But in what unfortunately seems to be true New York City renter’s fashion, I never did anything about it. I didn’t report him.

We just looked for a new apartment, and we found one; in South Slope, too. We moved in quickly, told our friends to avoid that apartment broker at all costs, and left a ruthlessly thorough Yelp review.

Are we actually ready to deal with structural inequality as a nation?

Any logical person will tell you that not every black American lives in a hellacious inner city. But low-income, high-crime neighborhoods are not an accident. They’re products of neglect, harmful policies, and inequality — inequality that Trump helped perpetuate as a landlord, and inequality that has also served as an opportunity for Trump in this election cycle.

That’s what makes Trump’s promise to help the “inner city” sound so hollow. His campaign has capitalized on the simmering racial resentment that keeps whites and nonwhites in separate neighborhoods to begin with. It’s the resentment that puts up gates and resists change.

Trump and many of his supporters would likely prefer the Jamaica Estates of the 1950s — homogenous, prosperous, and white, still protected by gates — multiplied to fit all over the country. And in that America, families like mine are still on the outside.

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