Trump grew up just 15 miles away from a young Bernie Sanders — but the two were still worlds apart
They grew up in New York City barely 15 miles apart – one in Midwood, a predominantly Jewish immigrant section of south-west Brooklyn, the other in the leafy, gated community of Jamaica Estates in Queens, to the north-east – yet their views could hardly be more starkly opposed.
If environment is key to the psychological and political formation of a person, there would surely be clues here to the radically different temperaments of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, two presidential candidates channeling the anti-establishment characteristics of a highly unconventional primary season.
New York, essentially made up of insular villages, often reflects insular village mentalities despite the great melting pot that is the city in its entirety. Those characteristics may shift over time as the contents of the pot change – but not necessarily by much.
In Midwood, which prides itself on being semi-suburban, it may be more interesting how little things have changed, not how much. There’s little evidence here of Sanders’ “people’s revolution”, which saw voters deliver a spectacular turnaround for the leftwing firebrand in Michigan on Tuesday night .
The Jamaica Estates no longer betray indicators of an environment that would ensure that a young man growing up here would betray the sense of entitlement, charm and self-satisfaction that are the hallmarks of The Donald.
But there are clues. The redbrick, colonnaded villa at 85-14 Midland Pkwy that the Trump family called home through the 1940s and 50s remains standing and well-kept. It’s a grand structure, built by his father Fred Trump, featuring 23 rooms and nine bathrooms, with a path that twists around flowerbeds to the street below. One can imagine the young Donald surveying life at a comfortable distance, watching tradesmen come and go, cocooned in warmth and safety, with the knowledge that whatever anti-social forces might be gathering beyond the gatehouse would be safely intercepted.
“Different parts of Queens were rough; this was an oasis,” Trump told the New York Times last year , acknowledging that the neighbourhood – which has become much more racially diverse – had changed in the intervening years. “The world is much different; turn on the television,” Trump said. “That’s called life in New York, and I think that’s a wonderful thing.”
The house on Midland was the second house developer Fred Trump had built on the estate, and it is where he lived with his wife, the former Mary MacLeod, and their five children, including the youngest, Donald. Neighbours have recalled Fred Trump leaving for work by limousine and seeing Donald return home for visits years later in a red convertible with Ivana, the first of his three wives.
Nowadays, Jamaica Estates is more mixed than it would have been in Trump’s day. It is less white than it was, with a middle class of South Asians that have moved in on the back of the 90s real estate boom. New York’s poorer African American and Caribbean communities are near the perimeter and occupy the apartment buildings that Trump Sr developed. Beyond the gate, on Hillside Avenue, is a jostle of stores and restaurants. The sidewalks are busy with the African Americans whose Black Lives Matter movement Trump has denounced as “ looking for trouble ” and immigrants who he has arguably demonised on the campaign trail.
“Donald Trump came from further into the estate, where it’s way richer,” says Sean Carson, 23, an economics senior at St John’s University. “That’s where he got his pompous attitude. He grew up seeing poor people, but he was kind of sheltered from them and that’s how he developed this better-than-you, racist mentality. He didn’t experience any hardship, so he doesn’t understand it and can’t see it from their perspective.”
Carson, like many of his school friends, leans toward Sanders, certainly as a person, although not necessarily toward his economic policies. “Trump’s fiscal policies are more feasible, but I can’t see where he’s going to get funding for his stupid projects like the Mexican wall,” he said.
For better or worse, this is where Trump learned to build things – towers, hotels and casinos – and to level them – for golf courses. Despite his being so associated with concrete, glass and gold, Jamaica Estates is one of the leafiest suburbs of New York, counting nearly 6,000 trees.
“Money makes everything good, and everyone happy,” said John Cristelli, 51, walking home near the Trump manse. Trump as president, he said, would be “scary but all right”.
It was also near here, at the Kew-Forest School, that Trump learned to brawl, and where he had his first major experience of rejection, at 13, when he was expelled from school and was enrolled in the New York Military Academy. He made it to eighth grade, but even his father admitted that Donald “was a pretty rough fellow when he was small”.
“All we ever heard ’round here was that he’d been a real troublemaker,” said resident Karen Weinstein.
By 1983, more than 20 years after Trump earned a degree in economics, his style of entrepreneurial capitalism in the rough-and-tumble world of New York real estate was already establishing the Trump name as a symbol of flashy extravagance for the world’s super rich.
“Not many sons have been able to escape their fathers,” Trump said at the time. “At 37, no one has done more than I,” he added, exhibiting the flair for self-promotion and grandiosity that has now become well-known.
There is no direct subway from Jamaica Estates to Midwood without going through Manhattan. And once one reaches the Russian Orthodox and Jewish Brooklyn enclave, memories of mock Tudor mansions, Kentucky coffee trees and Japanese snowbells soon fade.
Midwood is a tough neighbourhood that lies in sight of both the Verrazano Narrows bridge and tops of the rides at Coney Island. “We’re very international, very rooted in American history,” says Linda Goodman of the Midwood Development Corporation. “It’s the kind of neighbourhood that would influence a man to grow up with traditional American values of tolerance and welcoming people and honoring America’s principles.”
Sanders grew up in a three-and-a-half-room walk-up on East 26th Street near Kings Highway in the 1940s and 50s, the son of a New York housewife and a Polish immigrant who sold paint. Last year, he told 60 Minutes he could recall his mother yearning for a single-family home. “Not having enough money was a cause of constant tension,” he said. “And when you are five or six years of age and your parents are yelling at each other, it’s, you know – you think back on it now, you know – it’s traumatic and it’s hard.”
He attended James Madison High School, whose Wall of Distinction includes supreme court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and four Nobel prize winners. Sanders wrote for the school paper and became class president. A classmate recalled to TV channel NY1 his failed campaign for school president: “Other candidates talked about the prom, Sanders wanted to raise money for Korean War orphans.”
“I am very proud to be Jewish, and being Jewish is so much of who I am,” Sanders said during a televised debate recently, adding: “Look, my father’s family was wiped out by Hitler in the Holocaust.”
Being Jewish is still a defining characteristic of the neighbourhood and while many residents may be aware of the Sanders family’s history, and proud of the Vermont senator’s origins here, they have concerns over what they see as his ambiguous support for Israel.
“There is an aspect of ethnic pride because he’s Jewish, but the question is: how Jewish is he in terms of his support for Israel?” asked Daniel Berg, an economic research scientist. “People are aware of that. For a lot of people that’s the make-or-break question.”
“Some are Hasidic so if they’re not Republican, they’ll go with Clinton,” predicts jeweler Kay Illocz, owner of a small jewelry business. “They’re not going to vote for Sanders.”
Sanders, said Jasmine Weisman, “means well but he’s too iffy. At least with Donald you know where he’s coming from. You wanna come here and live an honest life, fine, but if you want to come here to destroy and spit on us, go home.”
She added: “Donald is New York. Where he stands is what everybody here feels. We’re all so tired of the good ol’ boys protecting each other’s interests. At least with Donald you know where he’s coming from.”
Other women here tended to agree with Weisman. “He’s upsetting the old boys’ club. He doesn’t take money, he doesn’t take favors,” said Marie, who would not give her last name. Her friend, Angela Titus, said she would pick Clinton, not Sanders, fearing the Vermont senator could be weak on foreign policy.
Despite the Israel question, Sanders could still be considered a classic Brooklyn New Yorker, said Suzanne Wasserman, director of the Gotham Center for New York City History. “Sanders is typically Brooklyn from the 1930s. Very Jewish, very liberal. Neighbourhoods like Midwood are very Jewish, always have been and continues to be. There aren’t any African-Americans there, so the people who live there are prejudiced,” she claimed.
While Wasserman does not claim Sanders is racially prejudiced, his difficulties connecting with black voters, particularly in the South, may be indicative of failure to connect between the two communities that is common in Brooklyn, she suggested. “New York City neighbourhoods can be very racist,” said Wasserman. “They can come to define how people think.”
The same, she added, is true of Trump. “He, too, is typical of his time. I don’t know if there are characters like that any more. He’s a product of the city of the time. Very Republican, upper-middle class, suburban. It doesn’t really exist anymore. But it did, there’d be more people like Trump.”
That’s an idea that resonates in Jamaica Estates. “This was a master-planned community, a high-end neighbourhood when Trump grew up here; now there are more immigrants and lower middle class, ” explained computer programmer Daniel Dragan, 28. Win or lose, Trump may be the last of his kind.
Dreagan said he was a Sanders’ man. “Trumps view’s are too extreme for me. I would say this was Democrat neighborhood now,” he said. “Republican views won’t work.”