Trump: The Art of Housing Segregation

Brooklyn’s Beach Haven complex, formerly owned by the Trump family. Photo by Steven WishniaDonald Trump’s record of racism goes well beyond the loudmouth bigotry of his rants against Mexicans and Muslims. His family’s real-estate developments have a deep history of segregation.

Trump’s father, Fred C. Trump, made his fortune in the years after World War II building housing for newly returned veterans, including Shore Haven in Bensonhurst; Beach Haven, a pleasantly shaded complex of six-story brick buildings on the inland side of the Belt Parkway in Gravesend; and a few years later, the Trump Village cluster of high-rises west of Ocean Parkway in Coney Island. The Federal Housing Administration subsidized the construction, and the elder Trump took all the moolah he could, stretching the bounds of what was legal. He also took advantage of the FHA’s allowing “restrictive covenants” that prohibited renting or selling to certain ethnic groups, and its discouraging of “inharmonious uses of housing,” of letting black people move in to white neighborhoods.

The legendary singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, who moved into Beach Haven in 1950, was appalled when he noticed none of his neighbors were black. “I suppose Old Man Trump knows just how much Racial Hate he stirred up in the bloodpot of human hearts when he drawed that color line here at his eighteen hundred family project,” he wrote in a recently discovered journal.

The younger Trump entered the business after federal civil-rights laws were enacted, so he had to use more subtle methods. In 1973, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division sued the Trump organization, after testers from the Urban League who’d gone looking for apartments found that Trump would rent only to the white ones. Four superintendents or rental agents gave evidence that Trump coded applications for apartments by race. One agent said Fred Trump had specifically told him not to rent to blacks, and three doormen said they had been instructed to tell black people that there were no vacancies. 

Donald Trump called the suit “reverse discrimination,” blustering that it was part of a “nationwide drive to force owners of moderate and luxury apartments to rent to welfare recipients.” When he testified in 1974, he claimed that he was “unfamiliar” with the Fair Housing Act of 1969 and that he “had no idea of the racial composition” of his tenants, a claim that crumbled under more detailed questioning.

Trump’s lawyer, Roy Cohn—the notorious henchman of the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy—moved to have the case dismissed, accusing the government of “Gestapo-like tactics.” The judge rejected his motion as “utterly without foundation.” The dismissal motion “may have been prompted more by what the agents were finding than how they were looking,” Village Voice reporter Wayne Barrett wrote in a landmark series on Trump in 1979. 

Trump settled the suit out of court in 1975, agreeing to advertise jobs in newspapers oriented to racial minorities and to promote minorities to professional positions. But he stopped advertising open jobs in the Amsterdam News after the two-year court mandate expired. He told Barrett this was because it was only “a neighborhood paper for Harlem.” In 1978, the Justice Department complained that Trump was in contempt of the consent decree, charging that “racially discriminatory conduct by Trump agents” continued to be frequent.

Barrett described Donald Trump’s 1974 deposition as “100 pages of uncontained contempt for the whole issue.” And while Trump moved into Manhattan real estate in the ’70s with copious financial and political assistance from government, Barrett wrote that among the power brokers he interviewed, “no one seemed to think that the Trump race record should affect what the company gets from the city or state.”

The area around Beach Haven, like much of southwest Brooklyn, remained largely segregated through the 1980s. In 1982, on Avenue X one block north, a 34-year-old subway worker named Willie Turks was jumped by a gang of white youths and beaten to death for the offense of buying bagels while black after he got off the night shift. The convicted killer, 18-year-old Gino Bova, lived in the complex.

Today, Beach Haven, long since sold off by Trump, touts itself as “luxury apartments,” and the working-to-middle-class neighborhood has become much more multiethnic. On a recent late-spring afternoon, a young Latino man pushes a stroller across Avenue Z, while an old black man waits in front of a drugstore with a neon Russian-language “Apteka” sign. Two South Asian Muslim women in headscarves joke with an Italian-American shopkeeper. The children of Chinese, Mexican, and Russian immigrants play on a lawn on Avenue Y, three boys and a girl tossing a sky-blue ball.