Author Archive | Syd

Doer and Slumlord Both

Donald Trump, 1985 - Press of Atlantic City via Beyond the Killing Fields

Donald Trump in 1985

By Sydney H. Schanberg

This first appeared as an Op-Ed column in The New York Times on March 9, 1985

Donald Trump, the developer, is in the newspapers almost every day for one thing or another. If he isn’t building a skyscraper castle or a football team, he is trying to harass some tenants out of one of his properties.

It’s strange for a young man who so craves achievement, recognition, respectability and acceptance to mix into his master-builder activities the petty act of abusing tenants. Yet, though hard to explain, there seems little doubt that it has happened. Both the city and the state, in detailed papers, have brought actions against him for mistreatment of tenants — the state in an administrative proceeding and the city in a lawsuit seeking heavy fines.

The case involves the rather nice 15-story building at 100 Central Park South, overlooking the park. He bought it in 1981 with the intention of tearing it and the adjacent building down (the Barbizon Plaza, which he also owns) and replacing them with another of his mega-luxury towers. The curious thing about his plans is that he knew that the building was pretty much fully occupied and that the apartments were protected by either rent control or rent stabilization.

The city and state papers allege that Mr. Trump and his agents proceeded to try to force out the 60 or more tenants by the following tactics: ”threats of imminent demolition,” ”spurious litigation,” ”drastic decreases in essential services,” ”persistent delay in repairing defective conditions with life-threatening potential,” ”instructing employees to obtain information about the private lives (and) sex habits of the tenants,” and ”engaging in a psychological tug- of-war to wear the tenants down which has had a deleterious effect upon the health and well-being of said tenants, many of whom are elderly and are particularly vulnerable to defendants’ persistent course of conduct.”

In sum, the city’s lawsuit, which was filed last week, says that ”defendants have harassed daily the occupants of said units” and that ”defendants’ wrongful acts and omissions continue to date.”

This legal action is like the ones the city brings against slumlords because – unfortunately – Mr. Trump in this instance is behaving like one.

He contends that he is the victim of wily, wealthy millionaire-tenants who are trying to extract exorbitant buyout money or other financial concessions from him. Yes, there are some well-to-do tenants in the building who have a very good deal living there at low, controlled rents. But most of the tenants are either average working people or elderly pensioners living on small fixed incomes, such as Social Security, who have lived there many years. Mr. Trump, the preponderance of the evidence suggests, tried to force these people out on the cheap. This is a man whose net worth was recently estimated at $400 million. He says he’ll fight the case all the way.

”Trump is not going to be harassed,” he told a Times reporter. Mr. Trump’s friends and supporters say he’s done a lot for the city with his developing and deal-making skills. There’s truth in this, for his Hyatt hotel and his Trump Tower have created jobs and economic activity. But does his contribution to the city’s economy excuse him from civilized behavior? Is he exempt from obeying the city’s laws? Though the press has not exempted Mr. Trump, it has generally treated him in a kindly fashion.

His behavior on Central Park South has received but sparse coverage. Though it would normally be defined as substantial news when the city sues one of the biggest developers in town, only one of the three daily newspapers carried the story.

Mr. Trump’s other activities and lavish life style get a lot of space in the press, local and national. A recent profile in The Washington Post quoted him as saying he was ready to take on new, world-sized tasks — referring to his heretofore unrevealed wish to become the nation’s negotiator on arms limitation with the Soviet Union. He says he’s a master negotiator, and could do a better job on arms talks than ”the kind of representatives that I have seen in the past.” Becoming an expert on nuclear weaponry would be easy, he said. ”It would take an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles,” he explained. ”I think I know most of it anyway. You’re talking about just getting updated on a situation.”

Maybe Mr. Trump should take the afternoon off to study up on missiles and leave the tenants of 100 Central Park South alone.


Trump’s Phony Offer to the Homeless

Donald Trump with the late Andy Warhol at a polo match in NY, Nov 4, 1983. Photo: Mario Suriani/AP via NYDN - Beyond the Killing Fields

A young Donald Trump with the late Andy Warhol at a polo match in NY, Nov 4, 1983. Photo: Mario Suriani/AP

By Sydney H. Schanberg

Adapted from Op-Ed columns in The New York Times which appeared on June 4 and August 2, 1983

It was only a small item in the paper. And then a small follow-up item. They were unremarkable in size but they contained stunning news.

What these few paragraphs said was that Donald Trump — master builder, real estate impresario, accused by many of caring only about glitter and money — had offered to house some of this city’s downtrodden homeless in a building he owns on posh Central Park South where he has 14 empty apartments.

The city government reacted suspiciously to his offer. These misguided officials believed — heaven forfend — that Young Trump’s purpose was Machiavellian. Endowed with distrustful natures, they thought he wanted to install the down-and-outers at 100 Central Park South (across from the St. Moritz Hotel, full views of Central Park) for the sole purpose of driving out the rest of the tenants so he could demolish the building and put up another Trump pyramid.

Donald Trump acknowledges that he does indeed want to get the present tenants out in order to put up a new luxury building, but he insists that’s not why he’s offering shelter for the homeless.

“Some people think I must doing a number on the people in the building,” Mr. Trump told me. “That’s not true. I just want to help with the homeless problem. It’ll take two or three years to get everybody out, and in the meantime I’ll have more and more vacant apartments for the indigent.”

The city’s response came from Robert Trobe, a deputy administrator at the Human Resources Administration. He wrote to Mr. Trump: “While we greatly appreciate your offer, it does not seem appropriate to house clients in a building slated for demolition.”

Mr. Trobe was more candid in a later interview: “In light of the temporary nature of his proposal and his interest in moving out some other people, I’m left with an uncomfortable feeling and therefore am not pursuing it.”

When Trump initially made his offer, he mentioned only that the free apartments would have heat, hot water and “beautiful views.” Officialdom never gave him a chance to elaborate.

Now, he says, “I’ll also pay for nurses. And I’ll pay for any medical supplies that are needed.” It’s enough to sweep you off your feet. But the city, Scrooge-like, says nothing doing.

Young Trump says the building in its present status, because its apartments are rent-controlled or rent-stabilized, is being misused by “people of great wealth” who are paying minuscule rents for “the best location in the city.” “I have multimillionaires living in rent-controlled apartments.”

The building, says Trump, is a symbol of the bizarre anomalies imposed on the city’s critical housing supply by the rent-regulation system. He contends that if we could abolish the system, at least for the plutocracy, and charge fair market rents to all those with a net worth of over $1 million, buildings throughout Manhattan would produce significantly higher tax revenues for the government— and instead of pinched city budgets, we would have bulging surpluses. “We’d have money for cleaning our streets,” he promised. “Money for more cops. The city would be healthier.” 

Before we allow ourselves to rejoice, however, there seem to be several nagging problems.
While some of the tenants in the 15-story building are quite rich, many are elderly people living on fixed incomes, such as Social Security, who have made their homes there for 20 years or more.

Although he is right that the building-as-is produces little if any profit and generates only a modest property tax check annually for the city, Mr. Trump knew all that when he bought the place. He didn’t mind because he thought he could empty it swiftly and erect a big profit-maker in its place.

His several court suits to get tenants out have so far failed — one judge suggested that his case was frivolous — and the tenants have accused him in turn of harassment and cutting of the building’s services.

And finally, if this young P.T. Barnum of real estate is so concerned about our pinched city budgets, why is he then suing the city for a $20 million tax abatement for the Trump Tower, a Fifth Avenue building on which he has already turned a profit of over $100 million?

While other landlords — just the bad apples, of course — bring in goods and dogs and arsonists to drive out tenants, Donald Trump is only bringing in derelicts. “I am sincere, he says. “I just want to help  get some of these people off the streets.”

While the city will always need brash and hustling developers, his proposal was obscenely condescending to the homeless, using them as pawns without feelings, callous to the tenants and devious to the city agency for the homeless, which said no thanks instantly.

But then, Charles Sternberg, executive director of the International Rescue Committee — a laudable organization that since 1933 has been helping refugees settle and find jobs in this country — wrote me a letter asking if I thought Mr. Trump would offer the same free apartments to Polish exiles from the solidarity movement who are seeking a haven in the U.S.

The Trump offer was perfect for them since they need only temporary housing to give them time to find permanent apartments. Moreover, none of the suspicions justifiably raised about placing the homeless in these apartments could attach to the Polish refugees. 

I suggested to Mr. Sternberg that he write directly to Mr. Trump. His plea to the developer spoke about the “generous offer” toward the homeless and “about a problem we are facing with regard to Polish refugees who are now arriving in New York and for whom we are looking rather desperately for affordable housing.”

Mr. Sternberg’s letter went on: “They are homeless in the sense that as newcomers they have never had a home in the United States. And they are quite desirable tenants, having been exiled from their native country for their active participation in the Solidarnosc struggle…”

No response came, so after two weeks, someone from the International Rescue Committee called the Trump office, spoke with an assistant and “was told that our suggestion was not really what (Mr. Trump) had in mind.” The assistant said they would “get back” to the I.R.C.

When there was still no word five weeks after the initial appeal, Mr. Sternberg wrote a second letter to Trump. In it, he talked about the growing number of Poles being released from detention on condition they leave Poland and noted that the housing shortage here was not limited to Polish refugees. The I.R.C. has been helping thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians and others. “Your readiness to assist us,” Mr. Sternberg wrote,” “would…serve as an example. Impressed with the spirit of your initial offer, I thought of you as the initiator of a trend which would be of major humanitarian significance in a city which has never been oblivious of the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.” 

We called the Trump office to find out the reason for his coolness to this idea. A secretary explained: “That wasn’t the intention of our offer. We were talking about people who live in America now — not refugees. I don’t think this is something he [Trump] would consider.”

Let’s all urge him to reconsider. Otherwise, some people around town are going to start calling him a phony. Unless the Trumps are direct descendents of the Onondagas or the Sioux, their ancestors must have arrived in America in need of a home.

Just when did Donald become selectively xenophobic? He has no objection to foreigners buying multimillion-dollar condominiums in his Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue.

Now’s his chance to prove that he was sincere the first time, and that he wasn’t just trying to scare his tenants out of his Central Park South building — for profit only.


The Dark Side of the ‘Lucky Guy’

On June 9, Broadway’s 67th annual Tony awards will be announced and celebrated. One of the lead actor nominees is Tom Hanks, for “Lucky Guy,” a tale of the life of the late Mike McAlary, a tabloid columnist who became known in New York as a hard-charging crime and police reporter who got to major police and crime stories before his newspaper competitors. He was bold and flashy and won a Pulitzer prize in 1997. He died in 1998 from colon cancer.

But in 1994, he made a mockery of journalism by writing three columns about a woman who was raped in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. He got some bad information from police sources and rushed into print saying the woman was a “hoaxer” who was not raped or attacked in any way but made up the story to draw attention to her concerns about the treatments of gays and lesbians. When the police medical report confirmed she had been raped, finding semen inside her body and on her clothes, McAlary refused to accept the findings. What they found, he said in one of his three columns, was “at best, saliva.” Mc Alary never sought to interview the woman and he never apologized to her.  That was heinous journalism. The woman sued him for libel.

The woman’s attorney, Martin Garbus, went to see the play and wrote a piece worth reading for The New York Times entitled The Damage Done by a ‘Lucky Guy.

I wrote three columns for Newsday in 1994 and 95 about the facts of the case, the unlucky victim, and the trial that exposed the dark side of tabloid journalism as practiced by Broadway’s “Lucky Guy”:

Tangled Webs Woven with Personal Ties

Fighting Her Accusers and the ‘Demons’

A Novel Take on Responsible Reporting


Bush: I Cannot Tell the Truth

Beyond the Killing Fields - George W. Bush, 2006 - clatl.comBy Sydney H. Schanberg

Even during the Vietnam War, the disinformation that flowed from the White House was never so spectacular, so multitudinous – and so effective – as the unceasing Newspeak from the Bush White House now.

About effectiveness, the polls say that a lot of Americans, for instance, still think that Iraq had a connection to the terrorist attacks on Sept 11, 2001. The same is true about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction and about the “mushroom-cloud” imminence of Baghdad’s threat to national security. The president and his chorus put all these delusions into America’s head. They swore that these bogus stories were true in order to frighten the voters and Congress into supporting their invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

How did we get into the habit of tolerating such serial, public proclamations of falsehoods? Remember the cute story about George Washington and the cherry tree? Now, with the new President George, the confession line reads a little differently: “I cannot tell the truth.” Indeed, if mendacity statistics were being kept by some national agency, this presidency would surely have set new records.

The president says flatly: “The United States doesn’t torture.” That’s ridiculous, laughable. The accepted definition of torture regarding prisoners captured in a war, which is what President Bush was talking about, is “degrading” physical or psychological treatment that causes extreme pain or debilitating injuries — or death. Under that definition, United States has already acknowledged many cases of torture in Iraq and convicted and sentenced a number of soldiers for their abuses. Indeed, if the president’s false statement of torture purity were true, we would be the first nation since the beginning of recorded time whose military forces have not committed acts of torture during the brutality and insanity of war.

I have covered wars close-up. Everyone who has been in wars knows that torture is inevitable, a given. The only difference between warring parties is that some armies have strong rules against torture and others have softer discipline or no rules at all. The President says our security now requires that we relax our rules against torture. He doesn’t put it that way; he makes it sound benign and squarely in the humane tradition. Many people believe him. He has apparently persuaded them that changing our laws will not make us more like the terrorists we are fighting now, who lop off heads and display the acts on television.

The President has swept aside the argument from many American field officers that if we allow interrogations to go beyond the rules, our own soldiers when taken prisoner will be handled more brutally. He declares that those who raise such issues are dealing in “hypothetical questions” which he says he will not respond to. He also dismisses the contention of military men who have been in war that harsh torture rarely produces reliable information.

Senator John McCain of Arizona is one of those military men. As a navy pilot in the Vietnam War, he was shot down over Hanoi and tortured severely at Hoa Lo prison, known to Americans as the “Hanoi Hilton.” Eventually, as did most prisoners subjected to intense physical beatings, McCain gave a false confession, testifying that he had deliberately bombed North Vietnamese schools and hospitals. The taped confession was played over prison loudspeakers for the purpose of humiliating him. It was also broadcast over Hanoi’s military radio station. It was all lies, the usual product of torture.

So John McCain, a Republican like the President, knows about torture. And the President does not. McCain and two other Republican senators at first stood up against the President’s legislation relaxing the rules against torture. But under political pressure, McCain and his group reached a “compromise” with the White House — and the bill was enacted in 2006 by the then GOP-controlled Congress. It’s a whitewash that allows the CIA to use harsh tactics on prisoners behind a cloak of secrecy — with no accountability to the public.

Secrecy continues to be a commandment in the Bush administration. Secrecy and the inability to tell the truth.

First published September 24, 2006 in The Village Voice.


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