Donald Trump’s childhood in Queens can explain his obsession with borders

During the 1960s and 1970s, Queens was a borough defined by tribalism and simmering resentments.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Queens was a borough defined by tribalism and simmering resentments.
Image: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
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Between the ages of two and four, I lived with my family in a modest shingle house in Hollis, Queens—a neighborhood bordering the wealthy enclave of Jamaica Estates, where Donald Trump grew up. One day when I was a teenager, feeling nostalgic, my brother and I went to take a look at our old place. An elderly man answered the door. Before we knew it, he had launched into a tirade about how the neighborhood was going downhill. “It’s all brown, all brown people,” he said, waving his hand toward the elementary school.

We nodded, dismayed. My brother and I are half-Indian. “I don’t know what you people are,” the man said as we made to leave, “but I’m sure you agree with me. I stay with mine. Ya gotta stay with your own kind.”

Nowadays, most people think of Queens as a multicultural, cosmopolitan hub. But the Queens that I grew up in—the Queens that shaped Donald J. Trump—was far from a tolerant melting pot. During the 1960s and 1970s, Queens was a borough defined by tribalism, racial segregation, and simmering resentments. And it is precisely these feelings that Donald Trump has channeled throughout his presidential campaign. He conjures up a vision of a country that’s out of control, in the process of succumbing to inner city crime, violence, and danger.

To many people on both sides of the aisle, Trump’s rhetoric sounds not just offensive but oddly retro—Archie Bunker mouthing off in his wing chair. (What “inner cities” is he referring to, exactly?) The Queens of his childhood offers a way to understand the forces that shaped the Republican presidential candidate—and why some white Americans are buying into his strangely outdated mix of fear, anger, and nostalgia.

A piece of the American Dream

Queens in the post-World War II era was a kind of tabula rasa; a wide, flat borough where you could leave behind crowded tenement living and carve out a small version of the American dream. The further out you went, the more it began to resemble the suburbs, with slightly larger houses and plots. But you were still part of the city. Your kids went to the public schools, which were decent, or maybe a Catholic private school. Afterward they gathered in the nearby playgrounds. You might have a job in the city—for there were plenty of jobs in those days—and you rode the IND subway or took one of the blue city buses that groaned and sighed their way down Queens’ long, wide boulevards.

It was the sameness of these neighborhoods, their compliant ordinariness that made the borough so appealing. Queens was the American dream in tidy, modest parcels—some of which were built by Fred Trump, Donald’s father, and solidified by the grand infrastructure of Robert Moses. Neither man was very interested in providing the American dream to black residents.

Queens was also a place of ethnic and racial separation. The 1924 federal immigration law aimed to make America more white, Protestant, and Northern European by severely restricting all other immigration. For decades, with few new immigrants arriving, Queens was where second and third generations settled in and turned inward. Still, the ethnic identities lingered. We all knew that Astoria was the Greek neighborhood. College Point was Irish Catholic. Forest Hills had its fragile atmosphere of Holocaust history and Jewish assimilation.

And Jamaica Estates, where Trump grew up, was an haven for the well-to-do and white, with a stone pillar entrance and imposing homes set back from the tree-lined streets north of Hillside Avenue. When I was a teenager, I went to an orthodontist in the neighborhood. He often commented on my “Asian mouth,” and in his waiting room were pamphlets from the John Birch Society, a far-right organization that asserted that Shirley Temple Black, a Unicef ambassador, was a communist spy, and that the civil rights movement was a Soviet conspiracy.

Even if these views were extreme, Trump’s childhood community was largely white and conservative, sealed off from its surroundings. Further south, the areas were mostly black even if their economic status varied. Neighborhoods were hunkered down, unto themselves, parochial.

By the 1970s, however, the city was in upheaval: bankrupt, besieged by strikes and crime, and transitioning from an economy of factories to the service sector. Between 1945 and the early 1970s, New York City lost almost half of its manufacturing jobs, while jobs in finance, insurance, and real estate boomed. The country was also at the tail end of the black migration from the South, and Puerto Rican families were arriving in New York just as many of the post-war jobs were drying up. This only intensified the city’s growing segregation and polarization. Minorities had long been shut out of construction jobs and unions; now it was even harder to gain a foothold in that American dream. The number of black students in public schools doubled while white students fled. Then came a drawn-out teachers strike in 1968. Many white families pulled up roots and moved to Long Island, Westchester, and New Jersey.

Queens, which was relatively stable, nervously eyed the other parts of the city. Jamaica Avenue, not far from Jamaica Estates, became a kind of barrier against the forces of socioeconomic upheaval. Yet realtors began to prey upon white fear, urging residents to sell at low prices. Fred Trump’s discriminatory practices against black housing applicants felt sickeningly familiar to me; they reminded me of the coarse remarks, the patrolling of territory that was Queens in my youth. Our wide slashes of boulevards—Jamaica, Hillside, Union Turnpike—were not for crossing. They were for staying with your own.

Queens has always been home to a black middle class, in communities such as Laurelton and St. Albans. But Queens residents didn’t mix. And so instead of seeing real-life strivers, homeowners, and children, white residents invented people they feared. This is the monstrous distortion and lasting damage of segregation.

The outer-borough candidate

Even the wealthier residents of Queens saw themselves as a part of an ordinary middle class, simply by virtue of comparison to the gleaming, elitist Manhattan. That is precisely the image that Trump—despite his obvious privilege—likes to project.

“I was a kid from Queens who worked in Brooklyn, and suddenly I had an apartment on the Upper East Side … I became a city guy instead of a kid from the boroughs,” Trump says in The Art of the Deal. Here Trump is tapping into the outer-borough mindset: tough, resentful, puffed up and provincial. He is yearning to “make it” on the big stage, that island of ambition that lies tantalizingly close. It’s a feeling that many of his supporters share—people who feel left out and made small. Me too! I can make it too.

Trump is the Queens loud mouth, the insider-outsider who promises he knows how to make the powers-that-be listen to him. He is trying to have it both ways: he’s a rich boy cocooned in his Jamaica Estates upbringing, but he knows how to channel the ordinary families next door who felt threatened by the changes afoot in their city. He understands how people feel when they’re close enough to power to see it, but not so close that it’s within reach. The Trump franchise has always been about promising the masses access to a very particular brand of wealth and glamour. That’s a potent mixture for the disenfranchised whites drawn to his rallies: Trump offers entry into a distant world, yet he’s simultaneously disdainful of elites.

It’s a classic outer-borough pitch, only now he’s supplying the IND line to political power, telling elites to shove it on your behalf, saying to his crowds, with gladiator glee: See me, I can stick it to her. He channels the submerged fury from another era, when off-color jokes and territorial mutterings were not only acceptable—they were a part of the everyday reality.

Like Queens residents of the past, even if they never come into contact with the groups they fear, Trump’s supporters are experiencing a psychic breach. Their lives aren’t how they thought they would be. When Trump conjures up an anarchic, racist version of the 1970s inner city, envisioning mayhem just behind our deadbolt locks, his supporters are not paying attention to the details. This is especially true as he heaps on new threats—immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans, trade deals. The specifics don’t matter so much as the sentiment, the channeling of anger, the sense of walls breached.

Like many, I’ve been horrified by the bigotry Trump has unleashed. But it also feels eerily familiar. I remember that old man hovering on his (once my) threshold, squinting, not sure what to make of my tall brother with his long ponytail, the teenage girl with black hair and an “Asian” mouth. We were the future, arriving at his doorstep. He wasn’t ready for us.