Donald J. Trump's presidency meant snarled traffic, blocked sidewalks and frequent protests outside his Manhattan home.
Traffic choked by cement barricades. Sidewalks blocked by police checkpoints. Protest after protest clogging the streets. For more than four years, life in the shadow of Donald Trump's namesake tower on Fifth Avenue has been one intractable snarl.
But last week, as Gloria Wan made her way past Trump Tower to the hair salon she owns on West 56th Street, she was startled to find her commute utterly unimpeded — most of the security measures that had been a permanent part of the block since Trump was elected in 2016 had vanished.
"I can't find the proper words to describe — it was like breathing fresh air, with all the barricades gone," Wan said, standing between the racks of wigs she created in her second-floor shop. "I kept looking: 'Am I on the right block?'"
The police declined to explain the decision to pare back the security measures around the building. Some, like a barricade of cement chunks in front of the building's gleaming black-and-gold entrance, are still in place.
"In partnership with the United States Secret Service the decision was made to remove the barriers around Trump Tower," Sgt. Jessica McRorie, a spokesperson for the New York City Police Department, said in an email. "The NYPD does not discuss security measures."
For years, the tower, which was home to Trump's triplex penthouse, drew little notice. It was thought to be tall for the area when it opened in 1983, and maybe a bit slick, but its six-story marbled atrium drew some warm reviews. While Trump was merely a real estate mogul who had become a reality television star, passersby dawdled to snap photos of the building and tourists wandered through its luxury shops.
But almost as soon as Trump was elected, Fifth Avenue became a proving ground for protests, and the lobby, which remained open to the public, a destination for Trump's supporters.
Though Trump rarely visited the city during his four years in office, security near the tower in the early days of his presidency approached lockdown conditions when the family was at home, with restrictions slightly slackened when they were out of town. Security would ramp back up when protests coalesced around the building's front doors. And they did so with regularity, including in demonstrations against his inauguration in 2017 and marches for George Floyd last summer.
When security was at its most stringent — such as when Trump visited for the United Nations General Assembly in 2018 — more than 200 members of the Police Department served 12-hour shifts guarding the area every day, according to the police. At the time, the police estimated that the cost to the city of protecting the tower was US$127,000 ($176,000) to US$146,000 ($203,000) daily when the Trumps were absent, and about $308,000 a day when they were home.
The extra protection vanished shortly after President Joe Biden was inaugurated and it became clear that the former president was probably not returning to his hometown.
In 2019, Trump, who was born in Queens, changed his state residency to Florida, where he resides within his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach. But his real estate business, the Trump Organization, is still headquartered at the tower, and he retains the apartment there as well as a slew of other properties across the five boroughs of New York City and beyond.
Walking with her family past the tower Friday, Ashely Martinez, 23, did not think the pared-back security measures were a good idea. "I think they should keep protecting the building, because you never know," Martinez said. "There are a lot of angry people,"
Last summer, Mayor Bill de Blasio oversaw the painting of the words "Black Lives Matter" on the street in front of the tower. Bill Neidhardt, a spokesperson for the mayor, declined to comment on why the midtown security measures were scaled back. "Donald Trump might be finding a new home in Florida," Neidhardt wrote in an email, "but the Black Lives Matter mural in front of Trump Tower is here to stay."
At one point during the first year of Trump's presidency, stretches of 56th Street west and east of the tower were entirely closed for weeks. Delivery trucks often backed up an entire city block after dropping off supplies at the shops and restaurants along the street. It was not uncommon to see deliverymen pushing crates of fruits and vegetables bound for restaurant kitchens up and down the streets, their trucks stranded blocks away.
At Il Tinello, a white-tablecloth Italian restaurant on West 56th Street, business had been choked by 30% the first few months of the presidency, said John Goçi, the owner. It rebounded somewhat in recent years, he said, until it was almost entirely decimated by pandemic restrictions.
"It changes you completely, destroying your business, from the barricades to everything else," Goçi said.
On Friday, waiters in white tuxedo jackets were welcoming the first lunch customers inside Il Tinello since indoor dining was suspended shortly after Thanksgiving. Combined with the removal of the barriers from the area, Goçi said, it felt like a ray of hope.
"Between returning to indoor dining, the barricades and coming upon the vaccine, it's like it's going to go back to normal," he said.
Not everyone could weather the consequences of Trump Tower's notoriety, or its most famous resident's comings and goings. After losing 40 per cent of his business during the first six months of Trump's presidency, Charleric Lenglain moved his hair salon, Charleric Coiffure, a few blocks north in 2017 to survive, he said.
On Friday, one visitor, Laura Cordovi, was doing her best to make sure businesses around Trump Tower thrived. She clutched a shiny shopping bag containing her new purse as she walked out of the Gucci flagship store in the building. She was relieved that she no longer had to cross a checkpoint to shop there, she said.
But, she added, barricades wouldn't have stopped her, anyway: "It's Gucci!" Cordovi said, and walked down the avenue, unimpeded.
Written by: Sarah Maslin Nir
Photographs by: Anna Watts, Gabriela Bhaskar, Demetrius Freeman
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES