In Trump country

New York is Democrat territory. It’s also where Donald Trump was born. For its many minorities though, the city was simply home for its liberalism that put it far ahead of the rest of the country. As the Big Apple prepares for a change it didn’t expect, SELIN THOMAS tracks the morning after

Written by Selin Thomas | Updated: November 13, 2016 2:06 am
trump-759 Emotional scenes at New York’s Jacob Havits Center as the results show a Trump victory(Photo by Selin Thomas)

New York is mourning. As tens of thousands of protesters in cities across the US took to the streets in the wake of an unprecedented presidential victory, similarly embattled masses stormed Fifth Avenue through the results night, towards the now-indelible Trump Tower. New Yorkers, in their diversity and singularity, are perhaps most acutely absorbing the nation’s riving post-election turmoil, for the president-elect —born in Queens — is a native New Yorker. A painful rebuke of principle and identity here, Trump’s election is bearing heavily on this city as the fraught tribalism of the country swiftly delivered its nadir.

The outcome starkly contradicts New York’s crowning modern conviction: liberalism. Hillary Clinton dominated New York state in the voting booth by a 21.3 per cent margin, and won 77.2 per cent of the vote in Manhattan. In three major neighbouring boroughs, the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn, her lowest return was still 75 per cent of the vote. This is Democrat territory. Though President Barack Obama symbolically reminded the American populace on election day that the sun, no matter the outcome, would indeed rise on November 9, gloom overwhelmed Manhattan island following Donald Trump’s stunning ascendance to the presidency.

big-picture-1 Protests against Trump’s victory in Manhattan borough, among other places in the US, on November 10 (Photo by Selin Thomas)

A grey sky loomed over the twisted brows of commuters shuffling into the subway on Wednesday morning. Some wore a confused mix of rain and tears. The solemn hum passing that day through supermarkets, cafes, and in long conversations between neighbours on the sidewalk, contained grief, disbelief and, most of all, uncertainty. Several compared it to sentiment the day after the attack on the Twin Towers. New Yorkers, anxious that the threads of their elaborate fabric will soon be mocked, or in the worst case pulled apart, by the victors and their leader, are struggling to find resolve.

bigpicture-3 Adrian C, originally from Mexico and now running a laundromat in Harlem, says “we are all immigrants in New York”(Photo by Selin Thomas)

“This is going to be hard for many people,” Adrian C, a 29-year-old Mexican immigrant who requested partial anonymity for fear of deportation, said. This is a fear he did not carry with him prior to the election. From the counter of the laundromat he runs on Lenox Avenue, he watches all of Harlem pass before his window. “We are all immigrants here, and we should not separate ourselves from each other. But now it will be very hard,” he said. “It’s always easy to find reasons to dislike each other, but that’s not how we do it in New York.” Adrian worried that Trump’s presidency would embolden anti-immigrant violence.

Rick Jones, sitting in a folding chair in front of his usual corner haunt in East Harlem, was certain Clinton lost the election because she was a woman, and fears that women will be more vulnerable than ever. “Most men are very afraid of a woman in power, whether they like to admit it or not. Especially white men because they’re not used to being below anybody,” he said. “So many of us are so sad today, and just anxious about what this will do to us. From Obama to this? It seems unbelievable.”

As the city reeled then digested the nasty prospect of post-Obama-era leadership, protests in front of Trump Tower continued into the late night, with estimates of the number of participants reaching 5,000. The clamour took no colour. Vibrant headscarves blended seamlessly with brown and white faces; creole and Spanish could be overheard, though straining to overcome the pitch of anti-Trump mantras; children watched on screens at home.

big-picture-6 Anahay Peguero from Dominican Republic says she is scared for her daughters, ages 9 and 10 (Photo by Selin Thomas)

“I worry about my girls,” 30-year-old Anahay Peguero said as she walked her daughters, ages 9 and 10, to school. Originally from the Dominican Republic, Peguero said her many family members and friends were now afraid of retaliation. “One of their teachers cried the morning after the election, and asked them how a country that wants freedom could elect that man. I don’t know the answer, and that is very hard,” she said. Her younger daughter, Stephanie, chimed in. “She was so sad, but she told us to move forward because we have no choice,” the young girl said.

This democracy and the institutions girding it will not capitulate to nationwide opposition; Trump will take the Oval Office in January. As the nation, and New York, adjusts to that fact, an uncertainty grips it. “I’m gay and Jewish and scared,” one young man said in front of the Tower as another, with a strong Indian accent, rushed by saying, “What will he do to us? We cannot know.” A crew of young boys hollered, “Get ready to get Trumped!”

“He gave them what they wanted, what so deep down they have been hiding, and got on stage and gave it to them. He’s not just talking, this is coming up from his belly. That’s how he won,” said Evelyn Kelley, a 75-year-old African American and native New Yorker.

This place is a great, earnest experiment. Seventy per cent of the state is white, but the percentages of other races and religions surpass national averages. Eighteen per cent is black or Hispanic, compared to 13 per cent and 17 per cent nationally, respectively, and 8 per cent are Asian as opposed to 5.6 per cent across the country. Of New York’s 20 million, new estimates put the Muslim population between 400,000 and 800,000, according to a Journey Data Center Analysis, and the immigrant population at 3.07 million, more than any other city in the world. Over 37 per cent of New York City residents were born in another country, the highest number in hundred years, according to a recent Census estimate.

It is hard to imagine how the Trump years will alter this landscape without bracing for a direct threat to it. It is also, therefore, unimaginable to conceive of this impending rupture as anything other than a threat to the very principles of this democracy. For, just at the southern tip of this island, cold water sweeps in from the Atlantic, lapping against the promise of an altogether incompatible dictum from the one the nation has just empowered. It reads at the feet of that green copper lady an oath to illuminate for the “tempest tossed” huddled masses a “golden door”.

To relinquish such conviction is more than mere hypocrisy, revealing instead a tragic insecurity of identity. This is the threat. It is one we can identify, one with a venom we know, because it is born from the duality of our very nature. To us, in this wild, resilient and at times dystopic urbanity, the choice between these dual natures presents, even forces, itself daily as you battle through swarms of Others — seen yet invisible — determining the civility, humanity and success of the experiment.

Victor’s Barbershop, in Harlem, erupted in yelling, joking, laughing and arguing at the utterance of the president-elect’s name. When taxes, which Trump plans to slash, arose in conversation, some argued his plan might benefit them. Morris Bone, a 62-year-old New Yorker, then thundered from his barber’s chair over the shop’s hysteria. His barber paused the clippers. “More money don’t mean nothing as long as his finger is on the button. For us, here, we’re used to being forgotten, ain’t nothing new to us,” he said, continuing, “You know what else we’re used to? White people lying to us straight in the face.” The volume rose again as they clamoured to talk over one another fitfully, resounding in agreement.

A quieter man in the corner, James Brown, a 52-year-old Harlem native used to telling jokes about his name, nodded his head. “They gave us the right mix of truth and lies, and they won. I’ve lived here for five decades, I’ve seen a lot of changes, but I just go to work every day, I get on,” he said. “Will he live by his words? I don’t know. But everyone deserves a chance.”

New Yorkers’ feeling of loss was secondary to the shock of the election’s outcome. Many were certain that there was no possibility of a Trump win, and found themselves questioning their understanding of the rest of the country.

big-picture-5 Danny DeJesus, a construction worker, admitted he was “baffled” and expected “a radical change” (Photo by Selin Thomas)

“I’m baffled,” Danny DeJesus, 47, a construction worker from New York, said. “I didn’t vote though, mostly because none of the candidates told us in the debates what they were going to do for the country. It was gossip. I wanted to know, ‘What are you going to do to help me? What are you going to do to help this country?’. No one answered that, so I didn’t answer them.”

The day after the election, New Yorkers felt that what they had just witnessed was a strange dream, one difficult to wrap their minds around because the city is so reliably open-minded. It was as if they had awoken in a country they didn’t recognise, and didn’t want to.

“This country is in trouble, but it’s hard to tell from where. I don’t know anyone who voted for Trump,” said Duane Debetham, a 40-year-old Harlemite. “Here, we keep together.”

Thirteen-year-old Tamara Sanders said her family was in shock the morning of Trump’s victory. “We didn’t imagine he would win. I feel upset, but there is still work to do and that’s what we need to focus on.” Would it have been inspiring to witness the first female president take office? “To have the first lady president, especially after the first African-American, would have been something special, but it didn’t seem a priority for anyone else,” she said.

A taxi man from Azerbaijan called Mohammad, who asked not to be completely named, in solidarity with fellow immigrants and Muslims, said he thought that America would respond more strongly against Trump’s divisive rhetoric. “The election was so ugly. But America is not invincible, like many of us thought, to these same threats of ideology. It can seep in here like anywhere else, and the reason many of us left our home country to come here is losing,” he said.

big-picture-2 T C Williams (left), a chef and photographer, with a co-worker in Harlem. Trump’s agenda “has nothing to do with us”, he said. (Photo by Selin Thomas)

“He said in his speech that he was going to be a president to us all. I have a question, how the hell are you going to do that for me when you have friends in the KKK? They have their own agenda, and it has nothing to do with us,” said T C Williams, a chef and photographer in Harlem.

By Thursday, New Yorkers seemed to begin to heed the wisdom of President Obama, and the city returned to its usual entropy. Messages imploring positivity prefaced the usual performances of subway panhandlers; therapeutic post-it notes decorated a tunnelled walkway at 14th Street; ties printed with American flags could be glimpsed between crowds in midtown; and, as the reality sank in, the city returned to its incessant buzzing and colliding —aided by a dark humour, an acceptance, and a sense of commonality. On three separate occasions, someone reading The New York Times on the subway shared a laugh with another commuter nearby upon meeting glances. This is how it is.

big-picture-4 Valerie Price, 39, who was raised in Harlem, said there was little for New Yorkers to do but “stick together”, ensure the results “do not dominate us”

“Woe is not me,” said Valerie Price, 35, raised in East Harlem. “This cannot dominate us.”

Only one other president has been from New York: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. That was 1932 and the country then, too, was in sharp divide. Today’s schism is also remarkable, and those facing the future of the country from the vulnerable position of the losing side feel a compounding disadvantage in their minority status, be it female, democratic, Muslim, gay, Jewish or Latino. New York is ahead of the country, it always seemed, but the coin has flipped against it. There remains a pride in being the underdog here, one which is built into the very foundation of the city, even the country.

“Maybe we’re out of sync because I don’t know anyone who voted for Trump. One thing I do know. When the country looked for leadership, they came to New York,” said Bone from his barber chair.