MEMBERS ONLY: How Donald Trump Nearly Destroyed My Life

There are millions of left, center, slightly center-right, and simply apolitical U.S. citizens who suffer every day upon waking to the latest self-absorbed tweets, alternative facts, and junta-flavored executive orders of our president. While I’m in no way in the top one percent financially or perhaps just about any other way, I am probably in the top one percent of the one percent when it comes to taking the Trump enema personally. You see, Donald Trump, personally, already ruined my life once.

In the spring of 1992, Donald Trump’s fortunes were in virtual free fall. Riverside South, however, was the fading developer’s ace in the hole. Trump had purchased the 77-acre tract of largely defunct rail yards along Manhattan’s West Side several years earlier for the relative bargain basement price of $115 million. As for all real estate, the land value was tied to the zoning restrictions. With a variance to allow residential and commercial development, the property would potentially be worth billions. But actually obtaining that variance would itself require years, millions of dollars in professional fees, and sheer political muscle.

But compared to the freewheeling 80s, 1992 was a new era. Under the Charter Reform passed in 1989, New York City was supposed to be more sensitive to community needs, and Donald Trump had repackaged himself as sensitive tycoon. Supported by a half-dozen civics groups, Riverside South—though still large and imposing—was drastically scaled down from its original size and even included a variety of features said to be environmentally friendly and “sustainable.” One such feature was a large public park to be built as an amenity by Trump between the development and the Hudson River. It was my assignment on behalf of the Borough President to develop a cost estimate for that very park.
I was grateful for where life had taken me so far. The job of Chief Borough Engineer at the Borough President’s Office required a mix of technical background and policy acumen I considered myself well suited for, and at the tender age of twenty-nine I was given the chance to actually make a substantial difference in the lives of New Yorkers. My wife was expecting our first child, and I was living something reasonably close to the elusive American Dream.

There was probably nowhere in the world I would have preferred to be than sitting around a conference table at the Borough President’s Office negotiating with Donald Trump and his entourage. When my cost estimate for the new park came in around $50 million more than Trump’s team had figured, no one objected and Trump signed on to it. It was written into the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and the money would supposedly be put in escrow. Trump needed this deal and was amenable to just about anything.

That same MOU, however, grew by the day. The political movement against environmental racism—the same movement that had drawn me to my job in the first place—had focused for years on the North River sewage treatment plant. Located along the Hudson River on the edge of West Harlem, the facility spewed rotten-egg smelling hydrogen sulfide and had been pushed well beyond its design capacity. At the end of a long list of preconditions, approval was given to Trump’s Riverside South at the Borough President level with the caveat that development could not legally proceed unless the average daily dry weather flow to the plant dipped below 170 million gallons per day.

Ruth Messinger took heat for signing onto this agreement from the very same left-leaning community leaders and activists who had helped put her in office. On the other hand, I was proud to be part of this forward thinking staff. The MOU set clear, verifiable conditions and benchmarks and gave all of us concerned with environmental racism—and environmental hazards, period—a powerful fire to hold not only to the feet of Donald Trump but to the feet of the city itself.

By the spring of 1994 I was a seasoned borough engineer and the novice father of a fourteen-month old baby girl. Our office was part of a larger force helping to move New York into a better age. There were plans for a bike path to circle the entirety of Manhattan. Two years into secondary sewage treatment at North River, people were seen fishing in the Hudson. An elaborate public park atop the plant was nearly complete. The last ocean dumping of municipal waste at sea had been made over a year and a half earlier. The crime rate was going down.

One morning as I combed through a pile of mail I spotted the North River weekly flow report. The report indicated the usual high flow on a Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday followed by a precipitous drop on Friday and continued low flow over the weekend. I did the math in my head quickly, roughly averaging the data before and after the drop. About 24 million gallons per day of raw sewage had vanished overnight. The date was April Fools’.

In the ensuing days I compiled voluminous data and issued intra-office reports virtually proving that—in spite of several well intentioned citywide water conservation measures moving along at a snail’s pace—the sudden drop in sewage flow was a physical impossibility. To my chagrin, each report was met with silence from the higher-ups at Ruth Messinger’s office.

The chagrin turned to something worse in early June when I read in the New York Times that Donald Trump had sold 70 percent of his interest in Riverside South to a Hong Kong consortium that was prepared to invest billions into building out the development. What probably seemed like a routine business section article to a typical reader triggered a sick feeling in my stomach. The other shoe had dropped and was floating down the Hudson. The precipitous drop in reported sewage flow on April 1—which had remained low ever since—cleared the way for the Hong Kong purchase and the inglorious Trump cash-out. As complicated as it was, it was really that simple.

Late in the summer, the Borough President’s chief counsel pulled me into her office and banned me from any and all community meetings having anything to do with North River or Riverside South. My response was to continue making unofficial visits and frequent phone calls and to keep picking away at the sewage mystery. In the following weeks I was berated, threatened with losing my job if I didn’t quickly comply with a new and fictitious residency requirement, left with menacing voicemail messages, and finally demoted to report to someone I had worked with as an equal for almost three years.

In December 1994 I took the small buyout offered by the Giuliani administration in the midst of a budget crisis. On my way out, the Chief Counsel held my last paycheck and admonished me that she had contacted the city’s Board of Ethics and determined that should I work as a consultant for any public interest group opposing Riverside South, it would be viewed as a conflict of interest and possibly subject to criminal prosecution.

It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I quickly took on a consulting assignment from the Coalition for a Livable West Side. My research regarding the missing sewage was the centerpiece of the Coalition’s lawsuit against the city for violation of federal statutes. The Coalition had developed high level contacts in the Clinton administration’s Department of Justice. In the late summer of 1995 the phone rang and I was told Mary Jo White, prosecutor for DOJ Region 2, wanted to meet with our group. Her office had read my latest report, found it credible, and was seeking to join forces on the litigation.

The weeks leading up to the meeting felt like a homerun trot. With a few days to go before the meeting, however, Mary Jo White’s office phoned the Coalition’s attorney and called it off. It wasn’t a postponement but rather a definitive statement that DOJ was dropping the case entirely. There was no explanation given. Have a nice life.

Today, my personal nightmare has metastasized into a national illness. We’ll get through it, but the political chemo may kill us. I really was past my own Trump issues by about 1999. As the years unfolded, the insipid reality shows and endless shameless narcissistic marketing were a blip on my screen and easily trumped by my 24/7 preoccupation with building my own business and supporting my family—exactly what the right wing has claimed to do so righteously and seamlessly for themselves. To my friends across the political spectrum—I have been to this rodeo before, and I know it ends with a body trampled underfoot. It’s going to be hard to watch, but I guess this time I’ll have a lot more company.

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Rich Herschlag is well into his third decade as an author, consulting engineer, husband and father and is very tired.