Tina’s Cuban Cuisine, a small deli and diner on West 56th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues in Manhattan, is one of those easy-to-overlook restaurants that helps form the backbone of New York’s business districts. While its nearby neighbor David Chang’s Michelin-rated Má Pêche draws in foodies, Tina’s beckons a crowd with smaller culinary ambitions: morning commuters seeking a quick coffee, limo drivers breaking for a quick Cuban sandwich, tourists escaping the Midtown scrum.
That’s how things were, anyway. Nothing at Tina’s or Má Pêche or almost any of the several dozen businesses on this mostly unglamorous block around the corner from Trump Tower has been the same since Donald Trump won the presidency. In the proceeding five weeks, barricades have made walking onto the street seem daunting, while cops have maintained a heavy presence, and most vehicular traffic has been banned. The limo drivers can’t get through at all, which impacts both Má Pêche and the more down-to-earth Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse, not to mention places such as Tina’s, where drivers sometimes passed the time until they needed to pick up their clients.
Throughout his campaign, Trump made explicit pitches to small business owners—who returned the attention with their support. But right now, some of the people most inconvenienced by the impending Trump presidency are the restaurateurs and shop owners in Trump’s back yard. When staffers for New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer surveyed a random sampling of 50 businesses in the wider area surrounding Trump Tower in mid-November, they discovered more than two-thirds of them claimed they were losing revenue. More than a third called the impact “severe.” About 25 percent of proprietors said they were contemplating cutting staff pay. A similar number said they were having problems making their rent as a result of the sudden loss of business.
One reason former presidents such as Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, who relocated to the New York City area after leaving office, didn’t move their residences into the city proper is because of the mind-bending logistics. Protecting a current or former president in an area as dense as Manhattan is a formidable undertaking sure to disrupt the surrounding neighborhoods. There are no green yards and few open spaces to cordon off as a buffer between the president and the rest of the world.
And so the several-block radius surrounding Trump Tower, where Trump has largely holed up since his election, is now deluged in necessary inconvenience—particularly for local businesses. Police trailers and media vans park in front of storefronts, obscuring them from view. Where traffic is allowed in the area around the tower, it’s at a standstill for much of the day. On parts of Fifth Avenue, pedestrians need to have their bags searched if they wish to proceed onward.
And it’s not clear if the situation will change after Trump relocates to the White House. Trump’s wife, Melania, and youngest son, Barron, will not be moving to Washington immediately. And Trump has said he would like to maintain a presence at Trump Tower, his primary residence. Which means the security in the area may remain burdensome far into the future.
I visited West 56th Street recently because in many ways it is a microcosm of a changing city. There are a few high-end businesses of the sort you would identify with Fifth Avenue, such as Má Pêche and the Chambers Hotel, where guests complain they can no longer get dropped off right in front. There are also chain restaurants catering to the lunch and tourist crowds, such as Hale and Hearty Soups, Potbelly Sandwich Shop, and Naya Express. (All either refused to comment or didn’t return inquiries about their postelection sales and foot traffic.) But the majority are small businesses in the more traditional sense—small local restaurants, bars, and beauty salons. And their situation reminded of that proverb: When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.
So what could the city, the Secret Service, and the president-elect do to ease restrictions and restore foot traffic? The de Blasio administration and the New York Police Department say they’re in touch with the men and women on West 56th Street. “The NYPD has been making its rounds in the surrounding area and checking in with businesses to keep them abreast of security protocols and restrictions put in place by the Secret Service,” a spokesperson for the mayor’s office told me. And Lt. John Grimpel, a spokesman for the police department, told me that representatives of the local police precinct “have met with the majority of store owners on the block to alleviate any concerns they have to the security measures.”
Many of the business owners on West 56th Street beg to differ and say they have no idea who to contact about getting deliveries to their stores and other day-to-day issues that are now exponentially harder to execute. “Ever since this happened, no one from the city has come by and explained to us what is happening,” says Kevin Hill, the manager of Crockett & Jones, a high-end British men’s shoe store. “Literally no one has come by.” Carlos Roman, the general manager at Tina’s, says he can’t get information either, even from the cops who are his new patrons. Derek Walsh, the co-owner of Judge Roy Bean Public House, says he’s contacted numerous politicians and barely received a response. We spoke around noon on a recent Monday. The restaurant should have been full or close to it, he told me. Instead, he had two customers. “We’ve got our neighbor Mr. Trump. He is going around America saving jobs, but he can’t look out the window of his apartment,” Walsh said.
Compounding the issue: Retailers traditionally do anywhere between 20 and 30 percent of their annual business during the last two months of the year. And while for restaurants it’s traditionally a slower season, that’s not true on West 56th Street, whose eateries usually do well thanks to the many tourists who flock to New York during the holiday season.
Not shockingly, business owners on the street told me they’ve seen huge declines in sales. “We have quite a list of marketing techniques, but it doesn’t matter if people aren’t willing to go through a barricade to get to you,” says Robert Smith, the director of operations at Uncle Jack’s. The same is true for Crockett & Jones, where an NYPD bomb squad truck is frequently parked in front of the store. “It doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence,” said Hill, the store manager.
As for Má Pêche’s Chang, he got so frustrated he took to Twitter:
All of this is impacting employees’ livelihoods. At Tina’s, Roman says the restaurant’s waiters are losing “an easy” $100 a week in tips. Georgiana, an aesthetician at the Bright European Skin Care Salon and Spa, which is located in the middle of the block, told me her earnings are down by 50 percent since the barricades went up. When I sat down with her, it was about 1:30 in the afternoon, and she hadn’t had a single client all day. “Do you have that feeling when you wake up in the morning that today is going to be great day? I used to be like that. Not anymore.” She told me she’s putting off buying Christmas gifts.
The Fifth Avenue businesses are suffering too, of course, so much so that in its most recent earnings release, Tiffany claimed the combination of crowds and security in the area were having an “adverse effect” on sales. At least one analyst claims the jewelry retailer will see lower earnings per share as a result of the hit to the company’s flagship store. But Tiffany, like other nearby businesses, is a global brand. The situation isn’t ideal, and it probably doesn’t need de Blasio to claim at a press conference last month, “I will not tell you that Gucci and Tiffany are my central concerns in life”—but it will almost certainly get by.
The situation is harder for the smaller businesses located around the corner. They aren’t publicly traded companies. Many don’t have huge reserves to draw on. At Uncle Jack’s, Smith tells me he’s concerned waiters will lose patience and seek new jobs. The company has approached its landlord to ask for a rent reduction but hasn’t heard back yet. As for Judge Roy Bean Public House, which underwent an extensive and expensive renovation in 2014, Walsh tells me business was down by about a third in November.
Not everyone is suffering. At Printon 56, a grocery shop and pizza joint, manager Mushique Salim says business is stable. It’s located close to Sixth Avenue, where the security facing those entering the street is less extreme than on the Fifth Avenue side, so he’s lost less of his lunch trade than other places. Another reason Printon 56 has managed: the influx of cops, many of whom were lining up for slices on the day I visited. “I lost something; I gained something,” Salim says with a shrug.
But that’s luck, not a business strategy, and for many businesses, the losses far outweigh the gains. “I am really terrified for January,” Walsh says. “It’s a quiet time of the year, and no one wants to walk down a street when they see a command center, bomb truck, and three layers of barricades.”
It’s hard to say what can be done short of Trump and his family moving to the White House and not using Trump Tower as their secondary residence going forward. Walsh is circulating a petition begging the New York Police Department to move much of its security apparatus to 56th Street east of Fifth Avenue, where, he says, it will impact fewer businesses. Within days, he had 40 signatories. The local city councilman, Dan Garodnick, is asking the police to designate a point person for merchants in the entire area. Less seriously, the Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell suggested New York City move to claim Trump Tower under eminent domain or declare Trump’s continued residence there “a public nuisance.” Maybe Trump’s pick to head the Small Business Administration, World Wrestling Entertainment co-founder Linda McMahon, can wrestle with this one and come up with a solution. I wouldn’t count on it. When I contacted the Trump transition team to ask about the business woes of its neighbors, it never got back to me.