Trump’s Trial Is the Latest in the Manhattan Court’s Rich History

For a decade, Robert Pigott, a lawyer, has led walking tours of the courthouses of Manhattan, guiding visitors around landmarks where the city’s rich legal history has played out. Now the trial of Donald J. Trump has added a chapter to the story he gets to tell.

Mr. Pigott’s tours, which he runs in his spare time, revolve around a cluster of downtown buildings that are the borough’s judicial hub. For now, 100 Centre Street — the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse, where the former president’s case is being heard — is the focus.

But just down the street on Foley Square sits Manhattan’s most elegant courthouse building, New York’s Supreme Court, with its sweeping flight of 32 stone steps leading up to a series of imposing Corinthian columns. Other court buildings are dotted around nearby.

“The eyes of the nation and the world are trained on criminal court cases in New York County, whether it’s organized crime, Wall Street cases or federal cases,” Mr. Pigott said.

Mr. Trump’s trial is remarkable because it is the first time that a former American president has been criminally prosecuted. The defendant’s status as this year’s presumptive Republican presidential nominee adds a contemporary political dimension.

For Mr. Pigott, 64, who has written a book about the history of the city’s courthouses, the real significance is what it says about the status of a few blocks of Manhattan as a nexus. He pointed out that Mr. Trump’s civil fraud case and defamation case also both played out this year in courthouses within spitting distance of the criminal trial.

“Now, when I arrive at the expanse of Foley Square midway through the walk, I can point to something truly remarkable — three different courthouses where the same former U.S. president has been on trial,” he said.

Mr. Trump’s trial shows how politics, celebrity and the location of the court itself can reinforce one another to make a big story bigger. New York’s status as a media hub increases the spotlight during high-profile cases and the high-profile cases held over the decades have, in turn, made the city’s courts an attractive setting for fictional courtroom dramas.

In these buildings, a jury convicted Anna Sorokin for grand larceny in 2019 for posing as a German heiress to swindle wealthy New Yorkers — a case that almost by definition blurred fact and fiction. Naturally, the tale has since been turned into a series on Netflix.

The cluster is also where a group of Black and Latino teenagers, then known as the Central Park Five, were wrongly convicted in 1990 of raping a jogger — a case also rendered as a Netflix series — and where Mark David Chapman pleaded guilty in 1981 to murdering the musician John Lennon.

The New York Supreme Court building, a trial-level court, often serves as a symbol of the court complex. It featured prominently in the television show “Law and Order” and the 1957 courtroom film classic “12 Angry Men,” to cite just two examples.

Mr. Pigott, however, is drawn to the history of the legal system before the 20th century and how it evolved through its buildings. The first stop on the tours he runs is a sidewalk nearby with glass blocks embedded in it, through which it is possible to see the excavations of a courthouse built by the Dutch in the colonial era.

The authorities in New York built a judicial infrastructure in this part of Lower Manhattan starting mainly in the 19th century, when the area experienced significant gang violence, he said.

“This one-block radius has been the epicenter of criminal justice in New York since the 1830s,” said Mr. Pigott.

For all the drama associated with the Trump trial, the streets outside the criminal courthouse have generally been calm this week. Reporters and members of the public have lined up for entry to the courthouse. And on Thursday morning, Collect Pond Park across the street, which has been designated for protests, was empty. Its only occupants were some police officers and a few pigeons.

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