Donald J Trump’s Republican presidential front-runner status is one of those ‘only in America’ spectacles that Hollywood might dream up.

How could a real estate mogul best known to most Americans as the host of TV’s The Apprentice be in the running for the most powerful job on Earth?

Trump insists his net worth is $10bn (£7bn), although Forbes puts it at $4.5bn. Last month he somewhat dubiously told the New York Post that even as he campaigns, he remains fully devoted to running every corner of his far-flung business - down to choosing chandeliers and carpets for new hotels bearing his name in Turkey, Indonesia and Uruguay.

But while the view of Trump’s campaign in New York’s real estate and media worlds is one of incredulous amusement, too many have lost sight of his early development achievements in the city, which were remarkably ahead of their time.

Trump himself is to blame for this. His easy accessibility to just about any journalist who didn’t trash him, and his way of inserting himself into myriad minor matters, could make him seem a joke. Also, his gift for exaggeration, insult and outright fabrication trivialised his image among the chattering classes. His one-time rival Leona Helmsley was “a disgrace to the human race”. He insisted to me that his office building 40 Wall Street - “and I say this sadly, Steve” - was the tallest downtown after the Twin Towers were destroyed. Telling him he was wrong (nearby 70 Pine Street is nearly 100ft taller) could not budge him from his position. Was he trying to persuade me, or himself?

Many developers and dealmakers bridled at Trump’s outsized reputation. They resented his name on buildings that he neither built nor controlled. He snubbed the influential lobbying organisation Real Estate Board of New York to which most major dealmakers belong; “I’m not a joiner,” he says. He trashed World Trade Center redevelopment plans, saying he could do it much better, but declined to actually bid on the sites.

A property risk taker

Yet for all Trump’s braggadocio and baloney, he played an indispensable role in rescuing New York City from its 1970s to mid-1990s doldrums. Before he discovered there was more, and easier, money to be made in ‘branding’ himself, he took bricks-and-mortar risks at a time when companies and residents were fleeing and investment capital was scarce.

Defining what ‘Trump’ means is tricky, given his investments in hotels, casinos, private clubs, golf courses, shirts, ties and even a line of vodka. It’s confusing even in New York City, where his name adorns more than a dozen properties. The Trump Soho Hotel is neither Trump (it is merely a licensing agreement), Soho (it stands well to the west of the neighbourhood’s heart) nor even much of a hotel (it is mainly a condo tower). But many of the early projects that he owns, built or redesigned were instrumental in revitalising their flagging environs, or prescient of what would happen years later. Here’s a walking tour for next time you’re in town:

  1. In the late 1970s, Trump converted the gloomy Commodore Hotel on East 42nd Street into the gleaming Grand Hyatt, which arrested the decline of the Grand Central area.
  2. The mixed-use Trump Tower, which opened in 1983, was no masterpiece, but it restored faith in faltering Fifth Avenue.
  3. His condo/retail towers on Third Avenue; Trump Plaza and Trump Palace, completed in 1984 and 1991 respectively, offset their great heights with welcoming storefronts, which gave new life to the classic New York ‘street wall’.
  4. When Trump bought a 500-year leasehold on 40 Wall Street in 1995 for a ridiculous $1m, the 1930 Art Deco office tower was empty and derelict. Trump’s restoration made it suitable for modern companies and it swiftly filled with tenants.
  5. At Columbus Circle, Trump converted the former Gulf + Western building into luxury condos and a hotel for the tower’s owner, a General Electric fund. The Trump International Hotel and Tower is home to the three-Michelin-star restaurant Jean Georges, and the hotel has been voted the best in Manhattan.
  6. Trump World Tower, an all-condos spire on First Avenue, was detested for its height - and for blocking views of wealthy nearby residents. There were grounds to question its then unprecedented merger of lots that were zoned for different uses. But when the bronze monolith opened in 2001, it was praised by such aestheticians as the New York Times’ architectural critic and the Museum of Modern Art’s chief design curator.
  7. Riverside South, a new residential community on the Upper West Side, owes its existence to Trump. Although the city shot down his original plan, his decades-long struggle to reinvent a wasted riverfront rail yard site ultimately led to today’s 12-building complex with a beautiful new park.

While some snicker over Trump’s name on three apartment towers that he neither owned nor built, it is a fitting tribute to his vision. It is one reason to wish he had not given up the development business for casinos, TV or politics.

Steve Cuozzo is a real estate columnist and contributor at the New York Post