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Sunday, October 23, 2016

A few words about the “poor door.”

Maybe you already know about this. Maybe you read on Slate, saw on Colbert or heard on NPR how a developer qualified for tax benefits under New York City’s Inclusionary Housing Program by agreeing to add to its new luxury building on the Upper West Side a set number of “affordable” apartments. How the company won permission to build that building with two entrances, one in front for the exclusive use of upper-income residents, another, reportedly in the alley, for residents of more modest means.

Hence, the “poor door,” though the term is something of a misnomer. While the premium units with the Hudson River views would probably strain the average budget at a reported sale price of $2,000 a square foot, the 55 “affordable” apartments overlooking the street are not exactly priced for the family from Good Times. We are told they are expected to draw small families earning up to $51,000 a year — not enough to contemplate putting in a bid for the Knicks, but more than enough to ensure you don’t have to squeegee windshields for pocket change.

Anyway, Extell Development apparently thinks it too much to ask the well-heeled to use the same door as such relative paupers. Observers have responded with outrage. A New York Times pundit called it “odious.” CNN called it “income segregation.” The Christian Science Monitor called it “Dickensian.”

The door is all those things, yes, but it is also the pointed symbol of a truth we all know but pretend not to, so as to preserve the fiction of an egalitarian society. Namely, that rich and poor already have different doors. The rich enter the halls of justice, finance, education, health and politics through portals of advantage from which the rest of us are barred.

Politicians who send you form letters line up to kiss Sheldon Adelson’s pinky finger because he has access to that door. O.J. Simpson got away with murder because he had access to that door.

Over the years, I’ve met a number of wealthy people. I have envied exactly one: Tom Cousins, the Atlanta developer who founded the East Lake Foundation, a combination social experiment and real estate development that transfigured a blighted and impoverished community, raising test scores, banishing crime, lifting incomes, changing lives.

I envied him not his money, but the privilege he has had of using that money in the service of other people. What joy and satisfaction it must give to know your wealth has made a difference in the world.

The “poor door” reflects a different ideal. Unfortunately, this is the same ideal one too frequently sees reflected in the nation at large. In our elevation of the do-nothing-of-value, contribute-nothing-of-value, say-nothing-of-value likes of Paris Hilton and Donald Trump to the highest station our culture offers — celebrity — we betray not simply a worship of wealth for its own sake, but an implicit belief that net worth equals human worth. And it does not.

It’s only money. Money is neutral. It’s what one does with money that defines character.

I begrudge no one whatever luxuries fortune makes possible. Enjoy the French chalet if it makes you feel good and the wallet allows. But the poor door seems to me a bridge too far. Were I as rich as Bill Gates plus the Koch brothers multiplied by Oprah Winfrey, I don’t think I’d want to live in a building of separate but unequal access, a building built on the tacit assumption that I would be — or should be — mortally affronted at sharing a lobby with someone just because he had fewer material trinkets than I.

The very idea offends our common and interconnected humanity. In the final analysis, we all entered this life through the same door. And we’ll leave it that way, too.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL, 33132. Readers may contact him via email at [email protected])

Photo: Nick Harris via Flickr

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  • ps0rjl

    There are a lot of rich people who do live good lives. Warren Buffet still lives in the house he grew up in and has always railed about changing the tax code so the rich pay more. He has also paired with Bill and Melinda Gates on philanthropic causes, Bill Gates give his fortune away in good causes not to save taxes but to try and leave this place a little better than he found it. I am not a religious man but I due recall the parable of the good Samaritan and also the story of the Pharisee, thanking God that he was not like the poor. Also, isn’t there something in Jesus’s teachings that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter heaven.

    • Independent1

      Yes, you quoted that quite well. But just to clarify, when Jesus described the Rich, he was not referring specifically to those who have money, but rather to those who have money and love it, and love what that money can buy (worldly things). Those who love money for what it can do FOR THEM rather than what it can do for others (you described a couple of the latter: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates).

      At least, I believe that when he was speaking about it being easier for a camel to jump through the eye of a needle than for someone rich to get into heaven, he was referring at that time about the rich man who had come to him asking what it was he could do better to get into heaven, and when he claimed he was already doing all the things Jesus said were needed, Jesus then said” Sell all that you have an give to the poor and come follow me.”

      It was at that moment when this rich man proved that he was one of the rich who “loved money and worldly possessions more than anything else” because rather than doing as Jesus said, he went away giving up the one thing he needed to do, get rid of his wealth, which showed clearly that he loved his money and worldly possessions more than he loved getting into Heaven. It is these rich, which describes the vast majority of the wealthy who worship the GOP, that Jesus was referring to.

    • S.J. Jolly

      BTW: Isn’t it, “… the eye of the needle …”? Referring to the small gate people entered and left a city when the main gates were closed. For defense purposes, the “eye” gate was very small, even for a human.

      • Allan Richardson

        Or Jesus was deliberately exaggerating for humorous effect, as when he referred to the “beam in your own eye” or the Pharisees “straining at gnats” (making sure insects in one’s food or drink, which are not kosher, are not accidentally consumed) but “swallowing camels” (which are also most definitely not kosher). Jesus taught by means of parables which were ALSO JOKES; it’s just that nobody recorded the laughs of the live audience.

        • S.J. Jolly

          Interesting, but is it “the eye”, or “an eye”?

          • Allan Richardson

            I’m not sure about the article using in the originally published Greek (of course the Aramaic was not written down literally; it was mentally translated into Greek many years later by the Gospel writers from their personal memories and discussions with other eyewitnesses), but it seems that he was referring to a literal needle’s eye to make the image more preposterous. Since he preached all over Galilee as well as Judea and Samaria, a symbolic reference to a specific gate in Jerusalem would probably be lost on his audience outside the city. Besides, if the writers remembered it as being about a gate in the city wall, they would probably have clarified this in the Greek, since they were writing for an even more dispersed audience.

          • S.J. Jolly

            An “eye of the needle” gate was probably common in gated cities of the time.

  • Allan Richardson

    The new Jim Crow (or as the Doonesbury comic strip called it, “James Crow Esq.”) is not just based on race, but on class. While some white bigots still hate black people of ANY income level, the politically savvy operators will accept black people who are rich enough and conservative enough as their allies (e.g. Herman Cain, Allen West), but consider anyone less than wealthy enough for them to be subhuman.