In My Opinion

Leonard Pitts: Poor? Don’t use this door.

 

lpitts@MiamiHerald.com

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.

Read more Leonard Pitts Jr. stories from the Miami Herald

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category