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News Opinion

'The poor door' -- symbol of a truth we all know [Commentary]

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 set a 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. His email is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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