Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The light is better on the poor door

I was listening to Tanya Snyder and Jeff Wood treating the latest “poor door” outrage with some well-deserved skepticism. Jeff mentioned the (entirely hypothetical at this point) “luxury” residents of the new development at 40 Riverside Boulevard not wanting to “mix with the mudbloods” and asked, “if you don’t like it, move to Westchester or whatever.”

Jeff’s mention of Westchester brought to mind an important point: that places like Westchester are much more segregated. I grew up on the Upper West Side, and we would walk out the front door and see people of all income levels. Now I can’t afford to live there, but still when I go back I see people who are less well off than I am. If we don’t live in the neighborhood (in the projects, or in rent controlled or rent stabilized apartments), we can come to shop or visit the parks; some come to panhandle. It’s easy to reach by subway and bus.

Westchester County, on the other hand, is a lot more difficult. Yes, you can get to Rye or Scarsdale on the train, but it costs a lot more. The buses to Yorktown Heights and Armonk are a lot less frequent and convenient. And there is no poor door, because no poor people are allowed in the building, unless they’re there to mop the floors. In Westchester they have whole cities for the poor, like Port Chester and Yonkers.

My wife and I once looked at an apartment in Westchester, and on our way in with our real estate agent we saw another couple coming out with a different agent. Once we were inside the agent showing us the apartment grumbled loudly to us at the gall of the other agent. She wasn’t specific, but it was clear that she was angry he was showing the apartment to a black couple. Needless to say, we didn’t go back to that agent, but she was carrying on a long tradition of segregation in the county, a tradition defended by “moderate” gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino.

There's a famous parable of a man who loses his keys in the dark. A friend sees him searching under a streetlight and asks, "is this where you dropped them?" "Actually, no," replies the man, "but the light is better here."

I am reminded of this story when I think of people protesting the network of private employee buses shuttling employees of Google and Apple from San Francisco townhouses to Siicon Valley office parks. Much easier to lead showoff blockades against big white buses than to confront NIMBYs who oppose building more housing in San Francisco or creating dense walkable places in Silicon Valley itself. The light is better on the Google buses.

It's also much easier to fight a thirty-cent increase in the subway fare than to confront wealthy suburbanites who demand low bridge tolls. It's easier to be outraged by rich people stepping over homeless people on the streets of Manhattan than by rich people strolling the streets of Pleasantville protected from the poor by miles and rivers and highways. And that's the reason the “poor door” got so much more press than Westchester’s segregation. It's dramatic, it’s in your face, and the symbolism is inescapable. The light is better on the poor door.


Alon said...

The reason the poor door is an outrage is that there's no reason for it other than exclusion. If a developer builds two buildings, one affordable and one market-rate, this is understandable as the affordable building will use cheaper materials, have lower operating and maintenance costs, and not need amenities like a doorman. If a developer puts all the affordable units on the low floors, with the poor views, this is understandable since better views are more desirable. The poor door does neither of these things; the service it provides to the market-rate residents is exclusion. This is a problem, since the problem with zoning regimes is often that they're used by rich people precisely to promote exclusion (see my latest post).

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