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What’s Behind the ‘Poor Door’? | The Nation

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What’s Behind the ‘Poor Door’?

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Rendering of the proposed plan for the Domino Sugar refinery site in Bkln. NY

Bird’s-eye rendering of the proposed plan for the Domino Sugar refinery site in Brooklyn, New York

Three and a half years ago, after living for more than a quarter-century in a rent-stabilized apartment in a ratty Greenwich Village tenement, my wife and I moved to a condo in downtown Manhattan. Conscientious ’60s veterans, we felt some anxiety about landing in the climes of privilege—honey, property is theft—but we got over it fast. This was cemented shortly after our arrival, when we were asked to weigh in on a pressing matter. At the time our building—formerly offices—was originally converted, it had three separate entrances: one for commercial space on the lower floors, another for rental apartments in the middle, and the last for the condos at the top. The rentals had been fairly quickly made into condos, and the question to be decided was whether the two residential lobbies should be combined into one, with potential savings on staff and electricity, and the possible production of new commercial space.

There was a catch: the wait for elevators would be fractionally longer, and the mail—which hitherto had been collected behind the front desk and delivered by hand—would be stuffed into standard mailboxes. There were other unspoken objections, such as sharing an elevator with residents of the formerly rental condos, which were a bit smaller than the original batch and were, of course, on floors lower down. A strong whiff of class and privilege was in the air, and our neighbors voiced concern about property values, if only under the guise of “reduced services” and “inconvenience.” For our part, we were disturbed that, after finally reaching real estate nirvana, our sumptuary delights (being actually handed the junk mail, a garbage room on every floor, riding an elevator!) were about to be snatched away. We voted no, along with almost everyone else.

Cities are difference engines, and one of the qualities they assign is the place of class in space. While the distinction between the two entries to our building is exceedingly fine, even ridiculous, a byproduct of the city’s inclusionary zoning law is that a need to make this assignment has been bred into development. The law, which originated in New York under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and has been strongly endorsed by his successor, Bill de Blasio, is designed to produce affordable housing. In exchange for its provision either within the project (“on site”) or elsewhere in the city (“off site”), developers are offered subsidies in the form of additional bulk, a substantial tax break and cheap financing. New York is only one of a number of cities—including Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Denver and San Diego—to use this strategy, although it has been deployed to a far lesser extent here than in many other places. The incentives are offered on a voluntary basis and only in “designated areas,” including Manhattan’s West Side and the Williamsburg/Greenpoint waterfront in Brooklyn. Projects making use of them have tended to be large, and the affordable apartments provided have either been mixed in with the market units or else located in separate portions of the buildings, even in separate buildings. Of course, separate buildings require separate entrances, hence the “poor door.”

There was a loud outcry this fall over a proposal by Extell for a tower at 40 Riverside Boulevard (currently under construction). It is a sorry-looking lump—with fabulous views—at the end of a long row of sorry-looking lumps along the Hudson River built by Donald Trump below 72nd Street. Like several buildings on the East River waterfront in Brooklyn (including the Toll Brothers Northside Piers), the building is divided into distinct affordable and market sections, each with its own entrance. The uproar was considerable, not least because the symbolism of those double doors was galling to what one might think of as the predominant sensibility on the good old Upper West Side, and plenty of politicians piled on. Still, the question must be approached conscientiously, as this clarity of division has long been the medium of both official policy and the general expectation of the culture, and nobody has offered a clear theory of either the value or the measure of such structured propinquity.

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My own first years as a permanent resident in the city coincided with the build-out of the Upper West Side urban renewal area, first envisioned in 1955. It was the product, in part, of an infusion of federal funds and a nominally liberal idea about the way in which economic difference was to be sorted. There had been massive demolition of “substandard” housing and much new construction aimed primarily at middle-class residents (to counter the much-whispered fear of “white flight”). But there was some public housing in the mix as well as the retention of large areas of existing New York City Housing Authority projects, which had been built not so long before as part of the Moses-era vision of sweeping “slum” clearance and the construction of large, carceral complexes for the poor. Setting aside familiar arguments about urban renewal, the results retain a certain psychic influence over our paradigms of mix. Within a relatively small compass there was wealth along the park, and large complexes for middle- and lower-income citizens off the park, including scattered sites for buildings devoted to each. Moreover, in those days, the number of rent-regulated units in the neighborhood remained high.

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