The news has been awash with reports that a New York tower block has a separate door for poorer residents. The plan was for residents in the ‘affordable’ section to come in through one normal door, and the richer residents to come in through another door with expensive service provided – concierges, etc. Commentators have been quick to coin the phrase ‘poor door’, and have been busily sniffing out and condemning similar types of entrances in other cities across the world.
There has been no shortage of moral outrage and a fair bit of disbelief that such a flagrant form of segregation could still exist in Western cities. A quick search of Twitter using the hashtag #poordoor brings up a litany of tweeted condemnation. One tweet reads ‘democracy means one door!’. The Green Party has stated that poor doors show ‘contempt for ordinary people’, and the Guardian’s Owen Hatherley has branded them the mark of a ‘Faustian’ pact. Since New York mayor Bill De Blasio’s admission that he would prevent more poor doors being designed in New York, London mayor Boris Johnson has been pressured into saying he won’t ban poor doors.
Good on him. The ‘poor door’ label is hard to swallow, but the reality is nowhere near as bad as people think. In fact, they make sense – poor doors are a sensible reaction to a clear problem. Occupants in different parts of apartment blocks have different service needs and that means they need separate entrances. The poor door is not a social comment by the developer, or an attempt by richer residents to keep the riff-raff separate; it is just a practical measure.
Some claim poor doors should be banned because, in spite of their mild reality, they symbolise a Dickensian divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Such claims are misguided and look like a sixth former-style lurch into binary where complicated problems with complicated solutions are broken down into a black-and-white symbol. Poor-door opponents also seem to misunderstand who these ‘poorer’ tenants are – in reality, half of them are middle-income and above. Rich people use ‘poor doors’, too. The reduction of the discussion to a simple ‘us’ and ‘them’ has obscured this important detail.
I sympathise with those shocked by the label ‘poor door’, but back-alley crawl spaces they are not. We must resist the temptation to poeticise the problems of a complicated and unpredictable society with glib catchphrases.