07/28/2014 03:20 pm ET Updated Sep 27, 2014

New York's Poor Door: Poverty and Proximity

Recently, an apartment tower in New York provoked outrage rarely seen in a city accustomed to luxury buildings springing up like fungi. The Tower is set to have two entrances: one for full-paying customers and the other, located on a different street, for those who landed an apartment because of a city program to generate affordable housing. The builders of the Tower, located in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, defended this as a small sacrifice for those lucky enough to get a place at their distinguished address. The building's second-class residents will also be denied access to a child area, the gym, and a swimming pool. Critics have foamed at the mouth crying everything from "A Tale of Two Cities" to "economic apartheid." And they are right: New York has lost the ability to tolerate class diversity, even within the reign of the most progressive mayor in 50 years.

The question of whether it best serves the poor to live in proximity to the rich has roiled social scientists for decades. On one hand, those in need have access to better schools, infrastructure, safety, and -- as a last a last resort -- charity, from their better-heeled neighbors. On the other hand, they have to deal with social exclusion which, these days in class-bifurcated New York, is reminiscent of a Dickens novel. Some policy experts in the 1990s, went as far as to say that middle and upper class communities provided more intangible cultural benefits from higher rates of employment and stable families and the culture of the poor was eroding because of their physical separation from the middle class. This group, led by sociologist William Julius Williams, fretted that increased ghettoization would not only exacerbate poverty but would create a "culture of poverty" bestrewn with casual acts of deviance. Yet, proximity does not always equal integration -- one just has to examine Rio de Janeiro where millionaires sun tan on their balconies while taking in the view of favela shantytowns where residents swelter in the Brazilian sun bereft of the most basic public services.

Our Victorian forebearers thought very little of living beside the poor. Those in poverty were not thinking of rent-stabilized apartments: they were immiserated in a way that calls up Frederick Engels famous depiction of the working class of Manchester. Yet, the aristocrats of that age needed working class people to form their elaborate household staff and the poor were not far away. The historian Gareth Stedman Jones makes clear in his widely read book, Outcast London, that 19th century society tolerated a concentrated city in which robber barons lived alongside homeless orphans. Stedman Jones shows that one expression of this was the commitment to local charity that slowly faded as London expanded: Rich people moved to tony garden suburbs and no longer felt a benevolent connection to their poor.

Reformers of the Progressive Era in Britain and the United States campaigned to make the state responsible for the alleviation of poverty and successfully launched settlement houses. This movement, while often condescending, helped achieve major victories in health and housing, including New York City's famous "light and air" refurbishment of dark and putrid tenements. Government intervention eventually produced new and more modern housing projects of such a scale that they created entire neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. Starting in the 1960s, they fell into disrepair and, with the proliferation of drugs, gang violence and increased economic isolation took hold.

The changing notion of fair housing has produced those who support public housing in principle, and fund it with their taxes, while making a point of living nowhere near it. Yet, in the past several years, many cities have experienced increased gentrification as young people fall in love with urban life and forsake the suburbs. This has made cities like New York expensive and in need of strong government policies to protect the poor and middle class. The "poor door" building was participating in one of those policies. In the true fashion of our Victorian ancestors, they managed to vaguely embrace an economically diverse agenda (with its attendant tax breaks) while shaming those less fortunate for receiving their largesse. There are hard questions to be asked about whether our revulsion to this specific implementation of affordable housing should take a back seat to our desire to embrace the wider program and the change it brings. However, this instance should remind us that a very real danger of the program is the ability of the wealthy to smugly tolerate the nearby less-fortunates while never considering them true neighbors.