The way the rich avoid the poor these days, you’d think poverty was a disease communicated by eye contact.
Boston’s new luxury towers have become sky-cities unto themselves, offering amenities that keep the luxe life insular. NIMBYs oppose new housing developments, even as the working poor are pushed into shrinking corners of the city, like sex offenders except their only crime is being broke. Around the country, some developments famously have separate entrances for low-income residents; New York City finally banned so-called poor doors in 2016.
With a big enough bank account — not Bezos big, just big enough — one can cultivate a life in which poor people are seen only when they are serving you. And whether they’re shuttling away dirty dishes at a restaurant or tidying up in a hotel room, they are professionally obligated to smile.
“Nobody likes being around poor people,” said no less an authority than Steve Wynn, speaking to a group of investors a couple of years ago, about why projecting an image of extravagance and luxury appeals to rich and poor alike. Now, of course, we know that Steve Wynn is even more awful than he is rich. But at least he had the temerity to say the thing that so many others won’t.
“People don’t have to deal with the peasantry,” said Savina Martin, cochair of the Massachusetts Poor People’s Campaign, the local chapter of a national movement seeking to revive Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement of the same name. “It’s just disgusting.”
For the poor, simply being seen is so difficult that it took a rush-hour protest in the middle of Congress Street this week to attract any attention at all to the Massachusetts Poor People’s Campaign. It had been staging demonstrations around the state, including one last month that led to several arrests at the State House, with almost no notice.
Take issue with their methods if you must: There are few things more infuriating than gridlocked traffic at the end of a long day of work. But the idea that protesting in some way that’s more convenient for the general public would be more effective is demonstrably false. They tried that, and nobody even noticed.
The response to the protest was about what you’d expect. Online, more than a few readers suggested using the protesters as “speed bumps.” One guy said we ought to turn the firehoses on them.
That these Dr. Evil-grade reactions so precisely echo the ruling class’s response to civil rights uprisings all over the globe seemed barely to register. Imagine watching video of the Tiananmen Square protests and siding with the tank.
The original Poor People’s Campaign began with the simple idea that the wealthy and powerful should have to see the poor, and that visibility would force a reckoning with poverty’s reality. But King predicted — correctly, in hindsight — that fighting poverty would be considerably more difficult than fighting for the right to vote or for civil rights protections. Integrating buses and lunch counters cost white America nothing, he said in a 1967 speech announcing the campaign. But demanding jobs and wages and decent lives would not be free.
But it wasn’t King who first raised the idea of making the poor more visible to the powerful. It was Robert F. Kennedy, who told activist Marian Wright Edelman to pass a message to King:
“He urged me to tell Dr. King to bring the poor people to Washington to make hunger and poverty visible,” she wrote a few years ago in the Philadelphia Tribune.
She passed that message along to King. And though the percentage of Americans living in poverty has decreased since then, it’s fair to wonder whether our antipathy has.
Fifty years later, we still shield our eyes from the poor. Inside One Dalton, the newest addition to Boston’s skyline being built in the Back Bay, residents can have room service or dry cleaning or deliveries deposited in a special “service closet,” the Globe’s Beth Teitell reported.
It’s a convenience, no doubt. But, intentional or otherwise, it’s also kind of pinhole eclipse camera for poverty: a special box that obscures something we’d rather not look at directly.
The tower is barely a mile from Boston Medical Center, where Boston’s chronically homeless congregate in what is now widely seen as a crisis.
But even that crisis became acute only after the closure of the Long Island Bridge forced the poor, the homeless, and the drug dependent into plain view. That suffering had always existed; it was just easier to forget when it was shunted off to an island in the harbor. The pressing problem created by the bridge closure was that, all of a sudden, the city had to see firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.