Downtown View:Class Divides?

By Karen Cord Taylor

A few weeks ago I took the T over to Prudential Center. I wanted to check out Eataly, since I’d heard so much about it. Was it really a sign that tradition-bound Boston can handle the latest, greatest retail concept? Would it finally make the Pru cool? Would it edge out the North End as the most Italian place north of New York?

I forgot those questions when I stepped off the escalator on the second floor. Instead I was overwhelmed with the sheer abundance of the place. This was not moldy old Boston.

Fifty kinds of pasta, at least. Wine, cheese, sauce, meats, fish, take-away and restaurants. It was like Harrods’ Food Hall on steroids. Gorgeous displays. Lavish, clean, the lighting strategically designed to make everything beautiful. The fresh-pasta makers drew crowds as they rolled, sliced and nipped at the dough. Plenty of staff were around to answer questions. The one percent would feel at home here.

It reminded me how stratified into class and money our nation has become. The last election illustrated this, as do the reports about how housing in Boston (and other cities) is out of reach for so many.

The stratification seems more obvious now than it used to, and I feared Eataly was only one more example of the divides between the rich, not-so-rich and poor.

We have many examples of the divides. While there has always been stratification in travel, the airlines currently seem to have made it into an art form. The pecking order goes from first class to economy plus, with a bit of extra leg room, down to steerage, where passengers do not have enough space between them and the seat in front to open a laptop. And then the airlines blame the passengers when they get testy.

You can pay to play, and life gets difficult if you don’t. Getting on the plane last means little room in the bins for your belongings. Of course, for $30-plus you can get on earlier. Even JetBlue—formerly the most egalitarian airline—has instituted a class structure on long flights.

Class divisions are common practice in the retirement states. Gated communities are on the rise in Florida, and they are the development mode in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Gated communities are supposed to signify luxury. Instead, they conjure up images of a frightened populace hunkered down, fearful of who-knows-what lurking in the outside world, which they never encounter because they leave the gates only in a locked car headed to a shopping mall patrolled by guards. That doesn’t seem like luxury living to me.

In some ways, however, airline stratification and gated communities’ fake status are just throwaways. They don’t matter much. The real stratification invades such places as higher education and family structure.

Richer students still attend brick and mortar institutions and spend four years doing so. Poorer students and so-called non-traditional students are offered online courses or degrees from for-profit institutions with shaky credentials and uncertain outcomes.

Other options besides Harvard, BU and Northeastern are good; there’s no denying that. But the traditional schools’ extra benefits—providing students time to ponder the world’s literature and history, fostering discussions of life’s big questions into the night with roommates, and providing a setting where classmates will remain friends forever and help connect one another to jobs, mates, and other opportunities—are hard to come by if a student is sitting at a computer mastering course work in isolation.

Marriage is another benefit that has succumbed to a class divide. Marriage typically brings emotional and financial stability for spouses and their children, but for reasons that are only partly understood, those without college degrees are now more likely to have to go it alone than are college graduates.

I pondered these divides as I wandered around Eataly. Then I began to look at the people. The staff was as diverse a group as I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t tell their financial status, but they were young and old and represented every ethnicity and color, so there must be some economic diversity among the workers. A woman handling check-out later told me she liked her job, was satisfied with her pay, and looked forward to getting a promotion soon.

I watched the other patrons. They too were diverse. As far as I could tell they were not only the one-percenters, but came from all the percentages. With the long lines at the cash registers, it looked as if the diverse crowd was stocking up on merchandise that was within reach.

I left feeling better than when I first encountered the store. Maybe Eataly, despite its trendy concept and novel merchandising, is not just a new concept but also a reflection of the cities it occupies—where all kinds of people are readily accepted and everyone feels comfortable, different and together.

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