A Class Divide, Worsened

A few days ago I visited the Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden with two grandchildren and three other members of my family. The Train Show is one of my favorite New York traditions – an enormous annual exhibit of kid-sized famous New York buildings made from woodland materials, with almost-equally-delightful model trains running continuously around and about the miniature buildings, all housed in the spectacularly lush environment of the Enid Haupt Conservatory – itself one of New York’s most wonderful buildings –  at the NYBG.  

In our past visits to the Train Show there have always been long lines to get into the exhibit, consisting mostly of excited or cranky children and their parents, and once we got in we were surrounded by the same kids happily ogling the trains, miniature buildings and hothouse plants (some tree-sized and others blooming), as their caregivers smilingly held their hands or stood closely by to make sure they didn’t get lost in the crowd; it was nearly as packed an environment as a pre-Covid rush-hour subway, but consisting of boisterous kids and beaming adults rather than harried commuters. It seemed that all of New York was there and happy.

Because of Covid-related spacing restrictions only NYBG members are being allowed into the exhibit this year, and visits are being strictly scheduled to limit crowd size. Our grandchildren had a wonderful time in the very sparsely populated exhibit, roaming from scene to scene and watching the trains appear and disappear.

But for me the effect was a little unsettling. I couldn’t help but see the sparsely populated rooms (see below) as emblematic of the class distinctions brought out and severely exacerbated by the virus. This year, the other visitors (who are not in the pictures below because it would be inappropriate to show people without their permission) were few in number and, obviously, uniformly of the at-least-prosperous-and-maybe-rich set. The parents I saw were people whose lives, I’m guessing, are now characterized by work-from-home and the children are mostly in private schools, or being tutored and/or cared for by nannies. The other New York – the families whose parents work(ed?) in service trades or for whom the visit to the NYBG has been a once a year treat – were conspicuous by their absence.


On the same day as our visit to the Train Show, I received an unexpected catch-up phone call from an old friend. He and I had gotten to know each other through work in the mid-eighties; since then his career blossomed spectacularly – he has become a near-billionaire and was, for a time, a state governor. He is now an investor and a considerable philanthropist.

Our catch-ups were very rare for a couple of decades, but have picked up again in recent years. This time he was calling to nose around about a possible investment opportunity that he thought I might be able to shed some light on, but the conversation began with reflections on our personal lives during the Covid lockdowns.

He regaled me with stories of how much fun he had been having living in close quarters with his extended family and, for the first six or eight weeks, multiple live-in guests of his children. They had all been staying at two of his far-flung estates, first one, then the other, then family-members-only repaired to his palatial residence in Manhattan. (He didn’t have to say how they got from place to place to place; I knew). He volunteered that for him the lockdown period had been – and to some extent still is – an interruption in his usually overdone, work-related schedule and a great blessing.

Just as our visit to the Train Show had done, my conversation with my old friend highlighted (in particularly dramatic form) the ways in which the virus has made the have/have not divide worse. To those who are well-off and not particularly health-challenged, the pandemic has created some inconveniences but also a huge, unexpected opportunity for family-together time; it has not meaningfully dented their income streams or market-based wealth. If they were in tech stocks, it has increased their wealth.

Meanwhile, innumerable small businesses (and presumably their owners!) have been bankrupted and millions and millions of service employees are unemployed. You won’t see them at the Train Show this year, or maybe again – they’re dealing with far more serious matters.

And though it may seem like a privilege to have the Show seem more exclusive, to those of us who have been insulated – this time – from their problems by our memberships in the so-called new class, their absence is a loss to us as well as to them.

M.H. Johnston       

Pictures from the 2020 NYBG Train Show:

One comment to A Class Divide, Worsened

  • Filip G  says:

    Agree and want to add that Covid19 is only selectively affecting the middle class, provided their business was deemed essential and it has kept virus ‘managed’. For those, life goes on, with all the wonderful perks of additional time with spouse and children.

    I can’t help but wonder if the Covid19 lockdowns are not a ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’ by those government lifers who benefit from a population dependent on government handouts. A whole new class of people, especially small business owners who have previously resisted and avoided any such entanglement, are seeing this as an opportunity to make gains. From that point of view, another lock-down (regardless how short) is a truly wonderful thing…

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