Yuppies, Yuppies. How I hate Yuppies! It must be because I don’t own a briefcase, Walkman, I don’t live in a condo or own a BMW. I don’t eat brunch. I don’t party all hours of the night. I don’t interfere in people’s lives by starting petitions. I don’t read the Times or Wall Street Journal, and I don’t curse people out when I can’t have my way.
Thus began a letter to the Hoboken Reporter 18 years ago that was part of a five-year written war of words between condo-buying “Yuppies” and born-and-raised old-timers who were losing their homes. Letters on related topics ran in the paper from 1983 through 1987, when the Reporter published them in a book entitled Yuppies Invade My House at Dinnertime that sold more than 4,500 copies.
During the 1980s, as the country was experiencing a real estate boom, people who worked in New York realized that living in Hoboken would allow them to pay lower rents and still have an easy commute.
Landlords found they could sell or convert their old apartment buildings and make a bundle – but there was a problem. They had to first remove lifelong tenants, some of whom were paying low rents due to rent control, and all of whom were protected from arbitrary eviction by state laws.
Some tenants were bought out, and in a few cases, landlords were suspected of resorting to arson to clear out buildings. The “suspicious” fires caused tensions to flare. Skyrocketing rents also forced growing families and children of lifelong residents to leave for more affordable communities.
According to the United States Census, there were no condominiums in Hoboken in 1970. By 1980, there were 41. In 1990, there were 3,062.
Those Hobokenites who were not busy buying, selling and converting property in the 1980s resorted to a different pastime: criticizing each other.
“I’m a Hoboken resident for 35 years, losing my home to Yuppies,” wrote an anonymous person in a seminal letter to the Reporter in 1986. “Seeing these weird people with sneakers and dresses dashing for a crosstown bus turns my stomach. Realtors coming to show my apartment at suppertime without notice are unpleasant.”
The letters were only one chronicle of the gentrification of Hoboken. Filmmaker Nora Jacobson, a Hobokenite, documented the malaise in a film called Delivered Vacant, so titled after the boast real estate agents made when the building they offered for sale was empty.
The film captured anguished debates at council meetings over tenant-protection laws, and showed longtime tenants taking buyouts from landlords to move elsewhere.
But, the Yuppies pointed out, the effects of their “invasion” weren’t all negative.
Before Hoboken’s so-called “renaissance,” the city was the butt of jokes. Now, professionals’ salaries keep shops, bars and restaurants going strong, and their taxes fund street improvements, park renovations, and police.
As one person on a Hoboken Internet bulletin board wrote in 1997, “So many of you hate the young professionals that live here now. … Look at it this way, when I was a kid, nobody walked Washington Street at night. Brownstones were considered ‘white elephants.’ People thought these artists and Yuppies were crazy to even pay $40,000. If [the newcomers] all left, this city would die.”
Some newcomers have attempted to learn about the hard times before their arrival.
Geri Fallo, the city’s Cultural Affairs director, said that in 1996 when a local film program showed Delivered Vacant, two newcomers who hadn’t known about the suspicious fires in the 1980s felt guilty.
“There were a couple of guys who felt really bad,” Fallo said. “They said, ‘I didn’t realize my coming here did all this.’ I said, ‘Don’t feel bad. It was probably before you got here,’ and they said, ‘Yeah, but it was because of people like me.’ ”
One of the tenant activists featured in the movie, Sheilah Scully, hasn’t been involved in town politics in recent years but still resides in Hoboken. She told the Reporter in 1997 that things have definitely changed since the 1980s.
“[I]t was very, very traumatic,” Scully said. “People were dying. The issues were very visceral, very profound. It seemed very black and white. It just doesn’t feel that way now. I have a strong sense of ‘we’re all in this together.’ ”
As some newcomers learned to respect their elders, so did some of the old-timers acknowledge that Yuppies have their positive points.
Margaret O’Brien, a garrulous school crossing guard and historian who has lived in town for 37 years, told the Reporter in 1997 that she believes Yuppies are good for the city – most of the time.
“They make nice neighbors,” O’Brien said. “They move into Hoboken and they’re all excited. They want to know where the nearest laundromat is. They want to know where to get an Italian sandwich.”
But, O’Brien said, there is a downside.
“Living here did get a whole lot more expensive,” O’Brien said. “It’s a little harder with the people who have been here a long time with the new prices. You know what I saw on 14th Street? Four-fifty for an egg sandwich. An egg sandwich, you know? An egg, like chickens lay? You make the money and you spend the money, only some of us older folks here don’t make the money. If you can get $4.50 for an egg sandwich, you’ll do it. That kills me.”
This column was adapted from a 1997 Hoboken Reporter story. All of the past columns from this year-long series are available online by visiting www.hobokenreporter.com, scrolling down the left-hand side of the page and clicking on “150th Anniversary.”