By Kafui Attoh
Roughly two years ago, I came across a really great book that I think deserves a plug: Yuppies Invade my House at Dinnertime: a tale of brunch, bombs and gentrification in an American City. Published in 1987 and edited by Joseph Barry and John Deravlany, the book offers a compelling look at Hoboken’s transformation in the late 1980s.
Most compelling is the book’s format. The book is little more than a collection of letters printed in the editorial page of The Hoboken Reporter. Written by locals, displaced “yorkies,” gentrifiers and the begrudgingly gentrified, the letters are impassioned, angry, spiteful, nostalgic, triumphant, cringe-inducing and often deeply amusing. More than anything, they give the reader a visceral sense of both the promise and the costs of the city’s so-called “renaissance.”
For those looking for a history of Hoboken or some deep ruminations on gentrification as a process, this book is perhaps a poor choice. Its reflection on Hoboken’s industrial past is brief and it offers little by way of “theory-making.” Nevertheless, the book’s value is easy to see. More than most books on the topic, it offers a deeply human portrait of urban change and urban conflict — all of which, curiously, played out on the editorial page of the Hoboken Reporter.
Over the course the book, the editors allow the letter writers to speak for themselves — rarely interrupting the flow of impassioned vitriol, or defensive posturing that emerge. The result is brilliant — a ringside seat to a debate that should be uncannily familiar. Yuppies are now Hipsters, Hoboken is now Brooklyn and “brunch” is still the enemy! (Brunch really is the enemy!)
The book’s title — which is what first grabbed my attention — comes from one of the letters featured in the book. I’ve copied the letter below:
I’m a Hoboken resident for 35 years, losing my home to Yuppies. Seeing these weird people with sneakers and dresses every morning dashing for a crosstown bus turns my stomach. But please have some compassion for my privacy. Realtors coming to show my apartment at suppertime without notice is unpleasant. Again I have to see sneakers and dresses and men with shoulder bags and cameras only in my house at my special time. Give me a break — or a little advanced notice
Once lived on a tree lined street
July 9 1986
The entire collection is filled with letters not unlike this one — rarely refined, proudly antagonistic, belligerent and strange in all the best ways! Here’s another:
Is the need for a professional librarian part of Hoboken’s gentrification process? Is it an effort to satisfy the cultural demands of Hoboken’s Immigrant “uppity mobile”? While browsing at the library recently I was momentarily distracted by a young basso conversing in decibels equal to about ten on the Richter scale who was inquiring about some obscure opera and its equally obscure composer. Decades of osmosis led me to believe that the young man was not a true Hobokenite because his hands were out of sync with his mouth. Either the young man was trying to impress his captive audience with his pseudo-esoterica or else he was a victim of just one too many discos. However, he did, throw me an intellectual curve; I thought for sure he was going to ask for Sartre, Proust, Proudhon or Marcuse.
As for gentrification, I would like a little pretentious leeway by quoting the noted sociologist and City Planner, Prof. Sir Patrick Geddes who once remarked that metropolitan growth simply means “more and more of worse and worse.”
Jan 16 1985
Indeed. Plus ca change….
Yuppies Invade my house at Dinner Time is a classic. I can’t recommend the book highly enough.
Kafui Attoh is an Assistant Professor of Urban Studies at the Murphy Institute.