Twenty-five years ago, Hoboken was in the midst of a real estate boom. The city endured one of the more famous gentrifications in American history, with New York commuters moving in and the “born and raised” residents moving out due to higher rents.
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.
Amidst the changes, the Hoboken Reporter, founded in 1983, started receiving letters complaining about the “Yuppies” – young urban professionals – and some of their habits. At the same time, the newspaper was also getting letters from newcomers complaining about the “feast bombs,” or the little fireworks that were set off each July as part of the annual Italian festivals. Longtime Hobokenites didn’t like the complaints about their tradition. The back-and-forth on the “feast bomb” letters became so heated that the Reporter eventually ran a poll on whether residents wanted the letters permanently banned.
But the underlying issues were more serious, as several suspicious fires plagued residential buildings.
The Reporter published a book of the letters entitled Yuppies Invade My House at Dinnertime 25 years ago, in 1987. The book was reviewed by the New York Times and over 7,000 copies. From time to time, the Reporter still gets requests for the book from college classes studying gentrification.
The use of the terms “Yuppies,” “old-timers,” “born-and-raised,” and “Old Hoboken” has calmed after 25 years – except during political season. Several residents said last week that the labels are often used during elections to increase divisiveness.
In a city where council meetings last until 1 a.m., feature hours of heated debate, and often teeter near physical fights, are vocal residents still identified or judged by how long they’ve lived in town?
Tenant and landlord
Zoning Board member Phil Cohen moved to Hoboken 26 years ago and had, as his landlord, native resident Michael Cricco, a former Hoboken councilman.
“At the time, I was an aspiring ‘Yuppie’ focused on graduating law school and establishing my career as a lawyer,” said Cohen, adding that he had little interest in getting involved with Hudson County politics, which “had a national reputation for corruption.” Cohen eventually did take some public roles in the city, including that of Democratic committeeman.
As a part of the “Yuppie” scene and someone who keeps a copy of Yuppies Invade My House at Dinnertime in his living room, Cohen is more than familiar with the tension prevalent in the 1980s.
Do the divisions exist in Hoboken today?
“Sure,” said Cohen, citing modern politics. “Go to any City Council meeting and see it for yourself.”
Cohen said that a change in administration has fueled some of the rift.
Current Mayor Dawn Zimmer, elected in 2009, has lived in the city for fewer than 10 years.
“Entrenched political interests do not like losing City Hall patronage jobs,” Cohen said. “Having a mayor who was not born in Hoboken, who holds the line on taxes, who reduces the headcount in City Hall … threatens those who once saw City Hall as their patronage mill.”
The solution? To Cohen, it’s as simple as talking.
“I have found that while there are divisions in Hoboken, those divisions can be overcome when people simply talk to each other,” said Cohen. “We all love our city.”
He added, “If we don’t talk to each other, labels like ‘born and raised,’ ‘Old Hoboken,’ or ‘newcomer’ seem important,” continued Cohen. “If we take time to talk to each other, we learn how much we have in common, which builds our community rather than dividing it.”
The landlord agrees
If Cohen was a self-proclaimed “Yuppie” and a supporter of Zimmer, look no further than his former landlord for a perhaps conflicting viewpoint.
“Fine tenant,” said Cricco of Cohen.
Cricco said that there was nothing wrong with the rising prices of homes back in the day of the “Yuppie.” However, he said that nowadays, lifelong residents are being “penalized” due to initiatives such as the planned revaluation of property taxes. Those who lived in homes that are still taxed at an older assessed value will suddenly have to pay based on current market prices, while those who bought condos ten years ago may see their taxes reduced due to a drop in market value.
“Now they’re doing the reval and these people are going to have their taxes skyrocket,” said Cricco. “They didn’t do anything to deserve to have to pay $25,000 a year in property tax.”
Like Cohen, Cricco said that the current rift is indeed political.
“[Back then], all council people were looking to make Hoboken a better place. Now you have people voting against hospitals, and it’s all about politics. Politics suck.”
Cricco has high hopes for the future.
“We have a lot of great new people coming in,” said Cricco. “New people are coming in and making friends with the people that are here. When I grew up, we had a neighborhood where everybody knew everybody on the block.”
Politics, politics, politics
Theresa Castellano has been involved in Hoboken politics for the past several mayoral terms. She is also a member of the council minority typically opposed to the administration.
Castellano was at first reluctant to offer her comments on a perceived rift, due to apprehensions that her comments would be twisted by readers.
Castellano, after some hesitation, said that Hoboken is constantly evolving, and that labels such as “Yuppie” come and go, specifically in a political realm. Castellano added that she doesn’t hear the term used anymore.
“Being in politics, [people] put up walls and labels,” said Castellano. “Why is that? This isn’t a new thing.”
“I never liked people labeling certain people,” continued Castellano. “I don’t particularly aspire to categorize and partition people. I think we’re all Hobokenites, and that’s how we should be perceived.”
Castellano added that to her dismay, some residents have taken to labeling certain newcomers as “hipsters,” which is essentially an evolved form of “Yuppie.”
Housing Authority chairman and mayoral administration supporter Jake Stuiver said that he doesn’t see much of a rift around his neighborhood at Third and Adams.
“I really enjoy the environment and I really enjoy coming into contact with a wide variety of different people with different perspectives,” said Stuiver. “I think that’s what Hoboken offers in general.”
Stuiver too feels that in the current day, when labels are used, it can be attributed to politics.
“When you start getting some of these epithets tossed back and forth [in regards to] pitting longer term residents against newer residents,” said Stuiver, “I think that’s more of a political battle and not really reflective of the majority of residents in Hoboken.”
In fact, the use of labels seems to have increased on local internet sites and websites criticizing the mayor’s opponents. One anonymous resident began a parody site to criticize one of the mayor’s most vocal opponents, Councilwoman Beth Mason, who usually votes in alignment with two native Hobokenites on the council. The anti-Mason site says it’s selling t-shirts that say “Old Hoboken in the house! (the big house) (again).”
However, the stereotype doesn’t always bear out. While former born-and-raised Hoboken resident Anthony Russo went to jail in 2005 for extortion, a more recent mayor, Peter Cammarano, also went to prison for accepting a bribe, and he did not grow up in Hoboken. Cammarano grew up in Wayne, in Passaic County.
On a post on a news website about a controversy at the Housing Authority over a commissioner who didn’t take the required classes in time, an anonymous commenter wrote, “Why is it that the old timers in this damn town think they don't have to follow the law and that they can bend the laws to suit them?”
A post written by someone on the Hoboken Reporter website in 2011 took exception to labels. “Figures the 2 Zimmer bloggers would chime in and talk about bias,” reads the comment, left on a story related to the last City Council election. “Hey who is the Old Guard anyway, since Zimmer is in charge she is the machine now…[the terms] Old Guard/machine are meaningless now…”
The labeling may start to become more frequent among political operatives since there is a mayor/council election coming up in 2013.
Frances Rhodes Kearns, a minority member of the school board who was born and raised in Hoboken, said she believes the division exists to this day.
“[There are] people who say they are reformers, and people who say they are born and raised,” said Rhodes Kearns. “I see the political scene as being very divided in that respect.”
Rhodes Kearns said she did not have an answer as to how to overcome such a political rift.
“I don’t have an answer but I would think it’s just about getting to know each other and trying to give each other a chance,” said Rhodes Kearns. “It would be nice.”
School board majority member Theresa Minutillo addressed an apparent rift between “newcomers” and “oldcomers,” but noted that some members of the Zimmer-allied “Kids First” school board team are born and raised in Hoboken. She added that since she moved to the city 24 years ago, she may be perceived as a “Yuppie,” but she does not consider herself that way.
“Political agendas are divided amongst where people were born,” said Minutillo. “I don’t think the conversation should be just about where you were born. I have dear friends who have lived here my whole life, and they have accepted me and my family.”
Minutillo said she feels there is a political rift, but attributes it instead to a “power struggle.”
“I think those people who want to talk about where we were born are trying to divide us,” said Minutillo, “and I think that they’re doing it for political gains.”
“I believe everyone old and new wants great schools in our community,” added Minutillo. “Balancing the needs of the community is hard, but we have to do it respectfully. We have to do it with respect and compassion and not play this game about where you come from or where you were born.”
While many of those interviewed talked about politics, the issues have occasionally come to the forefront regarding holidays and local traditions (see sidebar).
Copies of Yuppies Invade My House at Dinnertime are still available at the Reporter office in Hoboken at 1400 Washington Street in Hoboken, and at the Hoboken Historical Museum.
Stephen LaMarca may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Santa Claus, St. Patrick’s Day, and debates over traditions
The Hoboken Reporter’s “feast bomb” letters from the 1980s may have stopped, but fierce new controversies over Hoboken traditions have arisen as the town becomes more diverse.
Last December, a controversy at Calabro Primary School made headlines. Santa Claus was sent away by school administrators after a Jewish parent raised issues about his photo session with students. Some parents argued that the issue was one of separation of church and state. The school eventually rescheduled the event and invited Santa back, but he shared the stage with pictures of a menorah and a kinara for Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, respectively. Students were able to pick where they wanted their photo taken.
Schools throughout the country began banning holiday symbols in the 1990s, but apparently, it took Hoboken longer. After the controversy made headlines, angry debates and finger-pointing took place on the internet about various aspects of the issue.
Then, in March, the Hoboken St. Patrick’s Parade was canceled. For the last several years, residents complained about the drunkenness and bad behavior the Saturday event was attracting, largely attributed to young people coming from out of town to party.
Mayor Dawn Zimmer wanted the parade moved to a Wednesday to lessen the carousing. However, the parade committee refused to consider the new day and canceled the event completely.
And then there was the Jewish holiday issue.
At a school board meeting in May, a discussion ensued over whether schools should be closed during certain holidays. One board member and longtime Hobokenite, Frances Rhodes Kearns, made comments in reference to Jewish holy days. Some found the comments offensive, since the schools already regularly observe Christmas and Easter.
Kearns said last week that the superintendent of schools – who draws up the district calendar – had engaged in a private discussion with a member of the board over a possible observation of a Jewish holiday.
Kearns said she took exception to the lack of a public discussion, and asked at the meeting if students should be given off a day for St. Patrick’s Day as well.
“I wanted [the holiday issue] to be a public discussion and that’s why I used St. Patrick’s Day as an example,” said Rhodes Kearns. “People to offense to that, and they shouldn’t have.”
“It could cause a lot of chaos if everybody started requesting days, and if we [choose] to honor one [holiday] but not the other,” said Rhodes Kearns. “I know there are a lot of districts having this issue.”
Hoboken’s leadership appears to have become more diversified, if religion is a yardstick. Zimmer is the first Jewish mayor of Hoboken. Council member Ravi Bhalla is the first Sikh council member. A recently appointed Housing Authority commissioner, Greg Lincoln, is a Mormon.
In any case, newer events around the holidays have spurred some complaining as well, including a recent letter to the Reporter complaining about Yuppies.
The letter was spurred by SantaCon, a non-religious event in which people dress up as Santa Claus and drink at different bars. The main event is held each year in New York, but some out-of-towners have come to Hoboken to celebrate as well.
A letter published by the Reporter last year from someone calling himself a “born and raised” resident said, “Pictures on Facebook have shown these ‘Yuppies’ walking around Hudson Street, near The Spa, gallivanting, dressed up as elves, and walking in and out of bars. Is this really another St. Patrick’s Day? So far it is becoming another one…it is causing an outrage from the born-and-raised residents because the ones who have to clean up the mess are the born-and-raised.”