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40th Anniversary

Yuppies in Eden


Christian Bale in the movie version of Bret Easton Ellis's yuppie-noir "American Psycho."  

In my old neighborhood, the renovation of a formerly grand, long-derelict building called the Cristadora, located on the east side of Tompkins Square Park, was one of the flash points of the war against gentrification, a.k.a. yuppification. The Cristadora became the target of protests and riots, with greedy real-estate developers and their yuppie clients cast in the role of villains. The fact that Malcolm McLaren and Iggy Pop eventually became residents kind of muddied the stereotype. Was Iggy a yuppie? McLaren maybe. These were the ethical and nomenclatural dilemmas we faced, as New York changed around us and we all started to make more money and buy espresso machines.

The East Village art scene, which started with the opening of Patti Astor’s Fun Gallery in 1981, had really taken off by the end of ’83, the galleries increasingly drawing the kind of well-heeled crowds that the creators of the scene despised. The yuppies, once they were identified, incarnated an internal contradiction of the art world that we now take almost for granted: The bourgeoisie themselves are the end consumers of all épater la bourgeoisie production. Basquiat wasn’t selling $50,000 canvases to his fellow junkies.

From the beginning, there was a certain subject/object confusion associated with the yuppie concept, a certain “we have met the enemy and he is us” self-reflexivity to the phenomenon. Downtown mohawked squatters aside, it was sometimes hard to find a Manhattanite without some taint of the new lifestyle. Did gym membership qualify you as a yuppie? Snorting coke? Eating raw fish? When I heard a movie agent slinging the term at a group of bankers at the Odeon, I wondered about pots and kettles.

It’s hard to believe, but there weren’t all that many gyms in Manhattan in 1979.

Nationally, the ground had been prepared by the election of Ronald Reagan, the former actor with the Colgate smile, and his imperious wife, Nancy. Mrs. Reagan spent $25,000 on her inauguration wardrobe, and a planned redecoration of the White House family quarters was to cost $800,000. Apparently, that was a lot back then, judging by the breathless tone in which the figure was quoted. The price tag for the White House china was $209,508, which still seems like a lot. Luxury! After years of Jimmy Carter empathizing with our malaise and telling us to lower our expectations and carry our own suitcases, the Reagans were unself-conscious advocates of the good life. Conspicuous consumption was good. It was morning in America, according to Reagan, which seemed to mean that the sixties were finally over.

We didn’t know it at the time, but the birth of the new species might be pegged to the September 22, 1982, debut of Family Ties and the first appearance of Michael J. Fox as Alex Keaton, the briefcase-toting young Republican. In retrospect, it seems clear that Keaton was the proto-yuppie. The spawn of hippie parents, born in Africa while they were working for the Peace Corps, he wears a tie around the house, worships wealth, business success, and Ronald Reagan, and aspires to a career on Wall Street. The show ran for seven seasons, from ’82 to ’89, and illustrated a strange cultural inversion whereby a conservative younger generation cast aside the liberal values of their parents. The creators had envisioned a sitcom focused on the parents, but the young Republican soon stole the show. If at first he seemed an anomaly, he soon came to seem like an avatar of the Zeitgeist.

“Who are all those upwardly mobile folk with designer water, running shoes, pickled parquet floors, and $450,000 condos in semi-slum buildings?” asked Time magazine in its January 9, 1984, issue. “Yuppies,” we were informed, “are dedicated to the twin goals of making piles of money and achieving perfection through physical fitness and therapy.” The Yuppie Handbook, which had just been published, defined its subject: “(hot new name for Young Urban Professional): A person of either sex who meets the following criteria: (1) resides in or near one of the major cities; (2) claims to be between the ages of 25 and 45; (3) lives on aspirations of glory, prestige, recognition, fame, social status, power, money, or any and all combinations of the above; (4) anyone who brunches on the weekends or works out after work.”

Apparently, the creatures anatomized in The Yuppie Handbook were just common enough to elicit recognition, but not so general as to provoke a shrug. The concepts of “brunching” and “working out” were apparently new and humorous. A few of their defining characteristics—dhurrie rugs, potted ferns, pickled parquet floors—sound suitably dated. But many more—European automobiles, gourmet kitchens, computer literacy, designer clothing, and sushi—fail 25 years later to convey the exoticism that the authors seem to have intended. Oh, those wacky yuppies, eating raw fish and going to the gym.

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