You might say that Friday night's protest of super-gentrification in the East Village was also a celebration of Die Yuppie Scum's 20th birthday. In trying to trace the roots of this rallying cry of rage, I found its earliest recorded use goes back to the 1988 riots in Tompkins Square Park, when it was hurled at the new residents of the Christodora House (along with bricks), painted on the walls of their controversial building, and propelled into the mainstream lexicon. By 1989, the phrase had made it onto T-shirts and was being spray-painted everywhere. It is currently enjoying a resurgence.
How appropriate then, that this weekend's angry group of East Villagers, chanting "Die Yuppie Scum" as they marched through the neighborhood's streets, should end up on the doorstep of Christodora, face to face with the enemy, where they found their fiercest opposition of the long march.
But first let me rewind, back to the beginning of the night.
It started with a beer at Mars Bar. A Chinese woman came in hawking bootleg porn DVDs and a one-handed man told me all about how the Hare Krishna building across the street used to be a brothel, "You paid $13 for 10 minutes, $15 if you wanted to stick it in the front and the back." Mars Bar, an island of eccentricity in a sea of sameness, survives. For now.
Right next door, the wine connoisseurs were getting comfortable at Bowery Wine Company's outdoor tables, enjoying the temperate summer evening. Farther up the block, on Bowery, outside the new outpost of Hamptons boutique Blue & Cream, protesters began gathering, making posters on the sidewalk with paint and markers.
Soon after 8:00, John Penley led the crowd down to the wine bar. As people stood on milkcrates to rage, read poetry, and play guitar, the crowd swelled to about 100 protesters. The police came to erect a barricade. Condo-dwellers leaned from floor-to-ceiling windows and quietly snapped pictures. The outdoor diners looked stricken, annoyed, and begged to be moved indoors. There was only one vocal member of the opposition, an elderly black man, a Republican in a GOP baseball cap who kept shouting, "Go home you pussies!" at the mostly white crowd of protesters.
Starved for confrontation, when a Hummer limo rolled by, the crowd jeered and jumped up and down, screaming into its blacked-out, unresponsive windows.
The police were placid. One bobbed her head to the music of David Peel's "Die Yuppie Scum." She told me, "I'm with you guys. If it were up to me, I'd let you protest to your heart's content. I was born here and I can't afford to live anywhere on the island of Manhattan!"
I asked her what she thought of the changes in the neighborhood. She said, "These buildings don't fit. They're too big. And the people? All they're doing is moving in victims. These people are victims. Stupid. They save seats with their laptops! With their handbags! And then just walk away. That's all we deal with now--stolen laptops." Robberies and burglaries are up. The new kids on the block make it easy pickins. She predicted that crime would continue to rise, many of the newcomers would leave, "And we'll have balance again."
After Bowery Wine, we marched to CBGB/Varvatos. The crowd jeered the outdoor diners at Bowery Hotel and turned down to 47 E. 3rd, where multi-millionaires are evicting an entire tenement full of long-time residents to make a single-family McMansion for themselves. From there, we went up Avenue A, through Tompkins Square Park, and settled at the door of the Christodora House.
Pushed behind a police barricade, the crowd chanted and David Peel sang "I Hate Christodora," like sirens luring the Christodorans out into the open. At last, they came. Barefoot girls with slim, tanned legs naked beneath long shirts came out cradling small dogs in their arms. Boys in Midwestern college football jerseys and Midwestern college football bodies came out with eyes wide. Gray-haired, gym-trim men in designer bifocals came out and consulted with the police, whispering into their blue caps.
The Christodorans huddled behind the police. One of them, with an air of paterfamilias, stepped to the protesters and argued for the righteousness of himself and his neighbors: We feed the homeless! We give to charity! A shouting match ensued, but no one was touched, no bricks were thrown.
When the Christodorans realized it was not 1988 and no harm would come to them, they relaxed. They snapped pictures of the protesters and giggled. They chatted about everyday things, and petted each other's tiny dogs. They tossed their wheat-colored hair and laughed, showing their flawless white teeth. Up on their marble steps, they did what the landed gentry have been doing for centuries--they ignored the angry mob as it railed against them.
And I say this was the fiercest opposition of the night, because the power to ignore, to stand above another's pain, unaffected and unmoved, to render people invisible--this may be the ruling class' greatest weapon. Like the shaded, unresponsive windows of that Hummer limo the crowd had earlier attacked, the eyes of a yunnie are impenetrable. They are bullet proof. They say, "You can't touch this." And, for the most part, here, today, they are right.
More coverage of the event: