On Yuppies and Gentrification

At the recent Tompkins Square Park 25th Police-Riot Reunion, a number of horrendous bands played over a three-day period. One of them was
David Peel and the Lower East Side.

These guys are definitely a novelty act. They’ve been around, in one form or another, for almost half a century. The only reason I’m writing about them is because they have a song called “Die Yuppie Scum”, that they played at the police-riot commemoration. “Die Yuppie Scum” was a slogan, if you will, that was spray painted on just about every surface in the “East Village” during the 1980s. It was the frustrated attempt by those with the propensity to spray paint onto things to vent their wrath at the most visible appearance of the changes taking place around them. However, the connection between yuppies (“or in more sober terms … the ‘new middle class'”) and gentrification is a spurious one:

    The patterns of consumption associated with the new middle class, including patterns of housing consumption, are presumed to result from the higher incomes and the greater spending power of this group. In short, we would expect that the emergence of a new middle class would result in an increase in the aggregate share of income earned by this social stratum – an identifiable redistribution of income toward the centre. …

    But when we examine income distribution over the past several decades, the pattern is not so simple. Far from suggesting a redistribution of income, the aggregate data present a picture of remarkable stability overlain with cyclical fluctuation. Despite postwar economic growth, the poorest 20 percent of the US population did not earn a significantly greater proportion of the social pie and nor did the richest 20 percent have to relinquish its half of the pie. If there is any fluctuation from this stable distribution of income, it suggests rather that the minimal democratization of incomes that pertained into the mid-1970s was significantly reversed by the 1980s. By the 1990s, the disparity between rich and poor was greater than at any time in the last quarter-century. As regards a new middle class, presumably located in the third and fourth quintiles, their numbers remained very stable through the 1970s but actually fell significantly beginning in 1982. Far from suggesting the rise of a new middle class, the 1980s, which witnessed the most intense gentrification, would seem to have corresponded with an actual shrinking of the new middle class.1

    Share of aggregate household income in the US, 1967–1992

    US Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census 1993. Money Income of Households, Families, and Persons in the United States: 1992. Series P60-184.

It doesn’t make for catchy song lyrics, but there you are. Some people have made this their mantra, so it would be hard for them to give it up now. And of course, today you can even wear your contumely!


So here is David Peel and The Lower East Side performing “Die Yuppie Scum” at the TSP25APRR. I found the link to this video on another blog. (I commented that David Peel was the white Wesley Willis, but the comment was rejected by the blog owner!) It starts out sounding like “Gloria” but then goes into the Wesley Willis sound. I will spare you having to listen to the entire thing. If you want to though, click on the YouTube icon and you can watch it on YouTube.

Wesley Willis (1963 – 2003):


1Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier (London/New York: Routledge, 1996) pp. 96-97.