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The Yuppie Turns 35

Decades after he helped change our lexicon, a longtime editor and urban observer reflects on what makes a healthy city. (Hint: walkable streets, good schools, and affordable housing.)

Above: The Chicago skyline in 1980
Photo: David Nystrom/Chicago Tribune

In May 1980, Chicago was celebrating the return of a certain breed of city dweller. These coveted residents were young, urban, and professional, and in a long story for Chicago magazine, Dan Rottenberg had a name for them: yuppies.

Something is occurring in Chicago, or at least in the fashionable lakefront neighborhoods that so many observers (including, God knows, this magazine) often seem to confuse with the city as a whole. Real-estate prices have skyrocketed. Lofts and townhouses are being rehabilitated. Some 20,000 new dwelling units have been built within two miles of the Loop over the past ten years to accommodate the rising tide of “Yuppies"—young urban professionals rebelling against the stodgy suburban lifestyles of their parents. The Yuppies seek neither comfort nor security, but stimulation, and they can find that only in the densest sections of the city.

Today, imagining Chicago without its yuppies is like imagining the cheetah without its spots, but Rottenberg’s story happens to have been the first time the word ever appeared in print. Soon yuppiedom would sweep the nation in all its Chardonnay-and-brie glory. By 1984 Gary Hart was the official yuppie candidate (the Times was on it) and Newsweek had declared the year to have been the “Year of the Yuppie.”

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I read “About That Urban Rennaisance…” for the first time last week when I plucked it from our archives to put online. As etymological trivia, it’s a fun read, but it’s also a prescient critique of 1980 Chicago—and in many ways of 2015 Chicago as well.

The city and its boosters may have welcomed these young, prosperous singles, but Rottenberg was more cautious. “What’s good for the Loop and the lakefront hasn’t necessarily been good for Chicago.” The middle class, for one thing, was being squeezed by undesirable neighborhoods on one end—undesirable because of poor schools, mostly—and unaffordable housing on the other. ​

Although Rottenberg himself had left Chicago in 1972, he continued to be a contributing editor for Chicago until 1987. Today he’s 72 and an editor for Philadelphia’s Broad Street Review. I reached him there and found him eager to rhapsodize on cities and their possibilities. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.

 
 

I’m 39. Everything I know about yuppies in the ’80s I learned from Steve Dallas and Bloom County. What did the term connote to you?

I didn’t necessarily see it as a pejorative term, which other people now say it was. These were people who were trying to make a living, they were young, and they liked being in the city.

Dan Rottenberg
Dan Rottenberg   Photo: Barbara Rottenberg

It probably differentiated them from my contemporaries. I got out of college in ’64. My generation was the bridge between the complacent ’50s and the protesting ’60s. When you get to the ’70s, suddenly the Vietnam war is over, people are not interested in protesting, and they’re very career-oriented, even right out of college, which to my generation was unheard of. I was a journalist and you didn’t really think about your career ladder. You just thought about, “If I do the right thing, everything is going to fall into place.” I guess that’s what the term yuppies applied to: the people after the protest generation.

You don’t claim to have coined it. You’re just the first to have used it in print. Who do you give the credit to?

A lot of people have said to me, “Why don’t you just claim that you made it up?” And I guess I could but I didn’t. I’m a journalist and I heard other people using that expression. Who exactly made it up I really don’t know. I would love to take credit for it, and I have coined other expressions in my career, but not that one.

Joseph Epstein and Bob Greene, they come up in connection with the term’s early use. They’re both Chicago writers. Were you guys pals?

No. I met Bob Greene a couple of times, but no, I didn’t really have a relationship with them. Their references to that term I think came around 1982, ’83, something like that. So Chicago magazine, whatever else it has done, can claim to be the first place the term was ever used.

Was there something about Chicago that made it ground zero for yuppies?

I don’t think so. That term was being used all over the country as far as I knew.

How did your story come to be?

It was an editor’s idea. Alan Kelson was the editor at that time, and he was very interested in urban issues. I thought that was an interesting subject, the idea that there was a feeling of, “Gee, gentrification is going to solve all of the city’s problems.” And to some extent it did solve a lot of them.

I don’t know what you have in Chicago now, but Philadelphia has a very large proportion of millennials, people who are under 35, and they’re doing all kinds of things in the center of the city. They are raising kids, they are not using cars, they’re using bicycles. Their priorities are completely different and in many ways it’s very healthy thing for the city. I think that was the case in Chicago also when I did that article about the yuppies and gentrification, but I think the point of my article was that there are limits to this.

You called it wishful thinking, that the yuppies would expand beyond downtown. But it’s kind of happened: there’s barely a block between 18th and Bryn Mawr that doesn’t have a cocktail bar, pet store, and two banks.

Well, that’s great.

I came back April of 2014, the first time in 22 years, and I felt like Rip Van Winkle. The city is very different in many ways. Probably the most important way to me is that there’s housing in the Loop and around the Loop. People actually living there. When I was there from ’68 to ’72, the Loop was a morgue at night. The city/county building had gone up in the ’60s and that had wiped out about a hundred little night spots and little stores. And an office building closes up at 5 o’clock. Everybody goes home. So it was a pretty forbidding place then. But now there’s life in downtown, and that’s really what I liked about Philadelphia when I moved to in ’72.

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The interesting contrast to me was, again, we’re talking 1972. Mayor Daley the elder was still the mayor of Chicago, and in Chicago they were very efficient at knocking things down and putting up new buildings, putting up expressways. The ultimate effect was that it drove people—drove the upper-middle class, anyway—out of the Loop, out of downtown, and out to the suburbs. It made it very easy to move out there.

Philadelphia, by contrast, had pretty inefficient government. They wanted to do these things, they wanted to build expressways and knock all the old buildings downtown down, but they never really could do it. That was the great saving grace of Philadelphia, because it remained first of all a walkable city, which it still is today. And second of all, they came up with this terrific plan. Instead of knocking down the historic center of the city, they would preserve it and give people incentives to restore and renovate these very classy old homes that had simply been abandoned. That’s the area that we now call Society Hill, which is really a model for cities everywhere else in the country. It basically attracted the upper-middle class back from the suburbs into downtown.

Do you think Chicago’s downtown is missing some of that character because of that redevelopment?

Yes, I think so. I can’t really speak as an authority. When I came back in April I was there for two nights. I went to the Art Institute, for example. I was blown away. It’s really much bigger and much more ambitious and much more interesting than it was when I was in Chicago, and it was a very interesting place then. There’s a whole new community of office buildings and housing. It’s gone up over the Illinois Central tracks, east of the Loop, and around the Navy Pier area. It’s like a whole new city. There was nothing like that when I was there.

Whether it’s good or bad, I’m not sure. I was very conscious that there are all these new boulevards. They’re five lanes wide, almost like an interstate. It almost reminded me of Salt Lake City. If you’re a pedestrian you just take your life in your hands. To me I think a very important feature of cities is that you can walk around them. You can walk around Paris, you can walk around Manhattan, you can walk around Center City Philadelphia, you can walk around Boston. Chicago, it’s a little harder.

I was really struck by the deck of the story: “It takes families to save a city.” What did you mean by that?

Families are the building blocks of societies. They are the best mechanism for passing values from generation to generation, and they last more than any other institution. They last longer than countries, they last longer than corporations, they last longer than cities.

If you look at Chicago. There are families that have been in Chicago since the beginning, and then there are families from the 19th century that have stuck around. They have their ancestors looking over their shoulders, and they don’t think lightly about letting the city down or leaving.

When you have families in a city you have a sense of commitment. You also have a sense of the future, because people are concerned about building a community for the future, which is their children. If you just have a lot of adults, whether it’s one of these senior citizen communities like Sun City in Arizona or anywhere else, you’re going to be missing an important element.

The big missing ingredient in Chicago at that time were good public schools. When I left Chicago, I had two daughters. They were age 5 and 2. My older daughter was going to Francis Parker on the North Side. That still around?

Yes.

OK. Well, in those days, the best private schools in Chicago were probably Francis Parker, Latin, and the University of Chicago Lab School on the South Side.

It’s still the case.

Is it? Well, we were very happy with Francis Parker, but we moved to Philadelphia in the fall of ’72, sent our daughter to a public school in the middle of Philadelphia, and we thought it was better than Francis Parker. Now, I’m not saying that all the schools in Philadelphia were better. Philadelphia had serious problems with its public schools also, but at least there were some where if you were a conscientious parent and you knew how to push the envelope, your child could get a terrific education for nothing, and that wasn’t the case in Chicago at that time.

Could a magazine editor’s salary support private school back then? Was it a middle class option?

Probably not.

The tradeoff for any good civic-minded, liberal-minded parent was: “On the one hand I believe in the public schools. On the other hand, the public schools are terrible, and I can’t afford private schools.” So what’s the solution? You move to the suburbs when your kids are school age. I think that was certainly true in Chicago, and true to some extent in Philadelphia also.

I was sort of the other way around. I believe in private schools. I think private schools are diverse and interesting and different, but at that time I think you’re right. I probably couldn’t afford them, so I tried to make the best I could of the public school system.

I wanted to stay in the city. I’m a city person. I was born and raised in New York, and I think there are absolutely terrific benefits from raising children in the city. I look at my two daughters, who through high school in Philadelphia and once they got into college they both moved to New York. They’ve both made very good careers for themselves and lives for themselves living in the city, both raising children in the city. I think there are certain coping mechanisms that you develop by osmosis when you grow up in the city. I certainly saw it with my daughters anyway.

Does that necessarily mean charter schools?

Experimentation is a valuable thing. I’ve waxed hot and cold on the idea of vouchers. The idea of alternatives is something cities can do that suburbs can’t, and that can be something to attract parents back to the city, if they knew they had some kind of choice.

Why did you move to Philadelphia? Were schools a part of it?

Two things. First of all I got a job offer there, as executive editor of Philadelphia Magazine. The other thing was that my wife and I had gone to Penn, and she was from Philadelphia. I was from New York. We really liked Chicago, but we made a conscious decision that we wanted our children to grow up near their grandparents, which was very unusual at that time. Most young parents my age were trying to get away from their parents. In retrospect, I think we did the right thing, because grandparents aren’t around forever, and my kids had that experience.

The other thing I would say is the weather was probably something that drove us away. We were there for four years. Every year without exception there was not only a snowstorm in April but a major blizzard in April. The last year we were there we actually had a little bit of snow on Memorial Day.

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Tyke flight, moving to the suburbs with kids, is still very much a thing here. Aside from improving schools, what can a city do to keep families?

I guess I don’t see myself as an urban expert on that, but I think in that article that you’re looking at I mention the idea of promoting urban neighborhoods that are not the inner lake neighborhoods. It seems like if you’re an upper-middle class person, you either want to be near the lake or you want to be in the suburbs. The idea of living anywhere else doesn’t occur to you. I think that’s sort of what you have to promote.

In New York what has happened is that Manhattan has basically become the place of the rich, the only people who can afford it. My younger daughter, who’s a TV writer, is a pretty good example. She was living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, wound up moving to Brooklyn, along with everybody else on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. So you have an entire neighborhood that was transported from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Brooklyn.

You talk about the flavor of neighborhoods and how important it is to have artists there and good restaurants. One thing I can’t wrap my head around is how do you keep that flavor when a neighborhood becomes desirable and recognized for it? The yuppies move in and price everyone out and there goes the flavor.

That’s true. Nothing lasts forever, and there’s no way that you can control that sort of thing. I think I talked in the article about incubator space. Incubator spaces are areas where you have on the one hand a high density of sophisticated population and affluent population, and on the other hand you have low overhead, low property values. So let’s say that you want to start an innovative new restaurant, you can do it because the rent is low and you have a lot of good potential customers nearby. You couldn’t do that in a place like the Loop because the property values were so high.

Are the Levy brothers still around in Chicago?

Oh, yeah. They’re huge.

Their thing was they were real estate developers who happened to be interested in restaurants, so they would negotiate deals with buildings, and the buildings were happy to have them because the buildings understood that they know how to run a business, but the idea of experimental cuisine did not enter into the equation.

In Philadelphia there are any number of incubator neighborhoods. Center City Philadelphia when I arrived was such a neighborhood. It was not doing very well, but when the Vietnam War ended, you had all these anti-war, counterculture type, protester people, who were getting a little older. They were in their mid-20s, they were very creative, they did not want to go into corporate work. They wanted some kind of countercultural career, and what did they do? Well, they started opening little restaurants on these little side streets in Center City Philadelphia, and the next thing you know, Philadelphia, which had never been known for its restaurants, became a famous focal point of restaurants.

Now, ultimately what happened was property values went up, and new experimental type restaurants couldn’t afford to be downtown Philadelphia anymore, but new incubator space-type neighborhoods started opening up in other parts of the city. So I think that’s what happens.

We have that here in neighborhoods like Pilsen and Humboldt Park and Logan Square. That’s where all the hip restaurants are. But the criticism of that is: people were living there already, mostly immigrants and poor. Where do they go? What happens to their lives?

Yeah, that is the argument. Gentrification is driving out poor people from their neighborhoods. Of course there’s something to that.

On the other hand, it’s really remarkable that upper-middle class people want to live in neighborhoods that used to be poor. You go back a hundred years to the immigrants who came to America, they were living on maybe the Lower East Side of Manhattan. What was their dream? Their dream was to move to a better place, either to the suburbs or to some nicer part of the city, and now a lot of the objection to gentrification is, “Gee, we’re poor and we don’t want to have to move. We just want to stay where we are.”

I guess there’s just no permanent answer to anything in the world. I guess that’s the best I can say.

I have to ask about one aspect that your story hints at with the quote from the City Club. Is the only way to improve a neighborhood to make it whiter?

No. The answer is no.

I’ll tell you about the block I live on in Philadelphia. It’s a narrow street. A hundred years ago it was populated entirely by black domestic servants who worked at Rittenhouse Square nearby, which was the most elegant square in the city. I moved in in 1982 and one of those families was still on the block. But gradually around the 1960s that block became gentrified, mostly white, but all sorts of races and backgrounds and religions. Not until the ’80s did we have a lawyer or a doctor on the block. My next door neighbor is black, and she’s what you would call a yuppie. No, it doesn’t have to be white. There’s a whole new black middle class and a black upper class.

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There was a time when all those elegant buildings along [Lake Michigan], none of them would allow Jews. If you let a Jew in, that would be the end of the prestige of the building. Subsequently there was a feeling about blacks and Hispanics, but as time passes and the faces change I think we get away from that.

I grew up in Manhattan in the 1950s in what was said to be the only class-A building that would rent to blacks. Consequently I had neighbors like Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne in my building. What an experience that was. That’s the quality of life you can have when you don’t worry about these petty things—the color of a person’s skin.

You got a lot of predictions right.

Tell me.

The rise of single-person households without cars. And you kind of foreshadowed the middle class being booted out.

I think maybe a lot of those trends I foresaw happened and died out and now they’re happening again. A lot of it is if the city can provide good mass transportation, good alternatives to automobiles. When I was in Chicago, the automobile was king, and the feeling was we have to accommodate all these cars so the suburbanites can get downtown. The idea that “Gee, maybe we should make the city a place that suburbanites want to live” didn’t really occur to people. Every generation rebels against its parents, I think, and that’s what was going on when I wrote that article.

The first great white flight to the suburbs occurred after World War II, maybe starting around 1950. Everybody thought, “Gee, having a house and having a lawn was the ultimate dream.” Well, then they moved out there and they realized: Hey, it’s not really this great. First of all, you need a full-time wife to run the house, and second of all, you lose the sense of community. Third of all, you’re pretty far away from everything and you’re dependent on a car for everything in your life.

My joke about suburbanites used to be their first question in any situation was “Where can I park?” You think about it, how much of that question dominates your life, and if a city can provide answers—

Now, do you have the bike rentals in Chicago?

Yeah. They’ve been great.

That just started in Philadelphia, and the number of people biking to work, that sort of changes your life. It’s good exercise. It’s not polluting. You can always find a space. I had a bike in Chicago also, but I rarely took it to work, and I think you can guess why. Very often it was just too cold.

My wife and I were carless until we had our kid about a year ago.

In Chicago?

Yeah.

I don’t know that we could have done that. My wife and I had a car in Chicago. We parked it on the street. Very often in the winter we would have to call AAA and get the battery charged because we couldn’t start it in the morning. We moved to Philadelphia, we were right in the middle of town. We were in a building where there was a hotel next door where you could always get buses or cabs. There was a Greyhound bus terminal across the street, there was a train station under our building, there were five car rental places within two blocks of our building. So we sold our car and we lived without one for 14 years.

Where were you in Chicago?

In Chicago we were living on Cornelia, 3500 North, just off the lake. Belmont Harbor is the neighborhood.

What was the neighborhood like then?

It was a wonderful neighborhood, I would say, for two blocks off the lake, and then you go west of Broadway and suddenly it became very rough.

One of the other things you got right was the demolition of Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini-Green.

Yeah, that did happen, right?

It took 30 years. Are you surprised it took so long?

You put up a big building like that, it’s hard to knock it down, especially when you don’t have a constituency for knocking it down. The people who live in those buildings don’t have much political clout. That was the problem.

A building like Cabrini-Green is what I would call a negative anchor. It’s there and it drives everybody else away. No gentrifier wants to live across the street from a public-housing project, and the idea behind Cabrini-Green of course was, “We’re going to provide housing for the poor, but we’re going to take up as little ground space as we can.”

One of the effects of that was you had mothers at home on the 20th floor while their teenage kids are playing 20 floors below and you just didn’t have the supervision that you had when they were living in the old slums with two- or three-story walk-ups where the mother could stick her head out the window and watch her kids while they were playing in the street.

You predicted that they would come down because of economic development reasons more than humanitarian reasons. Most people would probably agree with that.

Yeah, that’s probably true. Sometimes good things happen for the wrong reasons.

Your headline was “About that urban renaissance … there’ll be a slight delay.” Do you think Chicago ever saw that renaissance or are we still waiting?

I think there’s certainly been a dramatic change in Chicago, as I witnessed over the years. Let’s see, that was 1980. I was writing about Chicago until about 1992. There’s certainly been dramatic changes, and this is going to happen in any city, I think, because new people are born, old people die. So it’s inevitable. It’s sort of the organism of the city, and that’s the nature of the city: there’s always going to be change.

The question is, Is the change going to be for the better or the worse? You look at a place like Detroit, which was once a very vibrant city and is now down on its luck. You look at a place like Philadelphia, which has reinvented itself I think about six times in its 300 years. In the 19th century it was known as the workshop of the world. It was the greatest manufacturing behemoth in the history of the world, I think before or since. Well, now it’s not a manufacturing center at all. It’s into health care and services and things like that. I think every city changes and I don’t think I’m in a position to judge Chicago.

Chicago was a great place to be a journalist. Everything was very dramatic. Everybody was always yelling at each other, and there were all kinds of dramatic conflicts going on, and Philadelphia was more—everything was just more subtle and nuanced. In Philadelphia you had the Quaker influence, which was don’t toot your own horn and everybody’s equal. I used to say Philadelphians don’t know when to speak up and Chicagoans don’t know when to shut up.

I must say I’ve been missing Chicago. My wife and I are hoping to come back this summer and see some old friends and see the city again.

What do you miss the most?

There’s a certain dynamism about Chicago that I always found very attractive. As a place to live, I think Philadelphia may be more comfortable. But Chicago is always a very exciting place, and that’s what I miss.

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