Does a city have a soul? And if so, can it be lost? That’s the existential question at the heart of “Yuppies Invade My House at Dinnertime,” a documentary play that examines Hoboken’s often tawdry history of gentrification. It is now in a limited run at Hoboken’s Mile Square Theatre.
MST resident playwright Joseph Gallo spent years finding and talking to Hoboken residents, past and present, as well as politicians, journalists and businesspeople who were there in the ’80s, when gentrification swept through the Mile Square City like a wildfire. Gallo wove those interviews into a narrative that is delivered by five actors sitting in folding chairs on an otherwise empty stage. Rear wall projections display reminders of news events, people and places being discussed.
“Hoboken is a town that’s forgotten its own history,” Gallo says early in the play, which runs about 90 minutes with one intermission. In the course of two acts, he traces how a post-industrial ghost town known for its rotting, abandoned piers and moldering, half-vacant brownstones metamorphosed into a gleaming metropolis of luxury condos in the span of a decade.
Gallo acts as narrator, flanked onstage by four performers. To his left, actors Dan Dominques and Darlene Tejiro utilize their Latino roots to tell the stories of the city’s displaced Puerto Rican minority, who were driven from rent-controlled apartments by the thousands in the ’80s.
On Gallo’s right sits Ross DeGraw, who frequently delivers the remembrances of cops, firemen and prosecutors, as well as those of Hoboken’s newcomers — the dreaded “yuppies.” The final member of the cast, Jennifer Giattino, isn’t an actor at all, but a member of the Hoboken City Council, invited into the production as part of Mile Square Theatre’s outreach to the community. Her readings match those of the professionals in terms of passion, anger and nuance.
The play begins by introducing us to the Hoboken of the ’70s: The container ports at Port Elizabeth and Port Newark had rendered Hoboken’s once-thriving waterfront obsolete. The city that once manufactured Hostess cupcakes and Tootsie Rolls (and invented the zipper!) had lost almost all of its industrial base, its factories empty and often converted to inexpensive and illegal loft apartments. Many of the stately brownstones that once housed longshoremen and porters, factory workers and merchants, had decayed into slums.
The play’s first act focuses on the wave of arson that plagued Hoboken in the early ’80s and offers gruesome details of the infamous blaze that destroyed a building at 102 12th St. in October 1981, leaving 11 dead and dozens homeless. The building’s owner, Cuban immigrant Olga Ramos, was long suspected of arson but never indicted. In fact, no one ever was charged with a crime in regard to the Hoboken fires, even though dozens of buildings burned, 28 people died, and thousands of working-class Puerto Rican tenants lost their rent-controlled apartments over the course of a few years.
Fires would often start in the hallways of half-abandoned buildings in the wee hours of the morning, with no other plausible explanation than arson. But a racist theory at the time suggested an alternative: Since fire was a common tool of revenge in the Puerto Rican community, blazes might have been set by angry boyfriends or jilted wives. And some of them, one investigator opines, were “just fires.” (Gallo relates how a group of young men partying on the roof of his building at the time dropped a match into a shaftway; three brownstones burned to the ground.) Whether by accident or intent, though, the results were the same. Massive displacement.
An academic explanation of gentrification notes that cities gentrify in four stages. First, there is the “arrival”: Artists, musicians and other bohemians flock to a city for cheap rents and a lively social and cultural scene. Secondly, a few adventurous real estate agents start smelling a bargain and begin offering apartments. Next, developers and rental agents move in. Finally, the life of the city becomes completely controlled by corporations and developers with no ties to the community beyond profit.
Hoboken, notes Gallo, achieved stage-four gentrification far more quickly than most.
At the end of the ’80s, the federal government approved a grant allowing Hoboken to redevelop its decaying waterfront. Developers, builders and landlords offered blocks and blocks of potential new real estate and stopped worrying about converting existing buildings to condos, and the fires stopped. And so ends Act 1.
Act 2 has a lighter and funnier vibe, beginning with the improbable story of buffoonish Hoboken Mayor Tom Vezzetti — an outlandish character with a story so unlikely I wouldn’t believe it myself if I had not been there. Vezzetti was a lifelong bachelor with a shaving brush mustache who would wear mismatched shoes and carry his belongings in paper bags. The New York Times once described him as “the wackiest mayor in America,” a man who bragged that his father was a bootlegger who owned five saloons. (His mother was heiress to a peanuts and dried fruits fortune.) The family owned Hoboken’s decaying Madison Hotel, where Vezzetti was known to walk drunken guests up to their rooms and then sleep on the hotel’s pool table to safeguard the premises from thieves.
By 1982, Steve Cappiello, a Hudson County machine politician, had been mayor of Hoboken for a dozen years, shepherding the town through the early days of its gentrification. Vezzetti had sold the Madison by then and wanted to put the brakes on development; he would walk the length of Washington Street with a bullhorn, telling passersby that he was running for mayor and asking for their support. Improbably, he won, but accomplished little as mayor thanks to a hostile City Council blocking many of his policies. Vezzetti died of a heart attack on the day a special election might have granted him his first City Council majority. (His candidate lost by one vote.)
The play quotes journalist Jim DeRogatis — who wrote for The Hoboken Reporter and The Jersey Journal in his early 20s — as saying that Vezzetti’s death ended any hope that gentrification could be, if not stopped, at least slowed down; that affordable housing could have a place in the revitalized city; and that some allowances could be made so the artists and musicians who had made Hoboken a desirable place to live could remain in town. After Vezzetti, gentrification lost all guardrails.
Next, we meet Joe Barry, the onetime real estate developer who founded The Hoboken Reporter, the city’s weekly newspaper (which only recently went out of business). In the ’80s and ’90s, the Reporter’s Letters to the Editor pages became a battleground for Hoboken’s Old World holdovers and the new class of yuppie flocking into town. Barry and his associate John Derevlany collected some of those letters into the hilarious book, “Yuppies Invade My House at Dinnertime,” which Gallo used as the inspiration for this play.
Some of those letters are quoted at length. And they’re a hoot: the self-righteous indignation of old-guard Italian-Americans and Puerto Ricans braying against the young, privileged urban professionals who looked on Hoboken as their town and couldn’t understand, for instance, why the city’s week-long Italian religious festivals had to detonate so many fireworks late at night.
Gallo ends the play with a monologue about his own travails in finding affordable places to live in Hoboken through the years, not wanting to be “one of the ones who leave” for the suburbs or the Jersey shore. Like so much of this story, it does not have a happy ending. In closing, Gallo asks, “Has Hoboken lost its soul?”
I enthusiastically commend this performance to anyone seriously considering that question.
“Yuppies Invade My House at Dinnertime” will be presented at Mile Square Theatre through April 8; visit milesquaretheatre.org.
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