Revolt of the Bruppies

A surprising number of Philly-area adults—and their kids—are making the leap out into the world to actually build something. Meet the blue-collar yuppies

Meanwhile, at the Waldorf School in Mount Airy, kids are learning traditional trades and crafts as part of their normal coursework. By the time they move on to high school, they will have knitted clothing from yarn they dyed themselves, carved their own spoons from blanks of wood using hand tools, and sculpted the Big Bad Wolf out of warm beeswax. According to admissions director Alexandra Borders, the point of all this furious handwork — that’s what they call it at Waldorf, “handwork” — is partly to infuse the children with “this real connection with Mother Earth and how it nourishes us.” (See “Shut Down That Computer and Build!” on page 84 for other local, innovative school programs.)

The parents of Waldorf children are a mix of educators, craftspeople, small-business owners, artists, doctors and lawyers; what they aren’t is poor. They’re paying as much as $11,370 a year to have their kids learn, among other things, to knit little sheep out of yarn. What’s interesting about them is that they aren’t hippies, but rather middle-class and upper-middle-class professionals who have made a choice to expose their kids to traditional crafts and skills. Sure, you could mock the new austerity as just the newest way for status-conscious yuppies to lord it over their lessers. (Yarn is the new pinot noir.) But it feels like something bigger, a wave of dissatisfaction that’s been slowly rippling toward the shore. Call these folks the bruppies: blue-collar yuppies. They’re people who were promised creative fulfillment by knowledge work but failed to find it. In their sudden compulsion to work with their hands, they almost have the quality of religious seekers. “Both as workers and as consumers, we feel we move in channels that have been projected from afar by vast impersonal forces,” writes motorcycle mechanic Matthew B. Crawford in his best-selling book Shop Class as Soulcraft. “We worry that we are becoming stupider, and begin to wonder if getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on getting a handle on it in some literal and active sense.”

In Philadelphia, no one has gone further down this path, or has more successfully tightened his grasp, than Alan Turner. Which isn’t to say he’s a perfect example of the trend. He’s a prickly, complicated guy, and his case is complex.

See, Turner isn’t a refugee from a white-collar job he hated. He actually loved the law. He cut his teeth as a public defender, then switched to commercial litigation with the occasional criminal-defense case, “so I could pretend to be Perry Mason.” He defended white-collar guys accused of fraud.