Heroes and Housing: Reflections on the HBO Miniseries

This past weekend marked the end of HBO’s miniseries, Show Me A Hero. It’s a compelling story of Yonkers, New York in the 1980s. Written by The Wire’s David Simon, it attempts to weave together two disparate stories. On the one hand, we have the political ambitions of young Nick Wasicsko who became the youngest mayor of a major American city at the age of 28. On the other, it’s the story of a city forced to deal with its segregated housing and respond to a court-ordered solution. Judge Sand had ordered that residents of the Schlobohm housing project be relocated to smaller decentralized units across the city of Yonkers.

Wasicsko is the hero of the title. Early on, one of the other politicians quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Show me a hero and I’ll show you a tragedy.” Watching Nick over the course of the three nights underscores this message. He so much wants to be a beloved and effective mayor but circumstances dictate otherwise. He actually becomes mayor by being willing to appeal the judge’s order even though he knew there was little chance of success. Having won, he then faces the ire of the citizens of Yonkers who can’t believe he’s supporting the judges’s plan. He’s defeated in the subsequent election. While he receives a Profile in Courage award that he believes will give him a ticket back to leadership, he proves himself willing to engage in all kinds of political moves, including turning on friends. His story is increasingly sad as we got to last Sunday. It ends badly.

HeroThe other politicians were interesting for other reasons. Hank Spallone (played by an over-the-top Alfred Molina) leveraged the anger of the crowd into taking Wasicsko’s position as mayor (he also only lasts one term). Spallone is the voice of opposition even though there is really no alternative to the court order. But he sees it as being in his political interest to keep tensions high. One remarkable scene from week two showed Spallone riding in his car having an aide take pictures of residents of Schlobohm. They’d ignore the mother walking her children to school and the blue collar worker heading to his job. But they’d take pictures of the young toughs on the street and make sure to snap the drug transaction going down between those other two guys. It was just a moment but it spoke volumes about how some politicians have made careers out of playing on the exaggerated fears of everyday folks.

As a sociologist, the housing part of the story was far more interesting than the political machinations. As in the book upon which the miniseries is based, David Simon goes to great lengths to develop the characters living in Schlobohm who eventually get the chance to live in the new decentralized housing. For the most part, they were strong supportive families who had their own reasons for wanting out of the housing project. There’s the diabetic woman who is losing her sight, the recent immigrant family hoping for a better place to raise her children, the daughters of the working family who move out on their own, have troubles, but get their lives back together. These were exactly the kind of families one would hope to have in the neighborhood, regardless of race or class. The character played by Catherine Keener goes from being a staunch opponent of the project to being a key neighborhood support once the new housing is built precisely because she got to know those families as people.

The opponents of the housing plan worry that their property values will go down, that their insurance rates will go up, that their neighborhoods will be unsafe. They are never quite clear on what they’d suggest as an alternative. They are primarily upset that “some judge” made this decision about their community, ignoring that a history of segregation got them to that point. Complaining about activist judges who interfere in citizens’ everyday lives makes for animated protests, but it is blind to the fact that courts have almost always overruled popular opinion when it comes to matters of equal rights. If the public was looking out for those on the margins, the courts would never be involved (there are some obvious contemporary parallels).

This tendency to defend the status quo (which I could call “privilege”) is not limited to 1980s Yonkers. Listen to the This American Life episode on school integration in the Saint Louis area and you’ll think you’re hearing the protesters at the Yonkers city hall. Families who have the benefit of a well-funded suburban school are outraged that poor black students will be coming to their school, without even considering the academic capabilities of those students.

There’s another lesson in Show Me A Hero. Those protestors at the city council meeting weren’t wrong. There are very real issues of structural racism at play. If your neighborhood integrated, your housing values would go down because of the way that realtors and banks evaluate properties. There are real issues impacting insurance rates because insurance companies don’t want to take on risk even if it’s for the greater good. There are economic concerns that there is just not good money in integrated housing. Consider this story on a Chicago housing plan. Or think about why Donald Trump built fabulous and classy hotels and towers while his father made his fortune on affordable housing (as I’ve written before, if you aren’t following Emily Badger from the Washington Post, you are missing out!).

To a sociologist, there is a hero in the miniseries. His name is Oscar Newman. An architect with an incredible sociological imagination, he argues that decentralized housing is key to crime prevention, community development, and upward mobility. As he stubbornly explains, the affordable housing complexes had to be fairly small (no more than twenty units), be townhouses with internal staircases, have private back yards, lots of greenspace, and no common areas. This, he argued, would keep from attracting criminal activity. It would allow families the chance to be responsible for their own space. It would allow the development of neighborhood (the little kid talking to “The Poodle Lady” was one of the most touching parts of the final episode).

Oscar Newman reminds us that we don’t have to have crime-ridden, graffiti strewn, broken, low income housing projects. We never did. We wouldn’t want to live in that environment and it’s hard to believe that anyone else would. But changing that would prove disruptive to our way of life, would limit our status quo and financial opportunities, would cause us to be responsible for folks we don’t know. Better to put them in the high rise on the other side of the interstate and assume that the housing is run down because “they don’t know better” and not because we built the projects for failure. When I lived near Chicago, the two miles of Robert Taylor homes was always a depressing sight. Today they are gone, which is a good thing, but I fear we’re no closer to grasping a vision of what the common good looks like. Maybe the events of recent years have opened people’s eyes to issues of residential segregation and its monstrous effects.

If an HBO series can catch our attention, maybe it can motive some more of us to action. Maybe our politicians will see it as in their professional interest to care a little more. Maybe economic interests will realize that there is profit to be made in addressing some of our pressing social concerns.

Show Me A Hero could potentially have a serious and lasting effect on our society.

It might even be more important than Daenerys Targaryen’s Dragons.


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