Segregationists in the North

August 27, 2015

Don Lash reviews a new television miniseries by the creator of The Wire that tells the story of the conflict over housing desegregation in Yonkers, New York.

DAVID SIMON, who calls himself the "PBS of HBO," has co-written and co-produced another series on the cable network, his fifth. The six-part miniseries Show Me a Hero began airing on August 16. Based on a 1999 book by journalist Lisa Belkin, the series dramatizes the contentious process of building small-scale, scattered-site public housing in the city of Yonkers, New York, in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Yonkers is a city of about 200,000 people, bordering New York City to the south, the Hudson River to the west, and more affluent suburbs in Westchester County to the east and north. Belkin describes it as "a working class bridge between the towers of Manhattan to the south and the pampered hills of the rest of Westchester County to the north."

Yonkers built several public housing projects beginning in the 1940s, and located each within a single square mile of the city's west side, which was where Black and Latino residents were concentrated. The city's east side consisted of white ethnic homeowners, whose elected council members resisted any public housing in the communities they represented.

David Simon's new television miniseries Show Me a Hero
David Simon's new television miniseries Show Me a Hero

Among white Yonkers residents and the elected officials who represented them, the nearly universal, openly expressed attitude was that relegating public housing to the poorest neighborhoods in the city was perfectly acceptable, as that was where the residents in need of housing were. "Nicer" neighborhoods, with owner-occupied homes, were something to aspire to, and something to be fiercely protected.

AFTER YEARS of litigation driven by the NAACP and U.S. Justice Department, federal judge Leonard Sand, played by actor Bob Balaban in the series, found that Yonkers had intentionally used federal housing money to maintain residential segregation and, as a result, maintained the racial segregation of public schools. The book and series pick up the story at the point where Yonkers had already lost in U.S. District Court--the city's all-white City Council was pinning its hopes on a long-shot appeal to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

Sand ordered the construction of 200 units of low-income housing on the east side, to be followed by a further 800 units of moderate-income "affordable housing" units. White residents' fears were focused on the low-income units to be populated with people from the existing projects or the public housing waiting lists.

Review: Television

Show Me a Hero, a six-part HBO miniseries, written by David Simon and William Zorzi, starring Oscar Isaac, Bob Balaban and Jim Belushi.

The early episodes of Show Me a Hero focus on the white politicians grappling with how to respond to Judge Sand's order. Incumbent Mayor Angelo Martinelli (Jim Belushi), although opposed to the housing, favored bowing to the inevitable and dropping the appeal, not wanting to throw more city money into expensive, pointless litigation.

An ambitious young council member, Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac), is the focal point of the early episodes. Wasicsko was maneuvered into running for mayor against Martinelli. He scores an upset victory because diehard opponents of housing desegregation sought to punish Martinelli for voting to abandon the appeal. Wasicsko, at 28, became the youngest mayor in any American city of significant size.

While Wasicskowon as the anti-housing candidate by default simply because he wanted the appeal to play out, the situation changed even before he was sworn in, when the federal appeals court rejected Yonkers' appeal.

Declaring that "the law is the law," Wasicsko looked for a practical settlement that would prevent Sand from holding the city in contempt for failing to comply with his orders. He was blocked from doing so by hardcore racist opponents, who rallied around council member Hank Spallone (Alfred Molina) and intimidated other council members to vote down any effort to comply with the order.

At this point, Yonkers was defying the federal courts to an extent that even Southern segregationists of the 1960s had shied away from. The city was held in contempt, with fines starting at $100, and doubling for each day of non-compliance. The compounding fines would soon exceed $1 million a day, pushing Yonkers to the edge of bankruptcy in less than a month. The City Council only agreed to comply when control of the municipal budget had been taken away, and massive layoffs and shutdowns became imminent.

The drama of the confrontation in Yonkers made the case legendary. In addition to Belkin's book now being dramatized by Simon, a documentary about the case, Brick by Brick: A Civil Rights Story, was released in 2007.

The early episodes of Show Me a Hero focus on Wasicsko and his efforts to avert the disaster, as well as his developing romance with a City Hall assistant, Nae (Carla Quevedo), who later became his wife. The central conflict at this stage is between the judge, a housing expert and the NAACP lawyer on one side, and the Yonkers politicians on the other. All were white.

Mary Dornan (Catherine Keener), a white community activist opposed to the public housing, is also featured. In the series, Dornan is portrayed somewhat sympathetically as being repelled by the racism of other white residents, but nevertheless driven to "protect" her community from the presence of public housing.

There are Black and Latino characters, but in the opening episodes, they are seen living their lives and dealing with joblessness, bad housing and child care crises, with no direct connection to the housing controversy.

While the series doesn't make it clear, the book Show Me a Hero points out that the NAACP feared that any grassroots activity by prospective tenants in the scattered-site housing on the east side would only inflame racist opposition. So non-white residents of Yonkers were kept away from public hearings and council meetings. Only when the housing is built and populated do these characters become central to the story.

The increasing importance of the performances of Ilfenesh Hadera, Natalie Paul and Dominique Fishback, as young mothers raising their children in public housing, and of LaTanya Richardson Jackson, as a grandmother losing her sight to diabetes, strengthens the series as it continues.

THE YONKERS story has been important to Simon since Lisa Belkin's book came out. He began developing it before his celebrated series The Wire, and shelved it for extended periods of time, only to come back to it.

Simon is a true believer in the power of scattered-site housing as an alternative to concentrated, high-rise public housing. He believes Yonkers showed that scattered-site works, and he blames irrational, entrenched fear among whites and the abandonment of a commitment to public housing and fair housing objectives among liberal politicians for the failure to follow this path.

Simon states his question about the U.S. in relation to the Yonkers experience: "This is about the Browning of America. We are becoming a less white country. The trick is, can we become more Brown without destabilizing ourselves and without having gated white communities and ghettos?

In Show Me a Hero, the ideology of scattered-site housing is represented by Oscar Newman (Peter Reigert), the housing consultant originally engaged by Yonkers, whose recommendations shaped Judge Sand's orders. Newman maintained that the high crime and decay associated with public housing was not a feature of systemic racism and poverty, but was caused by bad design.

To Newman, large complexes with too much common space meant that because the space belongs to everyone, it belongs to no one--and is not therefore "defensible space." Newman insisted that the Yonkers units could have no shared space. Yards had to be individual and fenced, emulating the ideal of the single-family homes in the surrounding area.

Large complexes, Newman also believed, overwhelm and destabilize neighborhoods by putting too many poor people into too little space. Newman's ideas were later used to justify wholesale destruction of public housing units, with little or no effort to replace the units with scattered-site housing.

Simon is jumping on a very old bandwagon in criticizing public housing for lacking "defensible space" and "eyes on the street." The challenge dates back more than 50 years, to urban planners like Newman and "anti-planners" like Jane Jacobs.

While there was certainly bad design in public housing projects, reducing the question to one of planning principles ignores other issues of institutional racism and poverty that tend to be most intensely focused on communities with concentrations of public housing, not to mention the lack of resources for maintenance and improvement of public housing stock.

It also seemingly validates racist opposition to public housing--by accepting that housing for the poor creates pathology if not planned properly.

THE BEST expression of Simon's assessment of the politics of the story is in the preface he wrote for a new edition of Belkin's book. He writes:

In the city of Yonkers, New York, in 1987, they were very afraid. And worse than that, they were afraid for their money--and their property, which they had worked so hard to obtain, and which they believed the next man had not. That fear, and the money that was on the table for the white homeowners, was more than enough fuel to make the governance of a city of 200,000 souls--though not its politics--impossible...

Yonkers in 1987 was a microcosm, a perfect preamble. It was us, all of us, in this very day, and at this very hour. It has been us, similarly fated, since an American president took office declaring that we, the greatest and wealthiest nation on the planet, had fought a brief war on poverty and that, hey, poverty had won. From that ugly moment forward, it's been two Americas and every man for himself.

Simon seems to be saying that the fear of even modest numbers of poor people of color moving into white neighborhoods was somehow a product of the Reagan era--which is puzzling given the long history in Yonkers, noted by Simon, of not only maintaining segregation, but using federal housing money to reinforce it.

Simon says that the story Belkin told in her book, and which he then retold on screen, is about "the failure of an American city to come to terms with the simple and inevitable fact that great societies learn how to share or they cease to be great societies." Simon's vision is not radical. He insists, "No one is so ridiculous as to pretend that Americans--not the working class, not even the poor--are clamoring for economic equality."

He believes that Yonkers should have heralded a "revolution in public housing" by showing the potential for widely dispersed subsidized housing to reduce "hyper-segregation" and inequality in living conditions, without reducing property values or increasing crime--and that recognizing that potential would affirm that "all American have the same, shared future."

Beyond asserting that the Yonkers housing did not "destabilize" the neighborhoods where it was located, Simon never explains how exactly scattered-site housing will improve the life chances of poor people of color in the U.S. Nor does he explain how Americans will "learn to share" to the extent of enacting Yonkers-style housing plans. And if that's unclear in his explicitly political statements, it's bound to be even less so from his dramatization of the Yonkers story.

Nevertheless, the story is compelling and well told. As with The Corner, The Wire and Treme, the writing, the characterization and the performances are excellent. The Yonkers politicians, for example, are far more interesting to watch, as portrayed by Isaac, Belushi and Molina, than they are to read about in the book.

Telling the story of a battle over 200 units of low-income housing in a small city is an unlikely subject. Simon's value is in being able to take these stories, in which characters travel very short distances from beginning to end, and turn them into television that a major cable network is willing--and even eager--to present. As Simon says in one interview, "You know what I love? I love fucking TV that's not supposed to be on TV."

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