The impact of a 1987 federal court order to build 200 units of public housing spread out in Easter Yonkers’ predominately white, middle class neighborhoods in Yonkers, NY is the impetus for the drama that unfolds in SHOW ME A HERO, a new HBO mini-series based on the 1999 nonfiction book of the same title by Lisa Belkin.
Apparently David Simon, writer and an executive producer for the 6-hour dramatic retelling took a serious interest in Belkin’s book and the Yonkers housing battle while working on television series: “Homicide: Life on the Street” (NBC) and HBO’s “The Wire”, “Generation Kill,” and “Treme”. Thirteen years later, SHOW ME A HERO will have its broadcast premiere Sunday, August 16 (The miniseries will also be available on HBO NOW and HBO GO). In addition to Simon, the creative team includes his long-time collaborator William Zorzi, and beautifully directed by Paul Haggis (“Crash”).
SHOW ME A HERO opens in a graveyard, a nod to the last part of the famous F. Scott Fitzgerald “Show me a hero…” quote. From the fade up the story begins to write its tragedy. A beeping pager is the bell toll. More like a ticking time bomb.
If you weren’t reading newspapers at that time or looking through the archives now — the NAACP scored a victory (of sorts). They argued successfully in court that the city of Yonkers used federal funds to intentionally segregate its public housing into a cluster of high risers on the least desirable west side of the city. The package came with inferior resources blocking Black and Latino residents from opportunities, and locking them into a perpetual cycle of poverty and crime. The 1987 court order was the culmination of a case filed 7 years earlier — The United States of America and the Yonkers Branch of the NAACP, et. al. AGAINST The Yonkers Board of Education, the City of Yonkers, and the Yonkers Board of Education, the City of Yonkers , and the Yonkers Community Development Agency. Or simply put U.S. vs. Yonkers.
After U.S. District Judge Leonard Sand (Bob Balaban) lowers his gavel, the battle-worn NAACP president Benjamin Hooks, played by Clayton LeBouef (a veteran actor of Simon’s “Homicide: Life On the Street,” “The Wire,” “The Corner” and a native of Yonkers) is reluctant to spike the ball. This is just the next round. NAACP’s legal counsel, Michael Sussman (Jon Bernthal), is happy for the win. He’s satisfied with more high rise structures as long as they’re in East Yonkers and populated with black and brown bodies. In 1987, Yonkers was 85% white. Apparently Hooks, has seen communities and bodies broken in the moves for “urban renewal” and “integration” before. Perhaps he has a better handle on what the sequel to Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin In the Sun” will look like. And frankly, these reruns are making him tired.
Neither east or west Yonkers residents have much say in the matter making City Hall ground zero for white protestors before any ground breaking takes place. For all their fury, the protesters’ efforts are futile. Their city council and mayor are only minor players in this power struggle. They hold out on the court order, lose an appeal in the Supreme Court, meanwhile the court fines continue to pile up.
What you don’t see in SHOW ME A HERO reveals as much about the white residents’ battle against the court order, as what you do see. You don’t’ see anyone who resembles the people from the public housing communities at the hearings, on the city council, on the police force, at a front desk in city hall. Show me an all-white city hall and I’ll show you a race-based power structure. Oh, there is one white woman on the counsel Vinni Restiano, played by Wynona Ryder. And Nay, a city employee, who would become the future first lady of Yonkers is Hispanic American (Carla Quevedo).
We see the people who reside in the high-rise public housing in their homes, with families, with lovers. Their individual apartments are clean, bright. They care about safety for their children and relatives. Some have jobs. Others don’t. Their public areas are tagged with graffiti, broken glass. It is the turf for drug markets and also home-cooked dinners, and celebrations with family and friends.
SHOW ME A HERO can be told again from the point of view of each of these west side residents who are featured in the miniseries. Alma Febles (Ilfenesh Hadera) says “poverty isn’t a crime” back home in the Dominican Republic, but it also doesn’t feed the kids anywhere. Her chances are better in Yonkers. Norma O’Neill (LaTanya Richardson-Jackson), a home care worker is losing her eye sight. When her best friend tells her about the lottery for houses in East Yonkers Norma’s response is “Do you want to live where people are angry at you?”
There’s plenty to be angry about beyond Yonkers.
There are few if any men, Black or brown, in the community room where the lottery for the 200 homes takes place. The room is populated with women. The second or possibly third generation of single mothers of the 1965 Moynihan report. More than likely no man’s name will appear on the lease for the lucky ones.
Then there’s the unspoken (seen, but not heard) moments: the hand offs of drugs at the housing projects from white hands to Black hands to young Black hands. The “flag wars.” Irish and Italian flags hang next to the stars and stripes on porches. Signaling is intentional and the beauty of SHOW ME A HERO.
The 27-year-old Polish American Nick Wasicsko is the principal and moving target in SHOW ME A HERO played with precision and affable charm by Oscar Isaac. Nick definitely has the moves in that dorky single-focus cocky way that gets what he wants. This would bring a smile on a woman’s face especially Nay, whom Nick has already id’d as the future Mrs. Nick Wasicsko. He scores.
Nick’s also putting his bets on the East Yonkers white rage. “Don’t Get Mad. Get a New Mayor” is the bumper sticker slogan to oust a six-term Republican incumbent Angelo Martinelli (Jim Belushi). A man who exemplifies the boss politics of small and big towns. Martinelli owns a printing company. This is the guy who doesn’t have to be the mayor for life, but probably gets a rush from being a benevolent ruler. By the way, do we see Nick actively campaigning among residents on the west side?
Politics feeds on voter anger. Nick easily beats Martinelli. But Mayor Wasicsko is neither the chief architect nor can he control the outcome of this housing battle. As the court fines pile up, public services and lay-offs are necessary. Nick decides he can’t give “the voters” what they want without sinking the city ito bankruptcy. He and others have to swallow the court order whole adjust his sights on being on the right side of history and keep the city solvent. Wishful thinking is he comes out clean in the end.
Oscar Newman (Peter Riegert), creator of the defensible space theory is the architect of the housing plan and the maker of 20th and 21st century U.S. public housing history. Newman’s theory was to bring down the high-rise housing to single family two story homes and spread them out in middle class neighborhoods with the expectation that residents would adopt middle class values, enroll children in better schools, and maintain and defend their turf as home owners would. The defensible space wording obviously has a military reference to serve its purpose – a war on crime. The goal being to reduce crime among poor people in public housing by design. Whereas Nick’s very existence depended on being recognized by others. Oscar Newman would have his handprint on the city for generations. So what exactly are the advantages of being the youngest Mayor in the U.S.?
Urban planners, consultants, resemble the God of Genesis – they create a world, they will people it, and the tree of life, the choice of good or evil, is there for the taking. Needless to say in the rules of public housing, the choice of evil results in banishment from these low income gardens of Eden.
Today’s developers of glass and steel urban luxury units see themselves as curators even when it comes to the urban landscape’s “grit.” I’ve actually heard them use that term. They want to keep enough of the “grit” to give the adult children and grand children of the white flight generation of the 1950s and 1960 (white, middle class of any ethnicity) a genuine urban experience limiting the risks of directly encountering and engaging with persons who survived the worst years. It’s a different kind of defensible space. Dog parks signal victory.
Mayor Wasicsko’s seat is challenged by councilmember Henry J. Spallone (Alfred Molina), the white rage’s choice. Spallone brings out a show and tell of what East Yonkers will look like when 200 units moves forward. Spallone and his team play a game of selective editing – finding the true grit of the west side coming to a neighborhood near you in East Yonkers. Spallone and his colleagues drive slowly around the public housing towers taking photos of potential new neighbors – the drug dealers, the “thugs.” No not the lady with the brief case. No, not the kids laughing and playing in the playground, only the ones fighting, giving us the finger. You get the picture.
This is the kind of dog whistling the Yonkers’ Poodle Lady will be able to hear. She knows the code. Or as Nick Wakowski says in SHOW ME A HERO, politicians don’t need to say “nigger” or “coon.” They just say “property value.”
After reading and watching SHOW ME A HERO, I can’t help but look at the history of grand plans in the past 75 years for public housing and urban planning in my own back yard.
Urban Renewal (or Removal depending on who you ask) turned out to be a casebook lesson in what not to do in urban planning. DC still retains the social and political DNA of legal segregation pre 1954. When segregation was sealed in place by law, schools, restaurants, housing, communities had to devise a system as well to function. Anyone still around from the “Old Southwest” as they call it will tell you, they have never felt a sense of community since the urban renewal project. Residents were scattered to the eastern parts of the cities. More resourced residents went to parts of Northwest. Few returned to the new Southwest (another “Waterfront” project is going forward today).
An entire community was razed for the reason that flies in the outhouses of the slums and alley dwellings potentially reached the soup bowls in the Congress’ cafeteria. That may be an urban myth, but it was repeated to me by one of the chief architects of that urban renewal plan. The plan also meant giving the alley dwellers a better life by moving them to “better” situation. Mrs. Roosevelt approved after her visit.
From the Eleanor Roosevelt (ER) Papers
As honorary president of the Washington Committee on Housing, ER promoted its activities and used her press conferences, “My Day” columns, and public lectures to hammer away at the unacceptable housing situation of African American Washingtonians. ER not only addressed the existing situation but envisioned and worked for better alternatives. Finally, on June 12, 1934 the District of Columbia Alley Dwelling Act was passed, establishing the Washington Housing Authority as an independent agency. The WHA focused on eliminating slum housing in alleys near the Capitol and promoted quality, affordable housing. The WHA was redesignated the National Capital Housing Authority in 1943.
The courts agreed in the Supreme Court case of Berman v. Parker using the 5th amendment as the bases for giving the federal government the power of eminent domain. Studies showed former residents were unable to make the same kind of relationships with their new neighbors as they did in the old neighborhood.
From SHOW ME A HERO I learned mayors and council members don’t control these housing decisions especially in cases of eminent domain and court orders. The people who will live in re-designed neighborhoods and homes often don’t have a say. Langston Terrace in Northeast Washington, DC was an exception. It was designed in conjunction with the residents who would eventually live in the government housing community.
Langston Terrace opened in 1938 and was a project of the PWA (Public Works Administration) under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The first federally funded complex of its kind in the District of Columbia. Langston Terrace was African American designed (Hilyard Robinson) and built and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Read Kelly Ann Quinn’s 2007 dissertation.
Kelly’s research was funded by the Humanities Council of Washington, DC where I first learned about the Langston Terrace community history. Since then the Humanities Council has supported an oral history about the community. This 2013 video and others are on YouTube.
Not long after Yonkers was wrapping up the 200 units battle, media mogul and “Best Life” talk show Host Oprah Winfrey launched an experiment called Families for a Better Life in Chicago with disappointing results. Winfrey’s confidence that private industry could do a better job than government assistance was a well-intentioned experiment, transferring 100 families from public housing to better lives with trainings, support and new homes. The program was in partnership with and run by Jane Addams Hull House Association. [The Hull House Association closed in 2012.]
“Fish-out-of-water” scenarios seem to work better in film than in life. The back story has to be seriously factored in. This was also during the time of President Bill Clinton’s welfare reform program. Welfare reform didn’t address the back story or the roots of poverty but solidified the Reagan era’s coded language about “entitlements” putting the onus on the very people they were trying to “help.” The hand down not the hand shake. Lots of grant money went to contractors who saw an opportunity, not a mission. As one woman shouted at a public housing meeting in SHOW ME A HERO, “We are not projects!”
The problem with a grand plan is it requires more than brick and mortar, throwing money around, and ribbon cutting. Nick said he was on the right side of history. But was he willing to “welcome your hate” for the greater good and not just the political survival of Nick Wasicsko. In these matters there are no absolute victors. There are no elected or self-appointed heroes. And maybe most of all there are few if any “thank you’s.”
What emerges are unsung heroes who are seen in SHOW ME HERO. They are women like long-time East Yonkers resident Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener), initially vocally and visibly opposed to the housing, but once a fact, steps up to be the good neighbor– to build community. Doreen Henderson (Natalie Paul), who emerges from her personal roller coaster with drug addiction as a community leader for the west side residents moving to the east side. You may have never heard of Robert Mayhawk (Clarke Peters), but you should. He was part of the grand plan. But his consulting role was to give people the tools to build community. Mayhawk is also a playwright and self-published a book on spirituality.
Missing from this scenario are the Toms and Daisys of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Actually they were the people who, in the early part of the 20th century, established Yonkers as a suburban get-away from the “grit” of New York City. The grit would eventually find them. That grit included your tired, poor, and huddled Italian, Polish, Irish, European immigrants, the grandchildren of the protestors you see in SHOW ME A HERO.
Tom and Daisy will never be touched by these battles. Yet, “they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made” Fitzgerald wrote.
I was told as much about their mess by my mother’s co-worker at age 17. After hearing I was accepted and leaving home to attend an elite private liberal arts college, he took me aside and gave me a brief lecture to leave the drugs alone, because my family didn’t have money for me to retreat back to and pay for rehab. Simply put, or code for “You’re a young Black woman who can’t afford to f*ck up.”
This is why SHOW ME A HERO is that rare television moment that must be seen. We still feel Daisy and Tom’s power. We resent and admire them all at once. If you don’t see them in person, you see them on television, online, social media, and magazine racks at grocery check outs for our entertainment pleasure reminding us that they are who we should aspire to be. That too is part of our tragedy.
Note: This post has been updated to replace the trailer for SHOW ME A HERO and correct a few typos.