Each week following Show Me a Hero, Brentin Mock, Lenika Cruz, and David Sims discuss the controversial efforts to build low-income housing in Yonkers in the ’80s, as depicted in HBO’s six-part miniseries.
Brentin Mock: Show Me a Hero ended with the suicide of Nick Wasicsko, the dethroned figure who helped usher the city toward court-ordered housing desegregation. But before his suicide were scenes depicting the hard work of neighborhood integration that came after the city finally relented. Public-housing families are selected by lottery to inhabit the new subsidized townhomes built in the unwelcoming white neighborhood. Doreen is drug-free now and tries to organize her new neighbors into a tenants association. It’s a heroic effort, but it can’t quite seem to catch fire.
The closest thing to a hero in this story was Mary Dorman, who evolved from housing integration’s fiercest enemy to one of its best allies. When funds dry up for a community organizing group placed there to help smooth out the integration transition, Dorman vows to continue helping the new black and Latino families in her neighborhood. Those families meanwhile, are made to prove that they can act civilized, per a series of infantilizing rules governing the tenants of the subsidized townhomes. Nothing is in place, though, to civilize the white residents, who coldly stare down the black residents and allow their dogs to foul the new families’ properties, as well as stage drive-bys in which they scream the word “nigger.”
Before this show, here’s what I knew about Yonkers: Mary J. Blige, DMX, and The Lox. And a song from Tyler, The Creator that apparently has nothing to do with the city. Blige grew up in the Schlobohm Houses—known in Yonkers as “Slow Bomb”—a high-rise built in 1952 that by the ’90s became the poster boy for everything wrong with public housing. Meaning, the real-life Yonkers councilman Nick Longo made a commercial where he juxtaposed photos of the worst parts of Schlobohm—vandalized walls, crack vials on the ground, broken windows—against Pollyannaish photos of homes in the white neighborhoods of east Yonkers. It helped him get reelected.
As a teen, Blige dropped out of high school and fell into partying and drug abuse, much like some of the young black women in Show Me a Hero. Blige would grow up to become the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul.” Her songs about pain and yearning for a better life mirror many of the songs from the Yonkers rapper DMX. In his autobiography, DMX describes Yonkers as something of a harlequin community unrecognized by its masters. “Yonkers was filled with white people,” he writes, “but you would never know it if you didn’t go to their side of the world.” On his side of the world, he “always thought there was a black cloud over Yonkers. A big curse that attached itself to anyone who grew up there, because somehow any ghetto I’ve seen anywhere in the world reminds me of a place in Y-O.”
The Lox are known popularly for songs about loyalty to the hood, the projects, and the streets. Throughout the HBO series, I couldn’t help but wonder what Lox rappers Jadakiss or Styles P. would have done—or did—when they found out that the projects era was ending and the city would now be placing low-income housing in that side of the world that DMX tells us was off limits. We know that Styles P. did leave the hood, because he mentioned it in his letter to the public this past July, announcing that his teenage daughter had committed suicide.
I’m somehow more saddened by her suicide than Wasicsko’s; I feel like I recognize her story better. I know that few young black women grow up to become Mary J. Blige. Too many end up like Sandra Bland, dead under reportedly self-inflicted and questionable circumstances.
Show Me a Hero didn’t help me totally understand Wasicsko’s suicide, though—a death I don’t mean to trivialize since it happened in real life. This was a young man, only 34, who had clearly met some of life’s challenges. The political suicide he committed in taking up housing integration certainly sank him some. But he floated back up. He had his dream house. He had a wife who stuck by him, even as he threw her under the bus as he became more obsessed with regaining power. He lost a couple of elections and became the target of an investigation. Maybe these were dark clouds, but not the kind DMX talked about. Not the kind Nas described when he said, “I need a new nigga, for this black cloud to follow, ‘cause while it’s over me, it’s too dark to see tomorrow.”
If Wasicsko could only envision a tomorrow where he was mayor, then that’s very difficult to sympathize with. By the last episode, Wacisko began acting as if he were entitled to the mayor’s office, simply because he came down on the right side of history. When it comes to racism, white men shouldn’t be coronated for simply doing the right thing. Wasicsko’s suicide is the end of the story for David Simon and HBO, but it couldn’t have been for the families of color living in the new neighborhoods. Did this trigger white flight? Did they all live happily ever after? We know historically from other cities that have attempted this that white flight is usually the end of the story, because there are no policy corks to stick in the exit valves to keep integration sealed.
Oscar Newman, the developer responsible for bringing the low-income townhomes to the white east Yonkers neighborhood, once said of the white families: “If they start panic selling, property values will go down. They will fulfill their own prophecy.” Still, nothing drives down property values like concentrated poverty and segregation, but that hardly matters if the only properties valued are white-owned. If the show causes white viewers to confront and begin to unscramble their own bigotries, that’s great. But since we never learn how Yonkers got in this position to begin with, I fear many viewers might not see how this story applies to them. I hope David Simon’s next project is a TV show based on DMX’s autobiography.
David and Lenika, what were your takeaways?
Lenika Cruz: Two things. First: I would absolutely watch a Simon series based on DMX’s autobiography, Brentin. Second, and more importantly: I thought these last two episodes were the best of the series, but they also left me utterly confused about the final intentions of the show. How could it be a tribute to Nick Wasicsko—a story of the man as a hero—when episodes five and six painted him in such an unflattering light? Heroes are selfless, self-sacrificing, ostensibly devoted to a higher cause beyond themselves. And yet, his own wife asks him as he struggles through a series of failed power plays at the end of his political career: “Do you even believe in anything other than yourself?” Similarly, his former chief of staff tells him, “Courage isn’t the kind of word you can use to describe yourself, even if it’s true. It only works when other people say it.”
And yet HBO is saying it, despite evidence to the contrary. The show says it in the framing, in the show’s title, in Oscar Isaac’s casting, in the dramatic way the show intersperses scenes from Wasicsko’s funeral with shots of the other character’s lives and notes about their futures. To me, Wasicsko was an ultimately interesting, complex, deeply flawed man who toward the end seemed obsessed with the anti-housing project only as it related to his own image as a man in power, as a man with the power to cut deals in back rooms, to buy votes, to be recognized as a savior. As played by Isaac, Wasicsko was relentlessly compelling to watch, but he was also somehow the most pathetic of the series by far. Not because he killed himself (I’m loath to ever view suicide as a form of weakness), but because of how he recklessly betrayed everyone around him in hopes of resuscitating his career.
I know viewers were meant to root pretty unambiguously toward the end for Mary Dorman, but to me the truly heroic characters were Doreen and Pat. Doreen’s arc from a single, drug-addicted mom to a community advocate felt organic (not like a forced, pull-up-your-bootstraps story) and respectful (not implying that every woman in her situation has the support or means to do the same). Both she and Doreen championed others, but they also helped give those others the confidence to champion themselves.
Maybe (and this is a big maybe, but it’s the interpretation I prefer), Show Me a Hero is a slight subversion of Fitzgerald’s line about heroes and tragedies going hand in hand. Maybe Wasicsko’s insatiable need to play the hero—not the fact of his heroism—is what led to his death, a kind of recontextualization of Newman’s words about a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe the better wording, at least for this show, would be “Write me a tragedy, and I’ll show you a hero.” Both Pat and Doreen (and Carmen and Billy) endured trauma and loss in their lives: poverty, addiction, illness, death, as well as racism, classism, and sexism of all kinds. And yet, they emerged heroic, even if they don’t have awards or fancy victory parties to show for it. They, I think, wouldn’t confuse votes with love.
Still, the show very clearly feels that Wasicsko is some sort of martyr, even if he comes off onscreen as an unwilling one who had no other real choice. Like you Brentin, I didn’t totally understand Wasicsko’s suicide, but suicide is often incomprehensible, so I can’t completely blame the show for not “explaining” it. I just wish we had more than a beautiful, bokeh-dappled shot of Wasicsko weeping alone in his attic to sympathize with his pain toward the end.
While I was confused by its radically ambivalent view of Wasicsko (one that doesn’t even fall into antihero territory), at least the show managed to avoid overly romanticizing him. As it did with Mary Dorman. As it did with Billy and Norma and Carmen and Pat and Doreen. I would’ve liked a longer epilogue that offered some modern context for the series and hinted at the work that still has yet to be done. For all Show Me a Hero’s relative lack of historical grounding, the series pulled off an impressive degree of emotional and sociocultural complexity in its short span. I found the ending satisfying, if not all rosy. Wasicsko had a major hand in getting the public housing built, but—and the show makes this clear—his was just one of many.
David, did you enjoy these last couple episodes as much as I did? What, or who, makes a hero, in the eyes of this series? And did Billy and Doreen’s first nights trying to sleep in their new townhomes terrify you as much as they did for me?
David Sims: I’m glad you mentioned that, Lenika—those scenes were remarkably well done in how the biggest threat was silence (aside from occasional car noises), the “sound” of a community being absent. Not that the noise of life in the projects was always reassuring, of course, but that silence confirms the fear these new residents have: They’re not wanted, and the white residents of east Yonkers aren’t being asked to learn how to be good neighbors. I feared that something truly awful would happen—like that pipe bomb left when the houses were still under construction. Thank God that isn’t in the historical record, of course, but I was happy the final episodes of the show focused mostly on that transition to the new townhouse life, and the complications therein.
So much of Newman’s emphasis in building the townhouses was emphasizing personal ownership for the residents, and that’s what takes hold, sometimes more powerfully than others. Doreen’s story is, of course, a particularly moving one, whereas residents like Norma are older and less interested in setting down roots, but maybe the simplest and most powerful image was Carmen unpacking her floral dishware when she gets to move in to one of the houses, feeling that she’s finally in a place she can take pride in as her own. Brentin, you asked about the future, and whether other problems (and things like white flight) set in, but I think the consultant Bob Mayhawk (played by Clarke Peters) was addressing that openendedness when he said that at a certain point, the work is in the hands of the neighborhood, rather than the government.
The story of people like Mary is also inspiring, although I appreciated that the show didn’t make it seem as if her turnaround was entirely self-motivated. Bob identified protesters like her—people who weren’t ideologues, but were motivated by very petty prejudice, and fear of the unknown, and sought to allay those fears in the simplest ways. It’s one thing to hate the nebulous prospect of new housing, new neighbors, and a community one doesn’t interact with past lurid news reports, but it’s quite another to hate a person inviting you into their home.
Those stories were for the most part uplifting (even with upsetting moments like the drive-by screaming of epithets), and necessary, considering the sad and pointless spiral of Nick Wasicsko’s life. Show Me a Hero’s biggest challenge is depicting that arc in a way that makes sense, since it seems everyone agrees that while Nick’s suicide had some external motivations (lost elections, the city investigations), he doesn’t come across as a particularly depressed or volatile person in earlier episodes, someone who might be prone to such a drastic decision. I understood the roots of his depression, and the foolish political choices he made that dug him into a professional hole, but more than that, I understood his loss of pride in himself, even if his need to take credit for the housing was somewhat foolish (as you noted, Brentin, most of the work was done before he became Mayor, and his real heroism was just refusing to capitulate to public pressure).
What I loved was how Nick just seemed like a ghost in the final episode, wandering around the townhouses looking for some kind of kudos, sitting at the back of the housing lottery but failing to draw real pleasure from the new residents’ joy. More than anything, he was a politician, and that’s a life that is thoroughly unrewarding if you aren’t behind a dais drawing applause from local residents. Nick had a legacy to point to, and reason to take some personal pride in the housing units, even though he was just one actor in their construction. But those facts weren’t enough—he needed plaudits, too, and as he sought them with implausible runs for office (ruining his friendship with Vinni Restiano in the process), he got further and further away from them.
It’s a simple equation, but still a powerful one, as senseless as Nick’s loss is. It feels easily avoided, but so many horrible things that happened during this saga felt equally easy to avoid, yet nonetheless fated—simple prejudices rooted in decades of complex history. David Simon and Bill Zorzi’s achievement is that they took that history and made something that didn’t feel entirely fatalistic, that was optimistic and pessimistic, that didn’t feel like a university lecture, but a complicated examination of the good and bad in a story that, in someone else’s hands, would be so easy to simplify.