Show Me a Hero Breaks Ground

Yonkers finally complies with an order to build public housing, causing a mixed response of triumph, outrage, and acceptance from residents.


Each week following Show Me a Hero, David Sims, Brentin Mock, and Lenika Cruz discuss the controversial efforts to build low-income housing in Yonkers in the ’80s, as depicted in HBO’s six-part miniseries.

Lenika Cruz: “How come the only people talking about this damn housing thing are white?” Pat, a Yonkers public-housing resident, asks her friend Norma, the nurse. “How come the only faces you see on television about this are white?” The two chat toward the end of Show Me a Hero’s fourth episode, after Norma’s home health aide bails on her after one day of working in the projects. The exchange reveals them to be of different minds: Norma, understandably wary of change, doesn’t know why Pat wants to march in East Yonkers near a new housing site in a neighborhood that doesn’t want her. Pat, gently chastising her, says she isn’t afraid and that their silence won’t make anything better.

Pat and Norma’s chat stood out for me in a series that has prioritized political maneuverings over the scattered storylines of the public housing residents, and this week’s episodes cover a lot of ground in both arenas. We begin with Mayor Nick Wasicsko trying to wrangle enough council votes to get Yonkers to comply with Judge Sand’s order and avoid bankruptcy. By the end of part four, the city is in compliance; a jobless Wasicsko is puttering around his house trying to fix loose electrical wires; the sleazy new anti-housing mayor Henry Spallone is kicking off an early reelection campaign; and some newly installed prefab townhomes have been vandalized with the words “No Nigger” and “KKK.” And to think the anti-housing folks were worried about criminals and people with no sense of respect moving into their neighborhood.

It’s a fitting example of the ways this week’s episodes turned the show’s subtext into glaring text. The housing opponents’ euphemistic arguments about property values, and their claims that “this isn’t about race” are undercut again and again by barely contained racism. When Mary Dorman asks the anti-housing leader Jack O’Toole why they’re still marching (with effigies of Michael Sussman with a noose around his neck, no less) when the townhomes are already being built, he replies, “We’re letting them know they’re never gonna be welcome here.”

The episodes also reveal the brutal circularity of city politics and offer a clearer sense of scale and scope for the housing issue. Wasicsko becomes mayor in episode one after exploiting the public discontent on the housing issue to beat out the incumbent Martinelli. Similarly, Spallone smears Wasicsko to become mayor, but afterward he faces the same outcry once everyone realizes there’s no way to fight the housing order. At the start of part three, Wasicsko’s requests for support are being ignored by New York Governor Mario Cuomo and Senator Daniel Moynihan; later, they chime in to offer endorsements for his reelection campaign. And the most recent episodes offer a clearer picture of how fringe the anti-housing group is in the context of Yonkers, and how Manhattan, the media, and the rest of New York actually seem to support Wasicsko’s efforts. (This kind of nuance was hard to grasp from all the scenes of council meetings drowned out by the screams of angry mobs.)

Wasicsko finally grasps the importance of his single term as mayor—even if his ego plays a significant role. Being on the right side of history is lonely, he tells his girlfriend Nay, but he might be able to secure a congressional seat out of it (later, he’s lifted out of his post-defeat depression when he’s nominated for a JFK Profile in Courage Award.) But also, he realizes, looking up at the house he and his wife would later buy, “People just want a home ... It’s the same for everybody.”

Indeed, the nebulous notion of “home” is central to the rest of the show’s characters, whose stories shuffled along this week. The indefatigable Carmen realizes that, for her, home is her children, and that nothing will keep her from being with them. Billie, a newly fleshed out character, moves out of her mother’s house with her new baby, whose father is in jail, and secures an apartment. Norma feels at home when she’s surrounded by her “own.” Then there’s Doreen, who becomes horrifically consumed by an addiction to crack cocaine, which she smokes in the same house as her young asthmatic son. Before she starts down that path though, she writes him a letter: “This isn’t home ... I know that I can't stay here without falling down, and I can't go home ... I’m waiting and I’m not sure what it is I'm waiting for.

There’s so much more to cover (a testament to the show’s incredibly dense storytelling). There’s Wasicsko’s increasingly frequent graveside chats with his father. There’s Oscar Newman’s behind-the-scenes fight for low-unit, single-family housing. And there’s the largely unsubtle portrayal of single moms and absent fathers, which I feel walks the line of making the projects residents seem like tragic victims. That’s why I wanted to open our chat this week with a quote from Norma’s friend, Pat—an older character who’s actively challenging her circumstances without being patronizing to those who aren’t.

David and Brentin, how did you guys feel about this week, and what are your hopes as we head into the last two episodes of the series?

Brentin Mock: For me, the key moment comes during episode three, when all eyes are on councilman Nick Longo during a last-second, backroom negotiation before the council votes on whether to accept the new city plan for low-income housing. Longo is the swing vote—or at least he’s the swingy-est of the opposing votes—and the mayor is counting on him to join the other three council members who have agreed to accept the housing order. Longo is told that if the council continues to resist, the city risks not only millions of dollars in fines and lost city services, but also that 630 city employees would have to be laid off.

Before this point, Longo was dead against the housing, and was willing to take the fines and even jail time for contempt of court. But the layoffs are what change his heart: “We’re about to economically murder 630 families here.” These are families that he’s backyard-barbecued with, and attended their weddings and baby christenings, “not as their councilmen, but as their friends.”

This same sympathy is not extended to the hundreds of black and Latino families already facing economic murder, concentrated in public-housing poverty camps. Their lives don’t matter to Longo and his frothing constituents. And it’s not just about economics, or different “lifestyles” as the anti-low-income housing activist Mary tells a reporter. No one will yet admit that it’s about racism. When the young widowed mother (her child’s father dies of a police chase-induced asthma attack) Doreen winds up temporarily in a shelter in upstate New York, she shares concerns with a neighbor that she heard “there’s KKK up here.” The KKK is right there in east Yonkers, in the white neighborhood where the controversial set of low-income houses are being built. We know this because, as Lenika pointed out, someone has spray-painted “KKK” and “nigger” on the houses before they’ve even been finished.

What I like about these middle two episodes is that they confront us with the question once posed by Outkast rapper Andre 3000 in the song “Y’all Scared”: “Have you ever thought of the meaning of the word ‘trap’?” The black and Latino families are trapped in substandard housing where drug-dealing and violence have filled the void created when its industrial-centered economy collapsed—the Otis Elevator factory and Alexander Smith Carpet Mills closed years ago. The families don’t choose to live in these housing projects, they just have no other choice. Their meager wages won’t allow them to become homeowners, and few neighborhoods want these families in their presence anyway.

Contrast that with the scenes of Mayor Nick Wasicsko gracing the wide front porch of an enormous house he tells his girlfriend he plans to buy some day. It sits on a hill overlooking the city, and from this perch Wasicsko outlines his vision—his cityview and his worldview—which includes being able to point out his City Hall office to their future children. Apparently out of the couple’s price range, his girlfriend asks him if he’s crazy for considering buying it, to which he cavalierly responds, maybe. After sober reflection, Wasicsko reasons, “I’m just a councilman. I haven’t done anything to deserve a home like that.”

And yet he ends up buying the house, anyway, because he had the option to do so, and no one fought him in city council or in the streets to prevent him from doing so. These are options that the black and Latino families of the story simply did not have. No council members are attending their weddings and christenings. In fact, Doreen had to pull out a letter from her doctor explaining that her bronchially challenged baby needed to live in a well-ventilated area to survive in order to get a city worker to finally listen to her request to move them to better surroundings after initially ignoring her. There are no queens in this trap.

Wasicsko finally wins the council’s approval to comply with the court’s housing order, although it costs him his mayoral seat. But his life goes on. He not only gets the house of his dreams, he also gets married. It shows that while there are political consequences for white people in power taking these kinds of stands, they hardly affect their real lives when the political battles are over. Meanwhile, the lives of the people who are the subject of these political fights continue to degrade. The racism at the heart of it is never resolved.

Which is why I have to come back to the point I made in our last roundtable, that it matters that the audience understands the history of what this is all about. The federal judge hasn’t ordered low-income housing built in the white-by-choice neighborhoods simply because it’s the right thing to do. He ordered it because it’s demanded by laws like the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act, the latter of which had to see Martin Luther King murdered before Congress would finally pass it. And the people who fought for these laws did so because they believed there was real social harm in continuing to live in segregation. This experiment in integration demanded by the Fair Housing Act—and it is a social experiment, whether we like that language or not—isn’t carried out purely because of the idea that black people’s lives will improve by living in closer proximity to whites. If anything, it’s equally, if not more, out of the idea that white people’s lives will improve by learning how to live with black people.

When white people choose to sequester themselves away from people who don’t look like them, as they did in this Yonkers story, then … well, we saw the spray-painted writing on the new housing walls. I think that said it all.

David Sims: Indeed that does say it all, and it makes for a remarkable cap to these two episodes, which begin with Mary (played by Catherine Keener) assuring a black reporter that her protest efforts weren’t motivated by racism, but merely economic worries—that property owners in the neighborhoods zoned for new housing were worried their own houses’ values would fall. What’s so good about Keener’s performance in these two episodes is that you can really tell she believes her argument that she’s not a prejudiced person, which is the kind of delusion at work throughout many of these protests and Council meetings. Longo’s later pronouncement, which Brentin mentioned, that he had to approve the housing to help his friends and neighbors, is couched in the same kind of language, talking around the issue of fear of having black neighbors. There’s empathy in both arguments—but only for Yonkers’s white population.

Over the course of these two episodes, that delusion fades, even for people like
Mary, who seems to have an inkling now that O’Toole and other protest leaders are motivated purely by hatred, and that her own stance is rooted in the same ignorance, even if it lacks the same outward fury. By the end of episode four, as you both noted, the writing is literally on the wall.

It was fascinating to see Wasicsko speak of a so-called “silent majority” during his reelection campaign, using the same kind of language Richard Nixon used to refer to the supposedly vast community of quiet Americans who didn’t take part in anti-war protests or belong to any counter-cultural movements. Nixon’s electoral strategies were heavily rooted in fear, and in pitting communities against some unknown “other,” and it’s the same strategy that Wasicsko employed in his first campaign, promising to appeal the housing decision and coasting to office on a wave of dissent. Only two years later, he’s become painfully aware of the necessity that Yonkers obey the court’s orders, but it’s only when presented with polling numbers that he realizes the majority of his party agrees with him, something he couldn’t make out in the thicket of protests for every Council vote.

That “silent majority” almost returns Wasicsko to office against all odds, until his rival Spallone realizes what’s happening and defects to the Republican Party to secure victory. It’s at his victory speech that the real coup de grace is delivered—Spallone promises his furious white constituency that he’ll fight the housing decision all the way to the Supreme Court, and definitely won’t comply with it (unless, he quietly adds, there’s no other option at that point). Only Mary catches it, but it’s a beautifully bitter moment of irony—once again, the protest movement has been co-opted for political gain, but this time it was by an even more ruthlessly cynical man.

The same irony permeates the investigation of Wasicsko’s post-mayoral life, as he gets married, buys a house, and does a thousand other normal things most Yonkers residents had the privilege of doing, not realizing that decades of segregation and insidious policy-making have robbed their neighbors of the same rights. On the one hand, his JFK Profile in Courage Award feels well-deserved, since Wasicsko’s efforts helped save the city of Yonkers and begin its slow process of desegregation, perhaps at the cost of his political career. Still, more than anything, here was a pragmatist: a man who knew he had to do the right thing, because every other option was a worse one. As Brentin noted, it’s the work of the courts, and the people who passed the Civil Rights and Fair Housing Acts, that compelled all of this action. Wasicsko was merely a messenger, though he did his duty far better than Yonkers’ other messengers.

Late in episode four, city planner Oscar Newman, tasked with implementing the construction of affordable housing in a way that will avoid the mistakes of previous projects, explains his “defensible space theory.” He argues that public housing should not have too much shared space, like big open stairwells or hallways, because no resident can claim ownership over it, allowing the space to be conquered by homeless people, gangs, or drug dealers. It was a revolution in city design, but it also feels like a metaphor for what’s happening in Yonkers. People like Mary are jealously guarding their own territories and ignoring larger goods, refusing to see how harmful the ghettoization of Yonkers’s African Americans have been to the city’s interests at large. Wasicsko’s silent majority may well exist, but they are nowhere to be seen at council meetings, and so progress has to come at a desperately slow pace. In that time, the many tragedies we’re seeing among the various residents of Yonkers’s public housing are unfolding.