Those two-year terms are a killer.
After winning a surprise victory in the Yonkers’ mayoral election in the first installment of HBO’s Show Me a Hero,” Nick Wasicsko fell quickly back to earth this week. (My recap of episodes 1 and 2 is here.) His life in office is fast becoming a series of Maalox moments (literally, he chugs the stuff like it’s Diet Coke) as he contends with recalcitrant city council members and an angry public that makes every council meeting look like WrestleMania.
Our young mayor achieves a fleeting victory when he strong-arms two council members into approving the federal housing plan, pointing to the wide-scale layoffs that would result if the council failed to act. (Court sanctions would have forced the city to cut jobs and ultimately into bankruptcy.) But his victory comes at a deep cost—not only is his car pummeled by protesters as he leaves City Hall, he faces the divisive but powerful Hank Spallone (Alfred Molina) in the coming mayoral election.
Spallone has made his name opposing the housing plan, and now he hopes to ride that populist wave to the mayor’s office. He’s a Democrat, like Wasizcsko, but he switches parties when it becomes apparent that he stands a better chance in the general election than the primary. Before you know it, young Nick is giving a concession speech, and heading home to fix up the house that he purchased with his soon-to be wife, Nay Noe (Carla Quevedo). Songs by Bruce Springsteen, littered all over the series soundtrack (which must have cost HBO a mint), help ease the transition, but even the Boss can’t rescue Nick from the gloom that comes from not being in the game anymore.
Meanwhile, the public housing plans roll on as the court-appointed architect fights for the construction of individual town houses rather than two-story public housing units. It may seem like a minor point, but Simon and his team seem to revel in getting into the weeds of late 1980s housing policy. Traditional high-rise public housing was a failure, we are told, because there were too many empty common spaces (elevators, stairwells) that no one felt ownership of; as a result, they fell into disrepair and became an incubator of violence and drug use. (The dialogue sometimes gets a little too expository and didactic here, but Simon only has six episodes to work with, unlike the magnificent multi-season canvas of “The Wire.”)
I should mention at this point that “Show me a Hero,” like “The Wire,” is a multi-strand story, which seeks to show you the people on both sides of these public policy issues. In episodes 1 and 2, we were introduced to a series of minority characters living in the projects of West Yonkers: a young Dominican mother and her family; an aging African-American woman with diabetes; a single mother in search of a stable home. In parts 3 and 4, their stories are unpacked further, and two more narrative strands are added. It doesn’t take a seasoned screenwriter to see where this story is going, but at least these characters are slowly becoming more human and interesting as they contend with the challenges of living in public housing.
One young mother, widowed with a baby, is exiled to a motel in Yorktown Heights in northern Westchester County when she first seeks public housing. (Westchester is notorious for its dearth of affordable housing.) She is miserable living in a place she doesn’t know, and lobbies successfully to get her and her asthmatic son placed in a more spacious apartment in Yonkers public housing. But even there, she is lonely, and falls into drug use. Drugs are easy to come by in the playgrounds and hallways of public housing, and it is this proximity, the series suggests, rather than any character failing that lures vulnerable individuals into addiction.
But would living East Yonkers be any better? Sure, there would be fewer drug dealers, but there would be fewer people you know too. Or so says Norma O’Neal, a half-blind former nurse who talks with a friend about the prospect of uprooting her home and moving across the parkway to a leafier part of the city. Cleaner, safer affordable housing may be the great dream of federal planners, but convincing people to live away from their own communities is no small matter.
Two other scenes from episodes 3 and 4 are worth citing. A he packs up his office, in blink-and-you-miss-it moment, Mayor Wasicsko tosses a hefty hardcover book in a cardboard box after glancing at it thoughtfully. It’s Common Ground, the monumental journalistic account of the Boston busing crisis by J. Anthony Lucas. Common Ground is, one hand, a touchstone for Lisa Belkin (author of the book Show me a Hero) and other non-fiction journalists seeking to tell complicated stories of individuals caught up in political systems. It is also the canonical account of what is perhaps the most infamous government integration plan—one that by in large failed. Could the Yonkers housing plan turn out the same way?
Finally, as he gives Mayor Wasicsko gives his concession speech, the title of the series is invoked in a side conversation between a journalist and one of the mayor’s aids. The mayor, the aid suggests, is a kind of hero, and the journalist reminds him of the quote from Fitzgerald (the aid doesn’t know which): “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.”
When we leave former Mayor Wasicsko at the end of episode 4, he is contemplating a second run for mayor as he celebrates his nomination for a “Profile in Courage” award for pushing through the housing plan in the face of intense opposition. He is giddy with excitement, and it isn’t a stretch to say that he sees himself as a kind of hero.
Tragedy, it seems, is just around the corner. I am afraid to contemplate what form it will take.