Communal Combat

Surprising fact: Yonkers is the fourth largest city in New York State, ahead of Syracuse and Albany. Covering 18 square miles and home to 200,000 people, the city exists almost literally in the shadow of the great metropolis to its south. 

Yonkers is a mystery for many New Yorkers, a place they pass through on the train. HBO’s “Show Me a Hero,” a miniseries created by David Simon of “The Wire” and based on a book by Lisa Belkin, may not change that, but for a few weeks this summer it provided a fascinating look at a fraught moment in the city’s history.

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The politics of “not in my backyard” was perhaps never more virulent than in Yonkers in the 1980s. In 1980 a federal court ruled that municipal leaders had to build low-income housing in mostly white neighborhoods rather than concentrate them in the western part of the city. The series follows the fight against the plan as it unfolds during the election of Mayor Nick Wasicsko. 

The campaign against the housing plan is vicious, with some residents showing up at a city hall meeting with guns. The homeowners are pretty much all white, many of them Catholic, and some of them are suspicious of the Jewish judge who handed down the order. It’s not a pretty picture. 

Yet it is to the show’s credit that the residents of Yonkers are not wholly demonized. These are working class families who are living in probably the first houses they have ever owned. This is another sad story of class division, made tragic by the fact that the classes at war were not that far apart.

At the heart of the class combat is fear, which is made worse by the fact the black, brown and white residents of Yonkers know very little about one another. This is the strongest argument in favor of integration. If we do not live next to people of different races or classes, or send our children to the same schools, it is far easier to demonize them as the “other.” 

“Show Me a Hero” gets 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. Learning from these mistakes, housing advocates pushed for single-unit townhouses.

“Show Me a Hero” seeks to show the people on both sides of these public policy issues. One young mother is exiled to a motel in Yorktown Heights when she first seeks public housing. She is miserable living in a place she doesn’t know and lobbies successfully to be placed in a more spacious apartment in downtown Yonkers. 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 in East Yonkers be any better? Sure, there would be fewer drug dealers, but as one character says, there would be fewer people you know, too. 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.

In the show’s final episodes families from low-income neighborhoods begin to move into the newly built townhouses. They are chosen by lottery, and most of the families we have been watching are lucky enough to land a new home. They are thrilled with their little patch of suburbia, with green lawns out back and trees by their windows. 

Of course, their new neighbors are no so thrilled and stare at them warily from their front stoops. But over time, the housing comes to resemble what the developers hoped it would—a neighborhood, with families grilling outside on the front lawn and children running up and down the sidewalks. 

In a postscript, the filmmakers note that Oscar Newman, the federal city planner who fought for the single unit townhouses, is now heralded as a visionary. Perhaps the most prominent example of this vision today is the public housing in New Orleans built after Hurricane Katrina. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that “Show Me a Hero” ended on the weekend marking the 10th anniversary of Katrina. It was that storm that brought issues of class, race and housing to the fore of the national conversation. 

“Show Me a Hero” continues that conversation, reminding us that sometimes government can help push us forward, even if the motives of our leaders are not always so noble.

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