Yonkers and the ugly politics of 'not in my backyard': A recap of 'Show Me a Hero,' parts 1 and 2

BEFORE THE STORM. Oscar Isaac, left, as aspiring Mayor Nick Wasicsko in 'Show Me a Hero' BEFORE THE STORM. Oscar Isaac, left, as aspiring Mayor Nick Wasicsko in "Show Me a Hero" (HBO)

Surprising fact: Yonkers is the fourth largest city in New York state, ahead of Syracuse and Albany. Home to 195,000 people and covering 18 square miles, the city exists (almost literally) in the shadow of the great metropolis immediately to its south. I grew up in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, and as a teenager Yonkers was wearingly familiar to me. It was not an especially pretty place to visit, but it’s movie theaters and shopping malls were easier to reach than midtown or Times Square. Plus, many of my friends lived there.

Then and now, Yonkers is a mystery for many New Yorkers, a place they pass through on the train on their way to more scenic parts of the Hudson Valley. The new HBO miniseries, "Show Me a Hero,” about the fraught politics of 1980s housing policies in Yonkers, may not change any of that, but it could lend the city the sort of pop culture attraction that Baltimore now enjoys thanks to “The Wire.” “Show Me a Hero” is also written by that show’s creator, David Simon, and is directed by Oscar winner Paul Haggis. Based on a non-fiction book by Lisa Belkin, it began airing on HBO last night and continues for the next two Sundays. I’ll be posting post-show commentary for the next two weeks.

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It is obvious, from the moment the film begins, that Yonkers is a middle class town. The politicians wear ill-fitting suits and live in pretty but slightly run-down homes. City councilman Nick Wasicsko, played by Oscar Isaac, lives with his mother, but he has higher aspirations, including a new secretary in the mayor’s office and, possibly, the mayor’s office itself. He is invited to run for mayor by a colleague, and it is a sign of his narcissism that he agrees, even thought he knows he has little shot at hizzoner’s chair. 

Surprising everyone, including himself, Wasicsko wins, propelled by an anti-incumbent campaign that targeted the mayor for his willingness to go along with a federal court order that mandated the building of affordable housing in mostly white neighborhoods. The council is also divided on the order, which pits middle class home owners against the NAACP and others fighting for minorities who live in deteriorating housing projects west of the parkway that divides the city. 

Simon and his co-creators are interested in less in the rightness of the housing policy (though it is obvious they are sympathetic to its goals) than in its effect on the people of Yonkers. The campaign against the housing plan is vicious, with residents showing up at city hall meeting with guns and throwing pampers at the “baby” (28-year-old) mayor. 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. 

When Cardinal John O’Connor agrees to build low-income housing on a slice of his seminary’s property in Yonkers, local parishioners are incensed and refuse to donate to the annual cardinal’s appear. The series suggests that the cardinal later went back on his promise because of pressure from his flock. Based on this New York Times report from Peter Steinfels in 1988, I suspect the story is more complicated—we’ll see how the storyline plays out.

It is to Simon and his collaborators' credit that, as ugly as the “not in my backyard” rhetoric becomes, the residents of Yonkers are not wholly demonized. These are, after all, working class families who are living in probably the first house they ever owned. Not too long ago, they lived in the inner city themselves, and they don’t want to go back there. Nor can they afford to move into wealthier neighborhoods or send their children to expensive private schools. This is another sad story of class division, made all the more tragic by the fact that the classes at war are not that far apart.

At the heart of the class combat is fear, a fear that is made worse by the fact the black, brown and white residents of Yonkers know very little about one another. This is, perhaps, is the strongest argument in favor of integration, in Yonkers and elsewhere. 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.” But “Show Me a Hero” also shows how painful forced integration can be, and seems to raise questions about whether blunt government action is the best tool to achieve the desired end. It reminds us that in 1980s public housing was largely a failure, so the notion that it could work in Yonkers was sometimes rightfully seen as quixotic.

Episode 2 ends with a few city councilman facing jail time as they dig in against a final court order mandating the building of affordable housing. The mayor is in favor of the plan, if only to avoid plunging the city into bankruptcy, and he begins to articulate his reasoning to a skeptical constituent on the phone: “A leader is supposed to lead and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Leadership sometimes also means taking people in a direction they don’t want to go. Whether the mayor can succeed in the face of stiff opposition and a tight two-year election cycle is very much an open question. 

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Dimitri Cavalli
2 years 3 months ago
Mr. Reidy makes a brief reference to Federal Judge Leonard Sand, who ruled against Yonkers in 1985, imposed substantial fines on the city, and even jailed the members of the Yonkers City Council who refused to vote for the low-income housing plan. (With a number of progressives, Judge Sand's jailing of elected officials, which the Supreme Court overturned, was applauded. Of couse, if the Catholic hierarchy excommunicates or denies Holy Communion to pro-abortion, Catholic politicians, many progressives can be expected to cry foul.) I grew up in the Bronx myself, and I had classmates from Yonkers. As I remember, many of the white, middle class, and Catholic residents in Yonkers pointed out that Judge Sand owned a farm in the nearly all white and very affluent northern Westchester town of Pound Ridge, where suggestions of building low-income housing was laughed off. I also recall that an African-American resident of Yonkers, Mr. Stonewall Odom (who once ran for the NYS Assembly as a Republican and now lives in Virginia), also opposed the low income housing plan. Let's keep in mind that Yonkers' white Catholic residents behaved no differently than the white Jewish middle class residents in Forest Hills, Queens a decade earlier when Mayor John Lindsay's administration sought to build low income housing there. According to John Corry's memoir, "My Times," Mayor Lindsay's advisors suggested placing the projects in Jewish areas, thinking that since most, if not all, Jews were known to support liberal causes and would not oppose the projects.
Joe Mcmahon
2 years 2 months ago
Would someone familiar with these events give us the exact location of the low-income housing that was built and is still inhabited? I drive through Yonkers often, but I don't know where this particular housing is. Which parish is it in? Many thanks. --- On an allied topic, one could contrast the city of Mount Vernon (3 Catholic parishes still open; 60,000 population) with Yonkers (14 Roman Rite parishes open + 1 or 2 Eastern, 198,000 population), plus a major seminary, plus maybe a few readers of America magazine.
Bill Mazzella
2 years 2 months ago
Joe, Miland ave between Major Deegan and Kimball Avenue. Closer to Kimball. Trenchard Street. There are others.
Bill Mazzella
2 years 3 months ago
The first point that might be made is that many residents of Yonkers came from the Bronx where the practice of "block busting" scared them into selling their homes at depressed prices." The second is that Sands lived in a totally white neighborhood while ordering that another neighborhood be integrated. Areas like Bronxville, East End Avenue, or Scarsdale were not touched. Third, the forceful way the schools were segregated left many residents reeling and stuck in their homes. Because, fourth, if they sold they were subject to a new law intended to slow flight which imposed a financial penalty for anyone selling a home in Yonkers. The real tragedy is that the people were faced with the disruption while misdirected advocates of fair housing punished them rather than the white elites who did not know how to implement a fair plan. Compounding the problem is that the middle class blamed the poor for where the blame should have centered on incompetent liberal advocates and ambitious minorities seeking to make a name for themselves. This is the kind of anger Limbaugh and others provoke. The story is about discrimination. But it is also about people who feel everything is being taken away from them The biggest crime of all was the cost of the 260 units which cost 200 million dollars. Several politicians made a lot of money on the misfortune of others.
Bill Mazzella
2 years 3 months ago
A most surprising development in Yonkers is the Cross County Shopping Center with its domination by minorities. . One of the most profitable malls in the country. Recently it was remodeled with some high end stores joining Macys and Sears. The striking mixture of shoppers may come as a surprise to many who see Yonkers as a prejudiced city. The vast majority of the shoppers and workers are minorities. Yet the Center has never thrived more. There are many more restaurants there than its so-called heyday. Olive Garden. Steak House, Red Lobster, Fridays, now accompany Boston Market, Burger King, Chipolte, and the Hamburger place. Chipolte is clearly the most successful. The Cross County movies house sports 10 theaters and is doing well. Many caucasians avoid the center because they feel uncomfortable. That is a shame. My wife and I are comfortable there. Today at Chipolte we were perhaps the oldest and the whitest there. This Center is an American success story. Caucasian Americans need to get their act straight.
Dimitri Cavalli
2 years 3 months ago
In response to Bill Mazzella's comment, I am one of the "Caucasian Americans" who no longer patronizes the Cross County Shopping Mall in Yonkers. My choice has nothing to do with the racial make-up of the visitors. What made Cross County appealing is that it had a mix of "chain" stores and small, independent shops. We bought our beloved Samoyed puppy at the pet store in 1991. I bought a couple of pictures at the frame store. In one shop, I found a wonderful photo on plaque devoted to the late Yankees catcher Thurman Munson with the inscription: "Gone But Not Forgotten." Maybe my nostalgia has clouded my memories, but even the "chain stores" such as Herman's sporting goods (where I bought my Graig Nettles baseball glove), Sam Goody's (where I purchased most of my childhood and teenage music), and Walden Books (where I purchased volume after volume, unbeknownst to my parents, of the "Truly Tasteless Jokes" series) had a kind of "small business" feel. The last time I visited, it seemed to be all chain stores. Like most people today, I prefer to use the Internet to shop.
Francis Lavelle
2 years 2 months ago
It's not fear at the heart of these class tensions but the experiential to which you referred when referencing the fact that so many of the working class in Yonkers were only a generation or so removed from the urban cities themselves. Most had fled in a flight from the drug infestation and violence as depicted accurately in this HBO series whenever they cut to scenes in the projects. The feral behavior, the intimidation and deterioration of civility is what they escaped from only to see it forced upon them after investing in their first homes and without the financial resources to just pick up and leave to go elsewhere. One need only tour these town house projects throughout the rustbelt to see what a failure they ultimately were. People are still being shot, raped and robbed in the midst of these pretend colonial villages. The residents brought their societal ills with them. Again, this is not about race or racial diversity or integration. It is about economic diversity, something altogether different. Section 8 and HUD and mandatory affordable housing units brings people into communities that have very different value systems. The street walking, screaming into a cell phone at 3 in the morning, the crude language and ungentlemanly behavior and the scarring psychological effects upon children raised in proximity of such deposits of mental illness, immorality and violent criminal subculture are something that you can reverse or make amends for. The urban sprawl of forced affordable housing is importing sociopaths into family blocks and professional, formerly scenic and ideal neighborhoods. Their substance issues and subversive attitudes towards the establishment and perceived order manifest daily in the ways they act out and vandalize, cause scenes and turn formerly pleasing blocks into eyesore galleries. Their relatives and girlfriends come to live with them illegally. Their children come into the school systems and distract from the learning and disturb the formerly insular and supportive environment. Their behavioral issues overwhelm small school districts who do not have the funding to supply the necessary amount of aides, and often diagnosing the problems is avoided so as not to have to engage or agitate parents who are perceived as volatile and threatening. This is socioeconomic. It is not fear based but simply inspired by actual life experience, knowledge and common sense. The townhouse projects replaced torn down towers and decimated blocks of empty burned out buildings all over the NYC Metropolitan area, and yet they persist in having shootings, drug abuse, litter, gang saturation and violence despite the absence of the problematic "public areas" of high rise towers spoken to in the show. The common areas were used peacefully in the 50's and 60's. The black and white photos look like Norman Rockwell stills, except they were taken in low income housing. Then things changed in the 70's. Rather than being genuine and transparent and objective and simply dealing with the issues at hand, people thin them out and fan them outside city boundaries, so that the decay and pain is felt by everyone at the expense of the communities. And, then any complaining is stigmatized and shut down by power words that polarize and paralyze.
Tim Reidy
2 years 2 months ago

I do not share your pessimism about any form of public housing. It is a polarizing issue, as you demonstrate, but I agree it should be discussed without resorting to language that polarizes and paralyzes—which, sadly, is what you are doing here. 

Bill Mazzella
2 years 2 months ago
Frank, the townhouses are working fine in Yonkers, the place this series is about. Why do you ignore that and project to other places? No question that government has to provide better for the middle class and let upscale neighborhoods like that of Judge Sands, bear more of the burden.

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