HBO Six-part miniseries
Written by William F. Zorzi and David Simon
Directed by Paul Haggis
This is what David Simon does best: politics, race, and housing projects. New Orleans too, but that’s Treme
Show Me a Hero is based on the nonfiction book by former New York Times reporter, Lisa Belkin. It dramatizes what happened when federal authorities ordered the construction of public housing in the white middle-class areas of Yonkers, New York. The city’s young mayor, Nick Wasicsko carried out the mandate amid an atmosphere boiling over with fear and racism.
Wasicsko became the youngest big city mayor in America at the age of 28. He lived with his mother and drank Maalox out of the bottle, sometimes mixing it with vodka—something we all may have considered after a disrupted public meeting. Before even taking his oath, he was faced with the challenge of reversing the city’s long history of intentional segregation.
This series gives valuable insight into the motivations of all sides of the public housing debate. It brings up issues and ideas of social engineering and draconian HUD policies, while questioning accepted American ideals. It shows the vitriol that happens at public hearings and also the political bargaining that happens behind closed doors.
The NIMBYs claim it’s not about race: “it’s about economic issues, property values, drugs, and crime.” They try to mask what they’re really thinking: “Guys like that, they learn how not to say the bad words. No more coon. No more nigger. Underneath it all is fear. Same as it ever was.”
At a meeting for future tenants of the public housing, the language of housing is discussed: “‘Projects’ make us feel like a science project…‘Low income’ isn’t low class.” Words matter.
Oscar Newman makes an appearance as a hired consultant. You may remember his Defensible Space Theory from planning school, including his thoughts about how public housing should have no interior public areas: “Nebulous public areas are like a no man’s land. That’s the space that gets trashed. That’s what gets used for loitering and drug dealing.” Design matters.
One of my favorite quotes comes from a councilman. Discussing possible sites for low-income housing, he insists: “Not in my backyard. That’s literally in my back yard.”
Perhaps the best lesson here for planners can be found in the character of Mary Dorman. She was long a vocal opponent of the housing in her neighborhood. But she starts to question her own values when she sees the ugliness exhibited by her neighbors. She’s co-opted by the project organizers to help ease the neighborhood transition and to serve as a liaison between the new and the established residents. This involved first going into the projects and meeting the hopeful residents and their families where they live. As a result, Mary had a change of heart and mind. She continued to work with the residents for years after the initial project was finished.
This strategy served me well in my own planning practice when I had angry opposition to contend with. Include the loudest resistors. Involve them in productive ways and keep them busy. They may surprise you in the end.
In an America generations removed from the greatest civil rights struggles of the 1960s, the young mayor of a mid-sized American city is faced with a federal court order that says he must build a small number of low-income housing units in the white neighborhoods of his town. His attempt to do so tears the entire city apart, paralyzes the municipal government, and, ultimately, destroys the mayor and his political future. From creator David Simon (HBO’s Treme and The Wire) and director Paul Haggis (Crash), and based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Lisa Belkin, the six-part HBO Miniseries presentation Show Me a Hero explores notions of home, race and community through the lives of elected officials, bureaucrats, activists and ordinary citizens in Yonkers, NY.