On the long flight to India and back, I decided I would watch the HBO six-episode miniseries Show Me a Hero, an engaging, slow-burn drama about the struggle to implement affordable, integrated public housing in Yonkers, New York in the late 1980s and the role of young Councilman turned Mayor Nick Wasicsko. The white middle class strongly opposed construction of the new houses in their neighborhoods, federally mandated to desegregate public housing. Yonkers is the city of my birth, and my parents lived here from 1980-1987. I was only five and a half when we left, but I remember the brick and gabled houses, the rustle of the too orange fall leaves, the clarity of the sunlight through the ash and maple trees, and the walks in the park.
I also wanted to see the series for Oscar Isaac, who has risen into prominence over the past year through his creepy and even off-putting Bluebeard in Ex Machina, conflicted anti-hero in A Most Violent Year (also set in New York during pivotal times), and rollicking, Resistance space pilot in the new Star Wars.
I highly recommend Show Me a Hero for its strong, nuanced performances, compelling character storylines, and quiet but powerful suspense. At first, I felt like here we go again, another civil rights story told through the lens of a white male politician, a young star and savior. However, the story doesn’t quite follow like that and while Isaac’s Wasicsko is the protagonist, the series spends a good amount of time independently telling the narratives of the women seeking a better life for themselves and their families, and making the razor-sharp point that access to housing is not just a civil right, it is a human right, intricately related to health, safety, and well-being. The series’ tone is unique and keeps you on a teetering edge. Not knowing Wasicsko’s story and given the last episode’s inconclusive denouement, the finale did catch me off guard.
I told my father about the series. He remembered the issue vaguely at first, and as I continued to summarize the plot, it came into focus. My father said that one of the proposed housing sites was a closed school very near our house in the Colonial Heights neighborhood of Yonkers. He reminded me that my mother used to take me for walks up to the school, shut down due to asbestos contamination, and that my uncle’s family lived in an apartment nearby. And suddenly, I remembered it all – of course, the abandoned school and the tempting but off-limits playground.
My father said at the time, he had asked a lawyer friend of his if the housing mandate would be implemented, and that the lawyer said that Judge Sand was liberally-oriented and would enforce the order. For my parents, it was an issue just above their horizon. They sold the house at a good profit and moved on… So, it seems like none of the nightmare scenarios of public housing integrated in primarily white areas reducing property values and increasing crime came to pass. Though the fight didn’t pave the way for similar struggles in other cities, as hoped.
I also mulled on the nature of the politician as individual and politician as enactor of public policy. While Wasicsko’s efforts paid off for many low-income African-American and Hispanic families in Yonkers, his own relevance, credit, and power declined, and his impact seems to have been largely forgotten until now.
I look forward to finding out more in Lisa Belkin’s book on which the series was based.
Options for watching Show Me a Hero.