NPR logo A Historic Fight Over Public Housing Makes For Fine Drama On HBO

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A Historic Fight Over Public Housing Makes For Fine Drama On HBO

Oscar Isaac as Mayor Nick Wasicsko. Paul Schiraldi/HBO hide caption

toggle caption Paul Schiraldi/HBO

Oscar Isaac as Mayor Nick Wasicsko.

Paul Schiraldi/HBO

One of the accusations that was often leveled against Mad Men as an examination of social problems was that it paused too often to scoff at how foolish (or sexist, or racist, or environmentally ignorant) everyone was in the 1960s, as if we've outgrown all of it. One of the best things about Show Me A Hero, HBO's dense but involving examination of a dispute over the construction of low-income housing in Yonkers, N.Y. in the 1980s is that there's no smugness to it. The series comes from David Simon, who made The Wire and Treme, and Bill Zorzi, another ex-journalist and former The Wire writer, so perhaps it's not surprising that it's not a look back at how racist resistance to integrating neighborhoods worked, but at how such resistance works.

At the center of the (true) story is Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac), who became, in 1987 at age 28, the youngest mayor in the country. Wasicsko took control of Yonkers when a federal judge had ordered the city to remedy a past pattern of segregation in its low-income housing by building 200 low-income units on the city's largely white east side, outraging the same neighbors who had kept large housing projects away for years. Nick doesn't enter politics as a progressive or as an desegregrationist. In the opening installment of the miniseries (which runs for three Sundays, beginning August 16, for two hours each), he enters politics as an ambitious, basically decent, deeply opportunistic man who never looks like his suits quite fit.

Successfully becoming mayor, however, simply means that he's now responsible for either implementing or resisting the court order that his constituents noisily protest at city council meetings. They demand, in short, that the mayor change the mind of a federal judge, or that he somehow undo what is already done. Very little energy is spent with Nick's personal feelings about housing policy; they're largely irrelevant to what becomes a story of his passion for local government itself. He loves it like some people love to build furniture or play the guitar. It's his thing. And on top of that, it's what makes him feel necessary and respected, so it's a need as well. Passion and need add up to drive, even in the absence of any particular ideology.

Director Paul Haggis' handling of the chaos of the council meetings where Nick meets his public is one of the standout accomplishments of the entire piece. Alfred Molina plays Henry Spallone, a city council member who represents the most vocal opponents of the housing construction, and the way he puts his feet up on the desk instantly communicates not only the swagger of Spallone himself, but the rough informality of contentious local politics, which are nothing like the staid speeches of Congress. In particular, the sound design and the willingness to make the audience strain to hear what exactly is being said even by prominent characters when everyone is yelling is the only way to make the audience really appreciate just how cacophonous those meetings were.

And that cacophony is important, because just how aggressive and sometimes frightening the anger of the people of Yonkers was – or at least felt to Nick Wasicsko – is fundamental to the series' sense of his choices. When a crowd surrounds his car as he's leaving a meeting with his girlfriend, the loud thumps and bumps you keep hearing after he's inside drive home the fact that his constituents may be people who were hesitant to state any racist concerns with clarity, but that doesn't mean they were shy. On the contrary, some residents of the east side of Yonkers demonstrate over the course of the six-hour series precisely the penchant for violence and disregard for the law that they claim to fear will come to their neighborhoods when poor people do. There's a similar inversion when the housing is eventually built: it is not the white residents who don't feel safe.

Still, those Yonkers residents are allowed a measure of humanity, particularly through Catherine Keener's portrayal of an older woman named Mary who represents the best and worst, the most frustrating and most needed, of the people Wasicsko was dealing with. Show Me A Hero doesn't go so far as to make excuses for people who want the government to protect segregation of neighborhoods, by any means. But it does frame their concerns not only in terms of free-floating hostility, but in both ingrained racism of which they are unaware and, just as importantly, economic insecurity. The white side of Yonkers as presented here is primarily made up of middle-class neighborhoods full of people who argue that they worked and saved to get the homes they have – paid for the privilege of not being around poor black and brown people, really – and they feel entitled to enjoy the fruits of their labor. The racism implicit in their fears is evident, but so is the genuineness of those fears.

It's interesting, in fact, to consider some of what happens in Show Me A Hero alongside some of the meetings chronicled in two recent episodes of This American Life, which deal with school integration – an issue that was, in fact, the root of the federal case that desegregated public housing in Yonkers. In one segment, reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones reported on meetings where residents resisted the arrival at a largely white school of a number of largely black students who were entitled under the law to attend the white school. The white parents suggested that their children would be stabbed, given drugs, robbed, dragged down in their academics and subjected to other negative consequences if the black students were allowed in the school. One openly suggests they manipulate the start times of the school to make it inconvenient for the black students to attend. One perhaps crystallizes the opposition by saying that she is entitled not to have to worry about her kids, suggesting that not worrying about her kids means not putting them near these kids.

The freedom not to worry is the solution any anxiety craves, economic or otherwise, and it's prominent in the Yonkers argument in Show Me A Hero, too. For the outraged neighbors, the American dream is to buy your way out of the problems that tend to plague poor communities, and once you make it, you should be able to rest easy and can't be asked to worry again; that's cheating you out of what you've earned. Under this argument, desegregation is inherently unjust, because the right to literally segregate yourself for your own peace of mind is part of what you have worked so hard for. It's a seductive theory that relies on belief in a perfectly functioning egalitarian society, though – on the theory that everyone has the same opportunities to buy their way into comfort. That cuts directly against the idea these residents also clearly subscribe to that changing your own children's circumstances gives them better odds. What makes Show Me A Hero feel more current than period, and more thoughtful than scolding, is that the only thing that really feels dated about it is the wardrobe. Everything else could pretty easily come up tomorrow and it wouldn't be a huge surprise.

One of the special pleasures of this show is one that frequently appears in Simon's journalism-fueled efforts, which is a wonky eye for detail that reveals interesting and little-seen sidelines about things like housing policy. When the man actually responsible for building the housing units, played with a magnificent beard by Peter Riegert, gets into the fine detail of things like why townhomes are so much better and safer than walk-ups and why residents need to feel ownership over their spaces, it careens right into straight-faced education, but never for so long that it kills the momentum of Wasicsko's story.

It's at times uncomfortable to see this story centered on Wasicsko and the other white city politicians as much as it is – it's based on a book about Wasicsko, so it can't really be otherwise. It is a story, after all, where the largest life-or-death stakes are for poor black and Latino people, and the bulk of the screen time goes to watching white politicians try to figure out how to handle the anger of white communities. That's not fully to the exclusion of everyone else: we do get to know a few residents of Yonkers who might be candidates to live in the new housing, and their stories are presented with a kind of rushed compassion that tries to shed a little light on some of the frustrating paradoxes of public housing policy. But although their presence increases over the course of the six hours of the series, they're by no means as richly drawn as the characters in Wasicsko's world; they are present, particularly in the early going, more to represent the stakes in his story than to compete with it.

As the series develops, though, that seems more and more to be a meaningful choice rather than an oversight, because the whole point is that the potential residents have very little agency in most phases of this process. Their ability to have a safe and reasonable place to live does in fact depend, fairly or unfairly, on the ability of a predominantly white power structure to function and for resistance in white communities to be managed. Of course, any David Simon piece that starts with anyone depending on the ability of any institution – let alone a white power structure enabled by racism – to function is probably headed for rough terrain.

You can quibble with this or that choice in the production: I tend to believe that a story like this doesn't need a literal Bruce Springsteen soundtrack, which seems a little on the nose. And there are times when the minutiae of Nick's machinations and negotiations fly by so fast that, as was the case on The Wire, footnotes would not be unwelcome. But the performances are strong – from Isaac especially, as well as from Molina, Winona Ryder as a friend of Nick's on the city council, and Clarke Peters as one of the consultants who helps actually get the residents placed. It's ultimately a story that, at different points, is both baffling and inevitable.

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