Journalist Lisa Belkin, whose 1999 book was adapted for the HBO series, talks about what’s changed—and what hasn’t—in Yonkers and beyond.
After Sunday night’s premiere of HBO’s Show Me a Hero, many viewers are discovering the Yonkers housing crisis of the 1980s and ‘90s for the first time. But the miniseries, written and produced by David Simon, is based on a 1999 book by former New York Times correspondent Lisa Belkin, and it’s her reporting that animates the stories on screen.
Belkin served as a consultant on the series, introducing the screenwriters to her old sources in Yonkers and fact-checking the look and feel of the production on set—right down to such period details as the lighting of city hall one fateful night in 1988. The result is a remarkably faithful adaptation, with many quotes pulled verbatim from Belkin’s reporting and most of the scenes shot in the real locations where they took place 30 years ago. “They wanted to make something honest,” she says.
Belkin’s Show Me a Hero will be re-released in paperback on September 1, with a new epilogue by the author. CityLab caught up with Belkin—now chief national correspondent at Yahoo! News—to talk about the legacy of her book in the present political moment and Yonkers’ selective memory of its past. Warning, some spoilers lie ahead.
When you visited the set, did you get the sense that people in Yonkers had reflected on their past and come to terms with their role in this conflict?
The reflecting on the past began with Mary Dorman. I met everyone in 1992, when they held the [housing] lottery—including Mary, who had just started working then for the Housing Education Relocation Enterprise program. So an awful lot of “old” Mary came from talking to her, from reading news clips, from watching newsreels, from recreating rather than watching firsthand—because the only Mary I ever knew was “new” Mary, who had done probably the hardest thing of almost anyone in the book and changed her mind. I gave her the [Show Me a Hero] manuscript. That was my fact-checking process: “Read this, and tell me what we need to talk about."
I got back her pages in the mail, and it was a two-page letter from Mary, single-spaced, handwritten, telling me how wrong, completely wrong, everything I wrote was. She didn’t know who I was writing about but it couldn't have been her, and why am I saying these terrible things about her. So I went over and we spent half the day going through every single word that I had written about her, with all of my notes showing her I got it from this conversation, this news clip. And at the end, she finally looked at me and said, "I owe you an apology. I didn't recognize the person I used to be, and I don't like her very much."
There was a lot of that going on with some people in Yonkers: “That was us? I don't even recognize us anymore. And I don't like that.” Some people are still very angry. They came forward in all sorts of public meetings [about the TV series] and said, “Are you gonna make us look awful, when all we were doing was fighting an overreaching judge? We're very worried about how you're gonna make us look.” So the past came up that way a lot, too.
If there's anger now, it's, “Why are you dragging us back there? Why are you making us look like racist bigots here in Yonkers? We are past that.” And they are, in many ways. And they worry that this is a black eye, that the entire country is going to look at them and see only their worst moment.
Is that the prevailing opinion in Yonkers?
I think it's a vocal minority. The mayor's office was generous as could be. They didn't have to allow people to film. They didn't have to give permits to film in city hall and pretty much in all the places where these things originally happened. They made the decision that this is history, and Yonkers has grown up since then—and I think Yonkers has grown up since then, and I think it's largely because of this.
You write in the new epilogue to your book Show Me a Hero that some of the extras in the city hall meetings were the same people who protested all those years ago. Had they recanted in the years since the housing fight?
They had recanted not in the way that Mary had—not by completely changing their world view. It was past, and they had recanted almost with a shrug, like, "Oh, yeah, we were really angry." Most of them will say, "And it hasn't turned out to be nearly as horrible as we thought it would." Some of them would say, "And we were right. The city's never been the same since." It's not that long ago. They settled the case in 2007.
But you felt like they didn’t understand the gravity of their actions back then?
Yes. And what you're asking for is a conversation I didn't have because I wasn't there as a reporter. So my feeling in the spur of the moment, standing in the aisle while these people are sitting on a bus driving back up to city hall, was: “We're here because it's kind of cool to be an extra in a movie. We're here because this is our past and our heritage. And we're here probably to make whatever peace we need to make with that past." But that they showed up at all I thought was fascinating. This was still their Yonkers, it was their story, and they answered an open casting call—and screamed and yelled.
I had one guy approach me on Facebook. Like Mary, he's almost two people. So he started out by saying, "Lisa, is everything in your book true? Did people really shout those horrible things? Did it really happen on this street? Did you exaggerate for effect?" Going on and on in that vein. And then he said, "I was an extra, and I screamed even worse things than the director told me to because that way I hoped I would make it onto the actual screen."
I don't know how you make sense of that, except that Yonkers has a very, very complicated relationship with its past. And the people who were there are still sorting out what role they played in it and how they feel about it.
It's easy for people to look at this history and say, "Oh, that's just those backward people in Yonkers." But of course there were similar battles being waged over public housing in cities across the country.
Right, and there are today right now. Yes, it is a place unto itself, and I think what was brilliant about this piece is that it feels like its own insular place, and yet you also completely understand that it's every place.
And as far as the timing—if you were to script the context against which, as a filmmaker or a book author, this would ideally appear, it's been the past year. That is horrifying. I don't say that with any satisfaction, in terms of what's going on in our country. But if the reason [HBO] made this, the reason I wrote this, was to say we need to face up to our hypocrisy, or we need to realize that what we think of as someone else and someone “other” and someone different is really someone who wants exactly what we want, we need to recognize that we are living on opposite sides of literal and metaphorical streets, and seeing the world through the only prism we have. This backdrop is as eloquent as it gets for saying, "Excuse me, but this is a problem and we need to face it." Everything that David Simon has been talking about—two Americas, and the racial chasm that divides us—has played out in the country while they were filming this. They were filming during Ferguson. They were editing during Baltimore.
One refrain you hear throughout the Yonkers protests is "I'm not racist but..." How do you feel like the dialogue around race has evolved since then?
I think more people are aware. I’m not sure enough people are aware. I certainly know that the concept of white privilege was not a known phrase back in 1988. I think that there's so much in the miniseries about how those people are just different than we are. I came to know the people who were saying it, and they considered themselves good people. They went through their lives trying to be good people. They wanted to do the right thing. They thought they were nice. But I guess by definition they were racist. There's no way around it. They looked at someone of a different race and saw trouble, saw "less than," saw someone they didn't want in the neighborhood. That's racist. And I think we're more aware of that now. I hope we are.
How did the Yonkers story play out in the national media of the time?
It was national news. I was living in Texas at the time and I knew about it. Did I know about it in every detail? No. But I certainly knew that Yonkers was exploding.
On going back to the clips, the New York Times didn't cover it nearly as much as the Yonkers Herald Statesman did, but definitely covered it. But Yonkers was so colorful a place that it also allowed the national media to look at it like, "Look at this tableau, this drama going on," as opposed to "Let's take a close look at how this really is all of us."
Do you think that would still happen today?
No, because we just have more news. We look more closely at everything, and we have gotten very good at, and unfortunately used to, diving into exactly this subject with a very close-up lens. So no, I don't think it would be covered as an oddity now.
It’s even shocking to me that people are talking about public housing now. It is not a “sexy” subject.
The Obama administration just recommitted to, frankly, what has been the law [on fair housing] all along, but has been all but ignored—the idea that you can't take federal funds and use them to segregate people or even use them to ignore the fact that people are segregated. And they say they will enforce it. We'll see. That's been said before, [though] never quite this powerfully or directly. So there's the whole race conversation, and then there's this declaration that we are going to fix this.
Fundamentally it's a question of, can you possibly understand what you have in common with people unless you actually interact with them and see them in ways that aren't extraordinary? if you don't interact every day, all the time, in really mundane ways? You can only do that by all living in the same place. And without that, how do you possibly have a “post-racial” society?
If you were to write this story today, how might you do it differently?
I've thought about it, and I don't know. It's impossible that I’d write the book the same way 15 years later as I wrote it then. We were just living in completely different times; my lens would necessarily be different. But I don't know the answer. They just made a miniseries that essentially looks at it the same way I looked at it—freshened up and with more urgency—because, again, it's more resonant today than when I wrote it.
The framework is this very boring, very picayune fight over 800 units of housing. But I think the point is, how do you learn to accept people who you think are so wildly different than you are? It's an imperfect analogy, but there is an analogy, to the gay marriage conversation, and the fact that as people came to realize, "Wait a second, this isn't someone else, this is my fill-in-the-blank, my brother, my nephew, my coworker, my neighbor—so I now see this differently." And there's an argument that until you can say of someone of another race or another culture, "This isn't a stranger, this is my neighbor," you're not gonna have that same understanding or shift in public perception. We've come pretty far—but not as far as we thought we would be, I think, by now.
What do you hope today’s viewers take away from the series?
Needles only ever move slowly. Gay marriage is the striking exception because it's a striking exception. It's the only time anyone can remember that a needle has moved quickly on a fundamental social construct. So if [this show] can move the needle a little, if it can give you an image of one person saying, "With all the crime and drugs, it has to somehow be their fault," and then a cross-cut to someone you have come to identify with and love, who is desperate to live exactly the life that you live, in the place that you live it—maybe that will move the needle incrementally.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Show Me a Hero airs August 23 and August 30 at 8 p.m. EST on HBO. A new paperback edition of Belkin’s book will be available on September 1.