Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The 2007 documentary Brick by Brick: A Civil Rights Story chronicles ghastly segregation in Yonkers public schools just before the events in David Simon’s series unfold.
When it comes to racial segregation, housing and schooling are two sides of the same coin. David Simon’s HBO mini-series Show Me a Hero, which concluded Sunday night, captures the fight for fair housing better than any piece of cinema ever has.
Yet there’s a second saga to the Yonkers story. The battle over the court-ordered plan to build low-income housing in the New York suburb’s affluent white neighborhoods got its start as a case over the acute segregation of Yonkers public schools.
These conditions are ultimately linked: Racially segregated neighborhoods lead to racially segregated schools, which perpetuate racial inequalities in outcomes such as housing. A prequel to Show Me a Hero might focus on the broken school system (just as The Wire, another Simon masterpiece, does in its fourth season). In some ways, this story of Yonkers schools is even more dramatic than what we’ve seen from this mini-series.
Fortunately, someone’s already made this movie. Brick by Brick: A Civil Rights Story, a 2007 documentary by Bill Kavanagh, starts years before the events depicted by Show Me a Hero (which picks up in 1987). It’s mandatory viewing for any show completist. Not just because it features interviews with many of the IRL figures seen on the show, including Nick Wasicsko (played by Oscar Isaac in the series). The documentary illustrates how systemic racism in Yonkers was perpetuated at every level—from the basements of Yonkers elementary schools all the way up to high-level appointments within President Ronald Reagan’s administration.
Brick by Brick explains that black residents in Yonkers lived almost exclusively in four neighborhoods. One of them, Runyon Heights, was framed on one side by the Saw Mill River Parkway. On the other side, the neighborhood is set apart from its white environs by a 10-foot-wide strip of land. White residents of adjacent Homefield even erected a wall to keep black residents out. Today, that border is still demarcated by dead-end streets that do not connect.
The other three black neighborhoods—Warburton Avenue, Ashburton Avenue, and Cottage Place—are adjacent to one another in southwest Yonkers. Over four decades, officials built 99 percent of the city’s 7,000 low-income housing units inside this one-square-mile area, including the Mulford Gardens and Schlobohm projects that surface in Show Me a Hero. In the documentary, Sheryll Cashin, author of The Failures of Integration, describes the area as a “city-built ghetto.”
Brick by Brick introduces viewers to Winston Ross, an activist with the NAACP who came up in the highly segregated, highly disadvantaged Yonkers school system that resulted from such concentrated poverty. "The discrimination I faced was primarily in the counseling process,” Ross explains in the doc. “Although I wanted to go to college as a junior high school student, I was steered to a commercial high school. Eventually, to a retailing program. Their original effort was to try to get me into a foods trades program.”
So the NAACP tried to work with the city’s Board of Education to voluntarily desegregate schools in Yonkers. This went nowhere. Angelo Martinelli, who served as mayor of Yonkers from 1974–1982 and from 1984–1987, ran and won on a promise to oppose any board efforts to cooperate with the NAACP—much as Wasicsko later pledged to appeal a court order over low-income housing.
(Martinelli, who is played by James Belushi on Show Me a Hero, is one of the central sources for Brick by Brick. “If you came from the NAACP, you can bet your bottom dollar that I didn't think too much of it,” he says in the documentary. “I thought they were asking for the moon. It took a while for me to take a more moderate position. The first five or six years, I was a bull in a china shop, and I'm willing to admit it.")
In 1980, the U.S. Department of Justice hit Yonkers with an order to desegregate its schools and housing. This is when the NAACP formally joined the lawsuit as plaintiffs. The timing was crucial, according to interviews with lawyers and activists in Brick by Brick: The organization had no confidence that the incoming Reagan administration would continue to pursue the case after he took office.
The NAACP was right. Under Reagan, an official named Robert J. D’Agostino wrote a memo for his boss, William Bradford Reynolds, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, pertaining to the case. In it he wrote that “blacks, because of family, cultural, and economic background, are more disruptive in the classroom on the average." He argued that African-American students would benefit from programs for the “emotionally disturbed.”
Shockingly, this is precisely what was happening in Yonkers. Black students were being bused to special-education programs that saw them wholly segregated from the rest of the school’s population, programmatically and often physically. These programs worked like the inverse of a magnet school. Here is a gruesome detail from the appellate court decision in United States v. Yonkers Board of Education, the ruling that set off the events of Show Me a Hero.
The Yonkers special education program provided special classes for students with mental or physical handicaps, including those with learning disabilities or emotional disturbances. Beginning in the 1960s, there was a growing and disproportionate number of minority students in special education classes. These classes, especially those for the emotionally disturbed, were viewed by many teachers, school officials, and community members as a "dumping ground for black children."
[ . . . ]
A black child whose teacher considered him or her "disruptive," however, would often ("for the sake of discipline") be consigned immediately by the teacher and the principal to a class for the emotionally disturbed, without prior reference to a psychologist and with no effort to determine whether other options might meet the child's needs.
One witness who had been a regular student at a 98%-white elementary school in the late 1960s recalled her perception that all special education students were black and that they were held up to the regular students as examples of "poor, bad behavior." Thus the special education students were perceived as "different" and "bad." Another witness, a parent and PTA president, testified that her children had thought the words "retard" and "nigger" were interchangeable because the children's only knowledge of blacks was of special education students bused into their school.
Nor was the negative reaction to special-education students limited to the school's other students. One of the special-education teachers and coordinators testified that parents and community members had thrown rocks at her car and shouted, "Take your niggers and get out."
The Reagan administration almost certainly would’ve abandoned the black residents of Yonkers, had D’Agostino’s gaffe not galvanized activists, forcing the Justice Department to stay on target. In Brick by Brick, Cashin claims that the Carter administration brought more than 30 cases involving housing discrimination every year; under Reagan, the civil rights division drew that number down to zero in its first year.
Many of the figures portrayed in Show Me a Hero sit down for interviews in Brick by Brick, including Mary Dorman, the NIMBY activist, and Michael Sussman, the attorney who represented the NAACP. It also features interviews with the black activists who show up only briefly in the HBO telling of the story (or simply don’t appear at all).
But most importantly, Brick by Brick susses out the origins of the fight in Show Me a Hero. Where we live is inextricably linked to where we learn. That’s obvious to any child or parent, but only very recently has the government affirmed the right to fair housing and equal education. And even so, the fight is far from over.
This post has been updated.