Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
David Simon’s HBO miniseries, premiering Sunday, looks back at a specific time and place. But the same issues are boiling over today.
Show Me a Hero tells a story set in Yonkers in 1987, but it might as well be the story of Yonkers in the here and now. The mini-series, premiering Sunday at 8 p.m. on HBO, explores the turmoil that erupted there nearly 30 years ago after the city bowed to a federal court order to desegregate its housing. An untested mayor led the effort to build low-income townhouses in more affluent neighborhoods. White residents reacted as if they’d been bitten by rattlesnakes. The effort consumed Yonkers.
That battle is still consuming Yonkers today. In Westchester County, whose most populous city is Yonkers, Democratic voters outnumber Republicans nearly two to one. Yet they elected a Republican county executive, in 2009 and again in 2013, largely on his promise to resist (another) fair-housing mandate.
Every city in America faces the same fight as Yonkers now. Not merely because cities remain segregated and change is hard, but specifically because the federal order that forced the hands of leaders in Yonkers is now a nationwide mandate as of last month. What happened in Yonkers in 1987—what is still happening in Yonkers in 2015—is going to happen everywhere.
That’s part of what makes Show Me a Hero, a six-episode series by The Wire’s David Simon, such essential art. When an anti-housing city council member spits about “social engineering by someone who doesn't live anywhere near us” in the show’s premier, he echoes National Review’s Stanley Kurtz—who wrote, only last month, that a new rule from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development “gives the federal government a lever to re-engineer nearly every American neighborhood.”
Not even the language has changed since 1987. Here’s a line from Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino’s state-of-the-county address in 2013:
Washington bureaucrats, who you will never see or meet, want the power to determine who will live where and how each neighborhood will look. What’s at stake is the fundamental right of our cities, towns, and villages to plan and zone for themselves.
It could easily be mistaken for a quote from Nick Wasicsko, who was elected mayor in Yonkers in 1987 on precisely the same anti-housing rhetoric. It was zoning rights then, and it’s zoning rights now: Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project (from June) and HUD’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule (July), the racist, NIMBYist fight to protect white homeowners from black neighbors is set to spread across the country.
Conservatives have even given this battle a name: Obamazoning.
Part of what makes Show Me a Hero so necessary is how it looks backward and forward. It is a crucial document about a specific place and time (adapted from Lisa Belkin’s nonfiction account of the same name). Yet the show is also a lens for understanding the protests in Ferguson, the uprisings in Baltimore, and the pool in McKinney, Texas. And, soon enough—everywhere else.