‘Show Me a Hero’ Highlights Housing Battle That Affected Schools

By Mark Walsh — September 01, 2015 4 min read
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HBO’s “Show Me a Hero” miniseries ended its run this past Sunday, finishing up its six-hour story about the fierce fight over housing desegregation in Yonkers, N.Y., in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The miniseries highlighted the dynamics that have been at play in communities across the nation over segregated schools and housing—community opposition to desegregation, years of court battles, and, sometimes, courageous leadership.

Of course, the fight in Yonkers, a city of just under 200,000 north of New York City, was about school desegregation as well has housing.

The U.S. Department of Justice sued the city and the Yonkers Board of Education in 1980, alleging that the defendants had discriminated based on race in grouping public housing on the southwest side of the city, resulting in segregated schools and housing. The NAACP intervened in the suit in 1981. In 1985, U.S. District Judge Leonard B. Sand of New York City found that the defendants had violated the Fair Housing Act and the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

Although “Show Me a Hero” makes a few mentions of the schools issue, the miniseries rightly focused on the housing battle, which continued well after Sand issued a desegregation order for the school system in 1986.

Still, the miniseries was somewhat reminiscent of “Common Ground,” the 1990 TV movie made out of the J. Anthony Lukas book of the same name, about the battle over the desegregation of Boston’s public schools in the 1970s. Both feature a federal judge despised by some, city or school officials attempting to comply with court mandates (or not), and families on both sides of the issue.

The force behind “Show Me a Hero” is David Simon, who also produced such HBO series as “The Wire” and “Treme.” In fact, “Show Me a Hero” has more than a few shades of “The Wire,” which featured interplay between local and state officials in Baltimore and Maryland trying to deal with the crime problem, as well as the lives of low-, mid-, and high-level perpetrators of Baltimore’s drug trade. (Actor Clarke Peters, who memorably played rules-skirting Baltimore Detective Lester Freamon in “The Wire,” plays a cool-headed housing agency official in “Hero.”)

“Show Me a Hero” is based on a book of the same name by former New York Times reporter Lisa Belkin, The star is actor Oscar Isaac, who plays Nick Wasicsko, the “boy mayor” of Yonkers.

The miniseries essentially starts when Wasicsko, a former policeman, was a 28-year-old city council member who challenged the incumbent mayor in the middle of the housing battle, when the city was appealing an order by Sand (Bob Balaban) to build 200 units of low-rise public housing on the wealthier, east side of the city.

Wasicsko ran giving Yonkers’ white majority the impression that he shared their opposition to the judge’s housing order. But when he took office, Sand’s fines levied on the city for failure to live up to its commitment to build the low-income housing were cutting into city services.

“Justice is not about popularity,” Sand tells Wasicsko in the show. “No, it isn’t,” the boy mayor says. “But politics is.”

Wasicsko became an advocate for the housing plan, battling his former supporters, a stalwart bloc of the city council, and some of his own inner demons. He is deposed after a single two-year term, then battles to remain relevant in the city’s politics.

The other focus is on the black and Hispanic families who live in the city’s dangerous high-rise public housing projects and are the ones who will be the first selected to move into the new housing. This part of the story includes strong performances by LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Natalie Paul, and Brianna Horne.

Although she looks a bit off at first in her gray-haired wig, Catherine Keener plays Mary Dorman, an outspoken opponent of the housing plan who transforms into an advocate who wants to see the new residents succeed.

The title of the miniseries, from an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, (“Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy”), is a foreshadowing of the personal toll the events surrounding the housing battle took on some of the characters.

Writing in an op-ed in The New York Times in August, author Belkin wrote that she was on the location set of “Show Me a Hero” when a young actor looked at the “row of cream-shingled townhouses on a leafy residential street” and asked her, “Is that what all the trouble was about? Just that?”

Belkin had stood watching the new residents move into the townhouses 20 years ago, most of whom had been chosen in a housing lottery. (In the miniseries, the housing lottery scene is eerily similar to the charter school lottery scene in the documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman.’”)

“I assumed that the NAACP ... would, as planned, ask for similar rulings in other cities,” Belkin wrote. “Since then there has been only a smattering of similar suits around the country, and a sprinkling of new townhouses, but nothing more,” Belkin added. “Supporters of desegregation won the Yonkers battle—but the high cost of victory lost them the war. Few in this country had the will to risk another divisive, ugly municipal bruising anytime soon.”

That may be so, but there was a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this year that gives hope to advocates who hope to use the housing-discrimination laws to achieve greater diversity in residential patterns and schools.

In Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, the high court ruled 5-4 in June that disparate-impact lawsuits are available under the Fair Housing Act.

The briefs in the case included numerous references to the links between housing segregation and inferior schools. And at least one of those briefs cited a key federal appeals court ruling in the Yonkers case for its discussion of the relationship between school segregation and housing segregation.

Advocates may not want another battle like the one in Yonkers, but the fight for fair housing and diversity in schools goes on.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.