Several months before his sociopolitical crime drama The Wire premiered on HBO in 2002, creator David Simon sent his co-writer Bill Zorzi up to Yonkers, New York to do some interviews. Simon was intent on turning a housing desegregation battle that roiled Yonkers in the late 1980s into a miniseries. The story had many elements the former Baltimore Sun reporter-turned-TV-producer found appealing: a fierce standoff between the judicial system and the community, a flawed hero in the 200,000-person city's young mayor, painful discussions of class and race, and abundant political chicanery. But his schedule filled up with The Wire, and then Treme, so Simon had to put his exploration of the city's contentious real estate clashes on ice for more than a decade. If all goes as planned, the six-part miniseries Show Me a Hero, after Lisa Belkin's book of the same name, will finish filming in Yonkers this week, and will air on HBO later in the year.
The inciting incident came in 1985, when a federal court determined that the city of Yonkers and Yonkers Public Schools had deliberately engaged in race-based segregation of housing and schools for some 40 years, and ordered that 200 units of subsidized housing be built in a middle-class, primarily white part of the city. Previously, Yonkers' high-rise housing projects—which contained a huge percentage of the city's black and Hispanic residents— had all been concentrated in a small southwestern quadrant in the opposite part of town. The NAACP and the federal government had filed suit against the city in 1980, as they believed that using federal funds to exclusively build public housing in already-poor neighborhoods perpetuated poverty.
Residents of the eastern side of Yonkers erupted with what the New York Times calls a "near-riotous resistance to desegregation," and dug their heels in for a long fight. Even City Council members were "unusually willing to bankrupt the city in the effort to prevent the court order from taking effect." For two years, the city refused to abide by the court's decree. The resulting fines, which began at $1 but doubled daily, piled up. As Yonkers headed toward municipal bankruptcy, the story garnered national coverage, turning the town into an off-putting symbol of white hostility to desegregation.
In 1987, a junior congressman named Nicholas Wasicsko was elected mayor of Yonkers. He defeated the incumbent by running a campaign promising to appeal the court's decision to build public housing on the east side of town, and at 28, became the nation's youngest mayor. But days after his inauguration, Yonkers lost its appeal, and the next year the city was declared in contempt of the courts.
Voters expected Wasicsko to continue his stated opposition, but instead he switched course, and decided to finally comply with the court's housing desegregation order. At that point, the fines totaled around one million dollars per day, and had effectively shut down the city's operations. In order to avert bankruptcy, Wasicsko had to face off against an entrenched City Council. His actions likely saved Yonkers from financial ruin, but they ruined his political career. He was voted out in 1989, and committed suicide four years later, one month after he lost the Democratic primary for City Council president.
"His was an emphatically human story of courage," Amos Barshad writes in Grantland. "Wasicsko wasn't motivated by an amorphous spirit of justice and goodwill to all men. He was effectively forced into doing the right thing. But he did, ultimately, do the right thing. As the title of Simon's show suggests, in real life, this is what a hero looks like."
The miniseries is directed by Paul Haggis, who won the best picture Oscar in 2006 for his film Crash, which explored racial tensions in Los Angeles. Mayor Wasicsko is played by Oscar Isaac, the handsome star of the upcoming Star Wars Episode VII movie. The defeated incumbent mayor is played by Jim Belushi, and Winona Ryder and Catherine Keener are also on board, along with the Argentine actress Carla Quevedo.
Although it's rife with '80s power suits and dated-looking wood-paneled offices, this is hardly a contained period drama. Reverberations from the 1985 court decision and its contentious aftermath echoed into the last decade, when the final vestiges of the city's contentious housing segregation policy were finally settled in 2007. The "scatter-site housing" style that was mandated in Yonkers, where public buildings are dotted around wealthier areas, later became the national template for public housing.
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