Despite the important civil rights legal victories of the 1960s (the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968), residential segregation remains a fact of life in many US cities (Boustan 322; Glaeser and Vigdor). Though this state of affairs plays a large role in structuring and shaping the lives of many Americans, it is an issue that is very rarely at the heart of popular TV series. The 2015 six-part miniseries Show Me a Hero, however, deals head on with the connections between segregated cities, public housing, and a confrontational political culture. Based on Lisa Belkin’s 1999 500-page journalistic tome on the real struggle in Yonkers, New York in the late 1980s and early 1990s, this television show portrays a tumultuous period in a single urban area, which speaks to larger issues in contemporary American politics and culture. This HBO production was co-written by William F. Zorzi and David Simon and revisits themes that were also central to The Wire, on which Simon was the showrunner and Zorzi was a writer. Both shows examine structural realities that limit and adversely influence the lives of the lower class and underprivileged minorities in American cities. Indeed, when Show Me a Hero first aired in August 2015, New York Times journalist Ginia Bellafante noted how it related directly to the situation in the summer of that year:
The series arrives at a particularly relevant moment, not only because of the national conversation about race and criminal-justice reform prompted by the loss of so many black lives at the hands of white law enforcers, but also because questions about the importance of economically integrating neighborhoods have become so central to urban planning in cities around the country, and crucially so in New York. (Bellafante)
David Simon also wants to stress the contemporaneity of his show. According to him, the show “was greenlit before Ferguson, before Baltimore, before Charleston” (Simon, “Show Me a Hero”), and he has further argued that the show both is firmly set in a historical setting and also comments on current developments: “It’s not a period piece. It is a period piece, but it just keeps going on, over and over. It’s going on right now, two towns north of Yonkers in Tarrytown, in the same county with the same rhetoric and same demagoging” (Simon and Zorzi). We can thus see that both a creator of the show and a viewer see this series speaking to the US of 2015.
Consequently, this article examines the way this show speaks to current political debates. This argument consists of three steps. Firstly, it argues, by way of comparing Show Me a Hero with The Wire, that this miniseries adds another dimension to the representation of The City in the works of David Simon. Secondly, it shows how Show Me a Hero represents a historical narrative of African-American uplift vis-à-vis a “long civil rights narrative” that speaks to the structural realities of housing. Thirdly, the paper examines what it means that this story of successful desegregation is told through the alleged heroism of its protagonist, Nick Wasicsko. Regarding the first aspect, it is important to note how American Studies scholar Paul Allen Anderson argues that the Baltimore of The Wire “also stands as a template for many similar urban centers in the United States” (374) and the same is the case with Show Me a Hero. As to the second issue, I must add that though the show also focuses on the Hispanic minority in Yonkers public housing areas I nonetheless argue that the historiography of African-American uplift is a key way of understanding the show’s portrayal of the past.
However, whereas The Wire is based on a vast insight into Baltimorean realities and certainly foregrounds a stylistics of realism (Lavik, “Style in The Wire”; Lavik, The Wire 101-138), the show does not aim to represent an identifiable, concrete, historical reality. On The Wire, David Simon explains, “[a] drug dealer might have attributes of two or three real-life counterparts, and we will steal histories from one trafficker and apply them to another, or mix and match. But it is rooted in the real” (Simon, “Interview”). It is a different case with Show Me a Hero, which is based on concrete events and thus is set in an identifiable past. I will, however, preempt this comparison with The Wire by outlining how that series has been criticized for being ahistorical. I do this in order to establish a context for the argument I want to make, which, in short, is that Show Me a Hero adds a diachronic dimension to the otherwise synchronic societal analysis that The Wire offers. Moreover, while The Wire shows how different things like education are linked with deindustrialization, the loss of jobs, and the war on drugs, Show Me a Hero is more narrow in its scope, but it pays heed to an important issue that The Wire did not focus on: public housing.
Show Me a Hero
Show Me a Hero portrays how, in 1987, then 28-year-old Democratic politician Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac) runs for mayor of Yonkers, NY against the incumbent Republican, Angelo Martinelli (James Belushi). Wasicsko initially has trouble gaining momentum for his mayoral campaign but finds a cause célèbre in calling for resistance to a court order that stipulates that the city of Yonkers must construct 200 units of public housing in predominantly white, middle-class neighborhoods. The issue that the court was trying to remedy was the fact that for 40 years Yonkers had discriminated against African Americans and Hispanics in schools and housing by effectively excluding these groups from certain neighborhoods (Pastore). Against the backdrop of these historical circumstances, Wasicsko ends up winning the election, but after taking office he soon realizes he will not be able to win in court, and he therefore changes his stance from fighting the court-mandated public project to instead fighting for compliance with the court’s order to desegregate Yonkers.
In his fight for the housing projects, Wasicsko faces a divided city council that will not cooperate with him due to his new political stance, and led by councilman Hank Spallone (Alfred Molina), several council members refuse to enact the changes that the court calls for. In an attempt to make the city comply with its decision, however, the court decides that the city must pay daily fines that in a matter of weeks will bankrupt the city. Wasicsko, however, does not just face political pressure from his colleagues; the housing project also faces a massive popular protest. The core struggle of the narrative is the fight over the planning and construction of these new homes. While the city council does finally concede to the plans, several units are vandalized at night during the period of construction. However, after he has successfully made the city comply with the court’s order, Wasicsko loses the following mayoral election, which clearly is a massive blow to him. Unable to get re-elected to political office, Wasicsko is distraught and disillusioned and keeps spiraling down. At the end of the miniseries’ sixth and final episode, the viewer sees Nick at the grave of his father, where he commits suicide. Overall, however, this miniseries presents the events in Yonkers as a story of successful desegregation, of positive change over time, and in that perspective it differs from The Wire, which is synchronic in its societal analysis and which foregrounds a perpetuation of the status quo, unlike Show Me a Hero (Jensen, “Social Reproduction and Political Change”).
The Wire’s Blind Spot
The Wire, David Simon’s most critically acclaimed work, has been criticized for its allegedly ahistorical examination of the social ills it portrays. American Studies scholar George Lipsitz praises the show for its many accomplishments but nonetheless laments the fact that The Wire does not examine how the situation it portrays came about in the first place. Lipsitz points to concrete historical developments that made and kept Baltimore segregated throughout the 20th century and criticizes the fact that “The Wire cannot tell us how white and black spaces in the city became separated” (105). He explains that in the 1930s “Baltimore had the third worst housing stock of any city” in the US, and the local branch of the NAACP tried unsuccessfully to challenge “the legitimacy of restrictive covenants” that kept African Americans confined to living in overcrowded areas with substandard housing. These covenants continued even after the 1948 Shelley v. Kraemer decision found that enforcing such covenants was unconstitutional, and as Lipsitz points out, “White vigilante violence did the rest” (103).  Furthermore, real estate agents played on white home owners’ fear that African Americans would soon move into their neighborhoods, making these homeowners sell their houses at a reduced price. This phenomenon, known as blockbusting, coupled with white flight from several Baltimore neighborhoods, “during the 1950s and 1960s helped set up the conditions that are taken for granted in The Wire” (104).
Lipsitz’ criticism is interesting due to the contextual insights it offers about the historical roots of the situation that The Wire portrays. However, The Wire examines many things, and it would be quixotic to believe that any fiction would be able to offer an analysis of everything in a certain topic. To Lipsitz, The Wire is “guilty by omission,” so to speak, for not including various facets of American and Baltimorean history, which, he believes, may lead certain viewers to “view The Wire as a record of increasing Black criminality that explains the poverty of Black communities” (112). Media scholar Erlend Lavik, however, argues that more context is a lot to ask of The Wire; the series is replete with contextualization and features “the most far-reaching and nuanced urban portrait in the history of television” (Lavik, The Wire 142).
Lipsitz, however, argues that “people trained to view the world from the vantage point of the white spatial imaginary attribute these changes not to the effects of increasingly deadly forms of structural racism, but to the conduct of Black people themselves” (112). Lipsitz’s use of the term “the white spatial imaginary” suggests how much he reads together notions of race with a classical discussion about agency and structural backgrounds for people’s actions. Whereas some would connect this issue to people’s political views, Lipsitz’s reference to “the white spatial imaginary” illustrates just how much he connects issues of race and sociology with beliefs and politics. Show Me a Hero portrays racialized spatial imaginaries through, among other things, music; the fifth episode features rock songs by Bruce Springsteen (“Racing in the Street”) and Jethro Tull (“The Whistler”) in scenes with Wasicsko whereas in scenes set in the Schlobohm housing projects we hear hip-hop songs by Public Enemy (“Welcome to the Terrordome”) and Digable Planets (“Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)”). This difference in music is but one example of how separated the spaces are in Show Me a Hero as these two narratives only rarely meet on screen. The viewer only understands the connection between Wasicsko’s struggle and the struggle of the residents of the Schlobohm neighborhood thanks to skillful use of cross-cutting between scenes, which then becomes a formal trait used to reflect the residential segregation in this city. But though the viewer does not see many scenes where the different storylines actually intersect, cross, or even just meet, the miniseries does suggest causal connections between the separated spaces.
Film scholar Linda Williams paraphrases Lipsitz’s criticism of The Wire when she writes, “The Wire’s choice to concentrate on the institutions of police, unions, city government, schools, and the press in the post 9/11 period over the more fundamental economic story of banks and housing, thus cannot, according to Lipsitz, get at the root of racial inequities” (Williams 174-75). Williams, however, rejects Lipsitz’s criticism, suggesting that if The Wire had chosen the approach that Lipsitz argues it should have taken, then The Wire “would have become a period piece, deprived of its contemporaneity” (175). But where Williams is interested in Lipsitz’s topical focus (banks and housing), I believe that it is also the temporal interest that qualifies his critique.
For if one sees The Wire and Show Me a Hero as different sides of the same coin, one sees how they examine different facets of the same problems. The former presents a synchronic analysis that links together different social phenomena whereas the latter offers a diachronic one which is narrower in its focus on housing. In this perspective, Show Me a Hero offers some of the historical background that The Wire did not include. Indeed, Lipsitz’s criticism zeroes in on segregation and housing, and these are the exact issues that Show Me a Hero addresses. Though the two shows differ in their foci, they nevertheless share an interest in examining the adverse effects of racial impoverishment caused by, among other things, racially segregated urban spaces. Read together, then, these two television series complement each other, and though they were produced and released at different points in time, their social analyses create a more cogent argument, and one may look at Show Me a Hero for a portrayal of the historical background that came before the destitute reality of The Wire’s version of Western Baltimore.  In this way, Show Me a Hero adds another layer to David Simon’s ongoing discussion about the state and future of the American city.
Located just six miles north of the Bronx, Yonkers, the fourth-largest city in New York state, has consistently been home to roughly 200,000 citizens since the 1960s and was for a long time a predominantly white and segregated city. In the late 1980s, 23 out of 34 Yonkers public schools were either 80 percent white or 80 percent minority, and in 1988, nearly 98 percent of the city’s public housing stock was located in the southwestern part of the city. That area, however, housed 81 percent of the minority population, meaning that there was a large correspondence between where the public housing homes were located and where minority citizens lived (Belkin, Show Me a Hero 12). The lawsuit filed against the city that challenged this state of affairs, however, was filed as early as 1980 by the United States and the NAACP. The case argued “that the city and the Board [of Education] had practiced racial segregation in both schools and housing through acts, omissions, and policies implemented over five decades” (Moore 597). Since 1948 the city had “consistently failed to approve plans for subsidized low income housing units” except in the southwestern part of the city, and moreover, the city had created zoning regulations that prevented public housing to be built in areas where residents had protested such plans “and the integration it would bring” (597-8).
Since the immediate post-war era, however, all site proposals for low-income housing projects in the white areas of Yonkers were met with opposition, and every time the proposed site was withdrawn or rejected (Moore 599). The plaintiffs further argued that the Yonkers Board of Education had contributed to segregation in schools by generally adhering to “a neighborhood-school policy,” which meant that children would attend the schools that were closest to their homes. When housing was segregated, that entailed that schools also would remain segregated. The court ended up emphasizing
that its finding of the City’s segregative intent rested not on a failure to act, but on “a thirty-year practice of consistently rejecting the integrative alternative in favor of the segregative—a practice that had the unsurprising effect of perfectly preserving, and significantly exacerbating, existing patterns of racial segregation in Yonkers.” (qtd in Moore 598)
The court ruled that this practice violated the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution (599). The presiding judge, Judge Leonard Sand, found that there was
no basis for doubt that City officials were aware that the course they were pursuing was one of segregation… It is, to say the least, highly unlikely that a pattern of subsidized housing which so perfectly preserved the overwhelmingly white character of East Yonkers came about for reasons unrelated to race. (qtd in Belkin, Show Me a Hero 13)
In other words, the court found that this situation of residential segregation was intentional. The vast majority of the minority population lived in public housing, and the city had made sure that public housing had been built almost exclusively in a single section of the city. The case made it to the national media, and the CBS news magazine 48 Hours presented it, in the words of Dan Rather, as a “landmark battle over race, money, and maybe the future of America’s neighborhoods” (“Not on My Street”).
Civil Rights Narratives
In the first episode of Show Me a Hero, NAACP lawyer Michael Sussman (Jon Bernthal) argues that the Yonkers case is “a big win for the movement.” The president of the NAACP, Benjamin Hooks (Clayton LeBouef), however, seems nearly despondent as he reflects on “watching how this has played out over the last seven years, how much we are going through for a few hundred units of scattered housing.” The city’s resistance seems nearly to have worn him down:
Michael Sussman: “The executive director of the NAACP is arguing against integration. Who’d have thought it?”
Benjamin Hooks: “I’m not arguing against anything, Mike. I’m just tired.” (episode 1)
Such dialogue suggests how the show’s narrative spectrum is just one chapter of a much longer battle in the courts. It also subtly points to how the civil rights movement kept on fighting against injustices after its heyday. Historian Thomas Sugrue argues, “Conventional histories of the civil rights movement begin with 1954 and the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, and they culminate in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which together unraveled southern-style racial segregation” (xiii). According to American Studies scholar Carl Pedersen, this dominant narrative is used, often by Republicans, to argue that the civil rights movement achieved its goals in the 1960s and that racial issues consequently now can be dealt with in a non-structural way (317). Therefore, there is also a political element to this historiographical debate. Historian Stephen Tuck, however, has argued that the movement is best understood as a struggle that is much longer than the traditionalist focus on its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. Contrary to that narrative, Tuck proposes to expand it to go “from Emancipation to Obama,” as the subtitle of his book reads. This narrative, then, is diachronically much more inclusive, and in Tuck’s words, “the struggle of black Americans for meaningful freedom was not confined to the world-famous southern Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s” (1). In this perspective, Show Me a Hero’s portrayal of a segregation case from the 1980s and 1990s reads like an argument for the ‘long civil rights movement’ narrative. In an important historiographic article on this discussion, historian Jacqueline Dowd Hall argues that the “classical narrative” also eschews many central aspects of the civil rights struggle. It is not only a matter of periodization:
Centering on what Bayard Rustin in 1965 called the “classical” phase of the struggle, the dominant narrative chronicles a short civil rights movement that begins with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, proceeds through public protests, and culminates with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Then comes the decline. After a season of moral clarity, the country is beset by the Vietnam War, urban riots, and reaction against the excesses of the late 1960s and the 1970s, understood variously as student rebellion, black militancy, feminism, busing, affirmative action, or an overweening welfare state. (1234)
By focusing on the Yonkers case of the late 1980s and early nineties, Show Me a Hero then also broadens the narrative of the struggle for racial equality insofar as it zeroes in on one of the core issues that the civil rights movement never really succeeded in addressing, namely that of housing. Economist Glenn C. Loury argues, “The civil rights struggle, which succeeded brilliantly in winning for blacks the right to be free of discrimination, failed for the most part to secure a national commitment toward eradicating the effects of discrimination which had already occurred” (121). While there is some truth to the narrative Loury presents here, his phrase that blacks won “the right to be free of discrimination” could be read as suggesting that the discriminatory practices in trying to rent an apartment, for instance, disappeared. Loury correctly writes that the legality of formal discrimination was abolished with the landmark civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965, as well as the Fair Housing Act of 1968 but his narrative could be read as arguing that discrimination had ended and “all” that was left after these victories were the structural and institutional consequences of discrimination which then had to be overcome. Show Me a Hero, however, shows how discrimination persisted after the 1960s with regards to housing and thus questions the triumphalist narratives about a civil rights movement that “succeeded brilliantly” in overcoming discrimination. It is problematic to suggest that the civil rights bills of the 1960s mark a shift from de jure to de facto segregation. To say that this is an example of rupture rather than continuity belies this history, and the very point of the Yonkers story in Show Me a Hero is that discrimination persisted. The battle over the Yonkers housing units in the late 1980s showed how minorities still had not secured their rights.
In that way, Show Me a Hero both looks to (1) prolong the cultural narrative of the civil rights struggle and (2) examine the roots of urban residential segregation. It shifts the temporal focus from the 1950s and 1960s—known from, say, Mississippi Burning (1988), The Rosa Parks Story (2002), and Selma (2014)—but it also focuses on housing. It thus counters Lipsitz’s criticism with regards to topic (residential segregation) and diachronic approach; the show does, in a way that The Wire did not, examine “how things got that way.”
In 2009, a report from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development argued that while “housing discrimination is decreasing” “African Americans are still victims of discrimination in 20.3 percent of the instances in which they attempt to rent an apartment, and 16.8 percent of the time when purchasing a home” (Trifun). In this sense, the series not only extends the duration of the civil rights movement, it also looks to a different theme, housing, than the one provided by Hall’s “dominant narrative.” It is against this discourse that this miniseries tries to offer a voice of opposition in its broadening of the narrative about the struggle for civil rights and racial integration. Hall continues:
By confining the civil rights struggle to the South, to bowdlerized heroes, to a single halcyon decade, and to limited, noneconomic objectives, the master narrative simultaneously elevates and diminishes the movement. It ensures the status of the classical phase as a triumphal moment in a larger American progress narrative, yet it undermines its gravitas. (1234)
The civil rights movement has traditionally sought to address both formal and substantive inequalities; or, to put it differently, the movement has had legalist (noneconomic) and economic objectives. This dual ambition, as Hall argues, is perhaps sometimes overlooked when the struggle is memorialized as a fight for formal equality. Show Me a Hero presents the Yonkers case as a long civil rights narrative, and if one accepts the distinction between an activist form of struggle (say, sit-ins and demonstrations) and the struggle’s legalist approach (i.e., taking specific principal cases to the courts), the show is mainly a legalist narrative. Show Me a Hero chronicles a legalist attempt to address substantive inequality and thus effectively broadens the civil rights narrative by supplementing it. There are no, in Hall’s words, bowdlerized heroes, and the show looks beyond the traditionalistic legislative narrative which, to a large extent, is a story focused on formal equality. Instead the show looks to the ensuring of a measure of substantive equality through the actualities of housing. Hall’s argument that the classical narrative “simultaneously elevates and diminishes the movement” is thus challenged by Show Me a Hero in the way that it rejects the 1960s as a fully “triumphal moment,” and the series also rejects a civil rights narrative focused only on non-economic objectives. However, the story’s focus on Wasicsko as a tragic figure also downplays the story of how it was the efforts of, for example, the NAACP in the courts that led to the media case which spurred a somewhat wide coverage of the Yonkers story in the late 1980s.
Interestingly, the focus on housing explores how formal inequality intersects with substantive inequality. Lipsitz notes, “Researchers have long established how racial discrimination in housing impacts health as well as wealth” (7), which reflects how this rights violation affects substantive inequality. In United States v. Yonkers Board of Education, the court ruled that the minority citizens of Yonkers had had their 14th Amendment rights violated, which had adversely affected education and living standards. Lisa Belkin further explains how the case, filed by the United States and the NAACP, “charged that race determined location and quality of education in Yonkers” (11). Economic historian Leah Platt Boustan similarly notes that many “studies have found that blacks who live in segregated metropolitan areas have lower educational attainment and lower earnings than their counterparts in more integrated areas” (319). Show Me a Hero’s main narrative line thus uses Wasicsko to dramatize such structural circumstances that otherwise might be difficult to dramatize. It is Wasicsko’s rise and fall that makes it possible for the creators to tell the story of housing, which, according to Lipsitz, is the more fundamental story that The Wire omitted. David Simon said on Charlie Rose’s talk show that Wasicsko’s story “is what drives the piece. I think if we don’t get him right and if we don’t get his arc correct then we have an amorphous explanation of public housing policy over six hours. […] This piece doesn’t work without it being Nick Wasicsko’s story” (Simon and Isaac), and I believe the fact that Show Me a Hero actually is able to have the issue of housing as its core issue is no small feat. That is not to say that the miniseries is above critique. Jake Blumgart, for instance, argues that the show overdoes the legacy of Oscar Newman’s defensible space theory (Blumgart), but the show’s main accomplishment is creating a dramatic narrative about a structural reality that arguably is difficult to dramatize.
The opening montage of Show Me a Hero crosscuts between two important social environments in order to establish the divided city that the series portrays. The viewer sees clips from suburban streets with white people sitting on porches and young white people sitting on a park bench. From here the image crosscuts to scenes from the housing projects that are comparably dimmer; fewer characters—Hispanics and African Americans—are in sunlight, and the mise-en-scène is decidedly bleaker. Linda Williams, in a comment on The Wire, argues that “the rapid cross-cuts across institutions are Simon’s televisual form of editorial critique” (72). Williams’ point has to do with The Wire’s comparison of how the school system and the police force are governed by similar institutional logics, but in Show Me a Hero the use of cross cuts serves to invite the viewer to compare the living conditions of these groups of people. But the montage also shows Wasicsko looking in the windows of what the viewer later learns is his dream house. In this way, the montage also manages to suggest how the dream of a nice home is rooted in the wish of individuals. In the penultimate episode, a resident of the Schlobohm housing projects, a Dominican woman called Carmen Febles (Ilfenesh Hadera), gets a new set of pots, which she will not unpack until she has moved to a better home with her children. In the last episode, this wish is fulfilled when we see her unpacking that set of pots she has kept in the original box (episode 6).
Show Me a Hero divides its screen time between Febles and other residents of the Schlobohm area and Wasicsko’s story line, and taken together, the resulting miniseries represents a civil rights narrative. Show Me a Hero focuses both on the battles that take place in the courts and on the massive popular resistance brought on by the court ruling. Unlike the narratives of what Hall labels the classical era, however, it is mainly a narrative told from a top-down perspective. According to Lisa Belkin, the NAACP’s strategy was to “work the courts, not the streets,” i.e., they did not look to mobilize the citizens that were to benefit from the victories they hoped to achieve: “It would not help the cause, they believed, to have angry black people confronting angry white people on the news every night” (136). This explains why so much of the drama in the series focuses on the work by public officials and civil servants.
I want to return now to Lipsitz’s criticism of The Wire’s allegedly ahistorical scope, because by comparing The Wire and Show Me a Hero one can see the latter as an analysis of the historical background that led up to the situation The Wire portrays. One of The Wire’s qualities is its ability to tell how different facets of contemporary American society are linked to one another. Urban historian Marc Levine has even suggested that The Wire is the “best portrayal we have of conditions in American ghettos, even including textbooks or social science studies” (1). In that sense, the scope of The Wire is ambitious in terms of just how comprehensive it is in analyzing the interplay between phenomena such as deindustrialization, the war on drugs, the changing role of the media, and a political culture that hinders political attempts to address these issues. Show Me a Hero, on the other hand, is much narrower in scope in that it looks closely at the interrelated causes and detrimental effects of residential segregation in the contemporary American city. But it offers a look into the causes of segregated cities, whereas The Wire looks at the consequences of said segregation. In this sense, Show Me a Hero offers its viewers a diachronic and complementary angle on some of the issues The Wire dealt with in a synchronic way. One of the grimmer parts of The Wire’s plot is when two gang members, Chris Partlow (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and Snoop (Felicia Pearson), kill several people without leaving any bodies in the street, a fact that causes some confusion for the police investigators. They use the many vacant houses to hide the bodies, and in this way, the issue of housing is hinted at in The Wire but never really takes center stage as the loss of blue collar jobs does in the second season of that series. Show Me a Hero, with its focus on bricks and mortar and on how to create positive social change in urban neighborhoods, thus tackles the issue of housing head on, and by doing this in a diachronic manner, Simon, Haggis, and Zorzi are able to tell a story about how the current state of the American metropolis came about. This way of looking at Simon’s two series in relation to each other thus seems productive in uncovering how they together represent a complex intervention in public conversations in the US.
Due to Wasicsko’s suicide, Show Me a Hero ends on a tragic note but remains a story of positive social change. This represents a contrast to The Wire, which certainly does feature individual victories (especially Bubbles [Andre Royo]) but which does not contain a victory at any structural level; it is a narrative of social reproduction (Jensen, “Social Reproduction and Political Change”). The show ends on a positive note for a few of The Wire’s characters, but the overall structural story is not hopeful. But where that show is bleak on a structural level and, in some cases, hopeful on an individual level, it is the opposite case with Show Me a Hero. This miniseries is tragic due to Wasicsko’s suicide but also uplifting; for example, the closing onscreen texts at the end of its last episode tell us that Carmen Febles, the Dominican woman whose narrative arc is a part of all six episodes, “moved into a townhouse in 1994. Now a grandmother of four, she still lives in Yonkers.” The last intertitle reads: “Free of controversy, the 200 townhouses remain in use as public housing in East Yonkers,” after which we see a brief shot of Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener) and Doreen Henderson (Natalie Paul) sitting beside each other on a townhouse porch talking amicably. Dorman had long been a staunch and vocal opponent of the new housing units. Henderson, on the other hand, had chosen to move from the suburban area of her childhood to the Schlobohm public housing units but ended up becoming addicted to crack cocaine before getting clean and eventually becoming a tenant representative there. Mary Dorman’s represents a key personal narrative in Show Me a Hero as she is a critic who comes around to accepting desegregation.  The real Dorman had also been very vocal in the case in the 1980s and is an important part of Belkin’s book, and she was also interviewed for the program CBS’s 48 Hours did on the Yonkers case. The shot of Dorman and Henderson, however, is the series’ end shot, and this gives Show Me a Hero a positive ending on a structural level, despite Wasicsko’s sad ending and the melancholy music. This contrasts with the gridlocked present of The Wire, the narrative of which stresses continuity over change.
Now, it may seem paradoxical to suggest that The Wire is synchronic in comparison to the diachronic angle of Show Me a Hero insofar as The Wire’s screen time is approximately 60 hours and Show Me a Hero clocks in at a mere six hours. But when one counts the final intertitles in Show Me a Hero, this miniseries spans 20 years of historical time. It is also important that Show Me a Hero portrays a situation that changes. The overall institutional and societal structures represented in The Wire do not change. That show stresses the continuity and the social reproduction that continually recreates the systemic, untoward conditions that it portrays. Some characters in The Wire, like Bubbles and McNulty (Dominic West), do end up changing, and these evolutions of character are so much more believable due to the long time stretch that they take, which is a core feature (and a central appeal) of the long running television serial (Newman 23). The social structures, however, are reproduced. The systemic logic that The Wire forwards is one that transcends individuals. But where The Wire stresses continuity, Show Me a Hero is marked by rupture, by change. It is more uplifting at a systemic level, even though at the character level its “hero,” Wasicsko, meets a tragic ending. Indeed, the title of the show begs the viewer to consider what to make of Wasicsko’s alleged heroism.
Wasicsko as Hero?
Though it is a narrative of successful societal change, the show is subtly a self-labelled tragedy. Like Lisa Belkin’s book on which the show is based, the title of the miniseries, Show Me a Hero, is but the first half of an old F. Scott Fitzgerald quote which continues “and I’ll write you a tragedy” (episode 4). Seeing how Wasicsko ends his life, he is certainly presented as a tragic character as he cannot cope with being unable to be re-elected as mayor or acknowledged for his achievements in making the city of Yonkers comply with the court’s decision. This is the show’s subtle way of asking the viewer to consider the heroism of Wasicsko. He effects change, but is that enough to call him a hero?
In 1993, Wasicsko’s assistant, James Surdoval, emphasized that Wasicsko was not “pro-desegregation” but rather “pro-compliance” (Berger). Regardless of whether Surdoval’s description is historically correct, his distinction illustrates the issue that is at stake when one considers whether Wasicsko is to be considered a hero. If he is seen as a pro-compliance hero, it is because he champions the rule of law, and if he is a hero of desegregation, it is because he champions principles of anti-racism, fair housing, and desegregation. As one does not rule out the other, he could, of course, be both, but the show’s title certainly opens up the discussion of whether Wasicsko is a hero, and if so, wherein his heroism lies. There is nothing clear-cut about the alleged heroism of Wasicsko, and to David Simon, “[n]one were perfect or saintly” in the Yonkers case of the late 1980s (Simon, Foreword x).
The show thus raises the question of what constitutes a hero and whether it is the efforts that go into the fight or the motivation for doing so. Wasicsko fights adamantly for the housing units against staunch opposition within city hall and a very vocal grassroots campaign outside city hall. His struggle to reach a conclusion for the units is considerable, and from a materialist position, his intentions are not relevant: he effects change, and therefore he is a hero. Whether that change, however, is a positive one is a matter of political perspective, but as the show portrays it, Wasicsko is surely on the right side of the issue. An idealist perspective, however, would consider his intentions to be central.
In his foreword to the 2015 edition of Belkin’s book, David Simon stresses the importance of collaborating and taking a pragmatist stance in politics and public governance, arguing, “Ideologues are useless in the middle, where people actually live” (x). Wasicsko is in the middle, trying to reach a compromise that the city council can accept, and here, Simon’s statement is a paratextual way of endorsing Wasicsko’s stance and his actions. Wasicsko’s entire fight has to do with trying to adhere to Judge Sand’s decision. He is certainly not presented as an ideologue through and through, which is also witnessed by how he is first introduced in the series. About six minutes into the first episode Wasicsko (a council member at that point) is at a public city council meeting flirting with a young, attractive woman, telling her, “If your mother needs a handicap space just let me know,” while mayor Martinelli (Jim Belushi) is trying to call a city hall meeting to order (episode 1). Such an introduction certainly does not paint the picture of a zealot.
At one point, however, Wasicsko is shown to have changed his mind, which, to some extent, suggests that we should see him from the idealist perspective. Wasicsko is sitting at home with his wife Nay (Carla Quevedo), watching anti-desegregation activist Jack O’Toole (Stephen Gevedon) being interviewed on TV. Wasicsko comments on O’Toole’s use of language:
You will never hear Jack O’Toole utter a racist phrase. ‘Cause guys like that learn how not to say the bad words. No more “coon,” no more “nigger,” nothing out of his mouth that’ll give it away, you know. It’s all property value and life and liberty, people only living where they can afford and all that talk. But underneath it all, it’s fear. The same as it ever was. I played into that fear too. When I got in for mayor. I did. It chewed me up. Man, what I would do with a second chance at that brass ring. (episode 4)
Wasicsko here acknowledges that he played into racist fears and how that “chewed him up.” His last line, however, reveals that this insight becomes secondary to his personal ambitions: “Man, what I would do with a second chance at that brass ring.” When Wasicsko had been out campaigning on the street, a constituent had come up to him and said, “You go to the Supreme Court. That Jew judge ain’t gonna build that garbage no house. Not where I live! Tell that judge to go shove it.” Wasicsko tries to argue with the agitated man but is cut off, and judging from his facial expressions, he is clearly startled by the man’s racist outburst. Wasicsko afterwards says to his assistant, “Kinda brings out the ugly in people” (episode 1). So already at that point in time Wasicsko is aware of the fact that he is playing to racist sentiments, but it is only much later that he admits that to himself. When he finally does admit that, however, his final thought has to do with his ambitions about being mayor again, not about admitting and regretting how he initially “played into that fear.” He acknowledges his moral misstep but is more focused on regaining “that brass ring,” and Wasicsko’s realization thus falls short of full anagnorisis; he acknowledges his past misdeeds, but the conclusion he draws from this insight does not have to do with remedying his past wrongs—he is still fixated on “that brass ring.” His efforts to make the city adhere to Sand’s ruling makes the issue of housing a core focus for the series, and that in itself is a political statement. Conversely, the depiction of adamant anti-desegregation protestors speaks to community responsibility and communal ownership about this issue.
As such, there are two narrative lines at play in Show Me a Hero: the narrative of Wasicsko, where the viewer sees him at his best but which ends in his tragic death, and the narrative of the positive social change brought about by Wasicsko, Judge Sand, the NAACP, and many others. In effect, then, the paratext of the title labels Wasicsko a hero and its narrative a tragedy. Wasicsko helps ensure that the units are built, and because the housing units still exist, the consequences of his actions stand though he meets his demise. So, by taking on a massive popular protest, he comes out having effected some change in his community.
The line of positive social change crosses the downward trajectory of Wasicsko’s character arc, and one could argue that it is Wasicsko’s line that makes the series work as a dramatization of housing issues. This story would have been difficult to dramatize without him, and in that sense Wasicsko’s rise and fall is the thing that makes it possible for Zorzi and Simon to tell this story of housing and separated social spaces which supplements the social diagnosis they had worked to forward on The Wire. Wasicsko’s storyline, however, only rarely intersects with those of the tenants of the Schlobohm housing projects, as when the city official Robert Mayhawk (Clarke Peters) discusses a flyer with Yonkers Housing Authority director Peter Smith (Terry Kinney) and the subsequent scene shows Carmen Febles, Doreen Henderson, and Norma O’Neal (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) receiving that flyer (episode 5).
The narrative lines of The Wire are more entwined. Here, the junkie character Bubbles’ storyline offers a way in to portraying the lives of the lowest of the low in Baltimore. Through him we get an extended tour through the social milieu of drug addicts, but his narrative arc also connects him with other universes of the story, as when he helps out detectives McNulty and Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) with their police investigation. These narrative lines intersect. The cross-cutting montage at the beginning of Show Me a Hero thus helps the viewer understand these narratives as intertwined even though the narrative only rarely lets the different storylines meet on screen. The show portrays two dramas that are politically and thematically linked although they may not be very narrationally linked, i.e., the drama related to desegregating Yonkers and the drama inherent in the plight of the impoverished residents living in the Schlobohm housing projects. Indeed, the story of Doreen Henderson moving to Schlobohm, becoming addicted to drugs, getting clean, and finally becoming a tenant representative does offer an important counterpoint to the focus on Wasicsko. Her story adds insight into the tenants living in the Schlobohm area and offers a positive counter-narrative to Wasicsko’s tragedy, and it thus adds another positive dimension to the story. Her story is also important as it gives agency to the residents of public housing, so that it is not only white politicians who are shown to be agents of change; in telling this story, the series tries to steer clear of presenting a so-called white savior narrative that, in a narrative form, robs minority citizens of agency in matters of social change. But it is important for the show to present integration in a positive light. To be pessimistic would go against the show’s suggestion that desegregation is possible. So, where The Wire’s narrative line is “pessimistic” in the sense that it portrays a situation of social reproduction of an untoward state of affairs, Show Me a Hero is structured in a more positive way. We can understand the “pessimistic” or “bleak” outlook of The Wire as that show’s explanation of how the war on drugs is allowed to continue as a permanent state of affairs across decades (Jensen, “From the Mind of David Simon” 34). The Wire shows how the situation it depicts can only be addressed by looking simultaneously at schools, the loss of jobs, political culture, and the war on drugs. Consequently, it shows much needs to change before a more just society can be created (Jensen, “Social Reproduction and Political Change” 133). So, while there is an argumentative purpose in The Wire’s “bleakness,” there is also a point in the positive outlook of Show Me a Hero; it needs to present desegregation as a positive story. Had it not done so would be to argue against the viability of the politics it embraces. In Simon’s foreword to the 2015 reissue of Lisa Belkin’s book, he argues for the continued relevance of discussing housing:
Those houses are still there. People live in them, quietly, with others who live around the houses, just as quietly. But we are unwilling to take the lesson. In a clear and definitive arc that stretches from Yonkers to the present moment, we have learned so very little about balance, about the middle ground, about the compromise and tolerance that a viable democracy makes inevitable. … Incredibly, the battle for Yonkers in 1987 is still the same argument, ongoing, today. (Simon, Foreword xiii-xiv)
Simon thus tries to offer a paratextual way of guiding the viewer’s understanding of the series. For one could, contrary to what Simon is trying to say in the above quotation, see Show Me a Hero’s story of successful desegregation in Yonkers as an argument for the idea that the issues and problems the miniseries addresses have already been resolved. In that reading, the viewer can be put at ease and not be troubled by its subject matter. But considering how much Simon has made a point of emphasizing that Show Me a Hero is “not a period piece,” he surely wants to preempt that reading. Simon, Zorzi, and Haggis thus need to perform a balancing act and to suggest that desegregation can be done successfully while not suggesting that America’s cities have already attended to that issue. That explains why Simon’s societal critique here is in a different key than the series itself. The real court case, as the intertitles tell us, did not end until 2007, when the last 800 houses were constructed. Considering that the suit had originally been filed in 1980, during the last year of the Carter administration, the city effectively stalled the completion of the house-building process for more than a quarter of a century. These are the waters that Simon needs to navigate in the series and its paratexts: to be positive about the continued racial and social integration of America’s cities without suggesting that the viewer should be complacent about that issue.
Housing is a rarely-examined theme in contemporary television, and the very fact that Show Me a Hero even addresses the issue of housing is an important part of its politics. Simon says in an interview, “I think there are arguments that we need to have in this country and they need to be brought forward and they need to progress as arguments” (Simon & Isaac), and in that sense, simply trying to forward a discussion on housing and how it connects to segregated cities is a political act in itself. A focus on housing opens the door to discussing structural backgrounds and substantive inequalities that are hard to address in narrative form, so due to the story of Nick Wasicsko, this series contributes to connecting the issue of housing and desegregation with the other social commentary found in Simon’s representations of urban America in series like The Corner (2000), The Wire, Treme (2010-2013), and The Deuce (2017-).
When Lipsitz criticized The Wire for not telling the story of public housing, he did not ponder how that could be done, and indeed, it just might be that the issue of housing as a social issue is difficult to dramatize. Show Me a Hero, however, is able to tell this story by following the dramatic arc of Wasicsko’s life; through him it becomes possible to make a story about the debate surrounding public housing and desegregation. But it is also a narrative of separated spaces and not just the story of a single man. On a national scale, the “degree of black-white residential segregation fell by 32 percent from 1960 to 2000” (Boustan 320), and Show Me a Hero, in its positive representation of this transition, dramatizes this story, but it does so by looking at how tumultuous that transition could and can be. But though it is set in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it arguably does not lack contemporaneity; it is not a period drama. As Ginia Bellafante notes, the show came at a point in time when racial issues had started grabbing national headlines in a way it had not done in a long time. As Lavik notes, it is hard to fault a show like The Wire on lack of context, though Lipsitz does make an interesting point. It just seems rather quixotic to believe that a single show, even The Wire, could possibly be able to include all relevant angles on an issue. However, looking at Simon’s productions in relation to each other, Show Me a Hero addresses a key issue of contemporary American urban issues and as such complements The Wire in an interesting way: Simon’s collected production expands its portrayal of the condition of The City to include a diachronic, historical angle and also consider the issue of housing.
Show Me a Hero’s prolongation of the traditionalist civil rights narrative, however, serves two purposes. Firstly, it tries to wrest that struggle loose from being locked in time in the 1950s and 1960s by showing how the issue of residential segregation was never successfully resolved. Since Jacqueline Dowd Hall’s 2005 essay, the long civil rights narrative has more and more become a framework within current scholarship for understanding the civil rights movement. But one could argue that popular culture narratives on the civil rights movement still focus on the classical 1954-1968 era, and in that sense, Show Me a Hero, a rare exception to that general rule, tries to bring the long civil rights narrative to the small screen. Its focus on housing argues that formal equality is closely linked together with substantive equality. That issue, and its historical background, is a societally important issue that The Wire, in its synchronic angle, does not address, and Show Me a Hero thus serves to add an important diachronic-historical dimension to the portrayal of The City in Simon’s productions. Apart from his work on Generation Kill, David Simon’s work has consistently examined The City, and by seeing these fictions and fictionalizations in relation to each other, one is able to see the more complex story that his oeuvre tells about urban issues today.
 Jørn Brøndal characterizes the Jim Crow system as having been constituted by three different aspects: segregation, the barring of African Americans from partaking in political life, and thirdly, violence and terror (Brøndal 118-27).
 However, if one were inclined to see Show Me a Hero as an answer to criticism like Lipsitz’s, that idea is undercut by the fact that William Zorzi and Simon had been working on the project since around 2002 (Simon, “Show Me a Hero”).
 When Belkin asked Dorman to fact-check Belkin’s book, Dorman at first did not recognize herself in the way that Belkin presented her and therefore sent Belkin a two-page letter “telling me [Belkin] 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’” (Belkin, “‘Show Me a Hero’ Is ‘More Resonant Today’”).
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Image credit: Cropped “Schlobohm Gardens Complex.Yonkers.NY” from tingo44, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.