Lost in Yonkers
David Simon's New Political Thriller For HBO
Cities are characters in their own right in David Simon’s work, from drug-ridden Baltimore to post-Katrina New Orleans. Now, segregated Yonkers of the late 1980’s is about to get its star turn.
David Simon has an admitted obsession with the history and destiny of the American city. For the Baltimore Sun crime reporter turned revolutionary show runner, place is more than just the physical setting for his stories.
Baltimore in the early aughts was as much a character as Detective McNulty in “The Wire,” or the corner boys of The Corner. With “Treme,” post-Katrina New Orleans was not just backdrop, but inciting incident and co-star in every scene.
In his next project, “Show Me a Hero”—a six-part miniseries for HBO—Simon focuses his lens on Yonkers, New York, in the late 1980s, yet another divided city at a time of deep societal, economical, and political unrest. Starring Oscar Isaac, Catherine Keener, Alfred Molina, Winona Ryder, Clarke Peters, and James Belushi, the project is based on Lisa Belkin’s riveting nonfiction novel of the same name.
At the time, as relayed in Belkin’s able telling, a number of American cities were dealing with the legal fallout from long histories of racial segregation. In Yonkers, the Justice Department and the NAACP successfully made the case that the city’s schools were unequal because housing was unequal. In a city of 21 square miles, made up of 190,0000 people, practically every minority resident lived within one square mile in some 7,000 public-housing units west of the Saw Mill River Parkway, while white residents lived on the east side.
That extreme concentration of project housing was “the result of a pattern and practice of racial discrimination by city officials, pursued in response to constituent pressures to select or support only sites that would preserve existing patterns of racial segregation, and to reject or oppose sites that would threaten existing patterns of segregation,” wrote the soft-spoken but resolute Federal Judge Leonard B. Sand in a 670-page decision in 1995.
In other words, that disparity didn’t happen by chance. It was a result of politicians—and thus, the Jimmy Carter-appointed, Harvard-educated jurist determined, these city officials would have to fix it, namely by redrawing the map that divided the east side’s white neighborhoods by ethnicity and class to include 200 low-income housing units and 800 for moderate income residents.
When a city loses a lawsuit, it most often goes on to comply with the ruling. Not so for Yonkers. Even after Sand’s ruling, these same officials dragged their feet and ignored planning and construction deadlines. Supported by cries of “Not in My Backyard” from district residents—including many second-generation immigrants fearful that the new minority residents would devalue the homes and quality of the lives that they had worked decades for—the city council flatly refused to comply.
At 28 years old, Nick Wasicsko was the youngest mayor in the country, but because of a strange political hierarchy, he was more of a figurehead to the unbudging city council than a real leader of the city. Elected because of his intention to appeal Judge Sand’s ruling, Wasicsko—played in Simon’s version by Inside Llewyn Davis star Oscar Isaac—would have to grow up fast, via a violent, and ultimately tragic introduction to Yonkers politics.
The city of Yonkers had underestimated Judge Sand. Frustrated with the city’s malingering, Sand ordered council members to approve a list of east-side sites where the housing would be built. If they refused, he would implement a series of fines meant to hasten progress on the construction. City councilmen who voted no would be charged with contempt at $500 per day. But he didn’t stop there; the entire city would suffer. Charges would start at $100 a day, and double until they bankrupted the city—which at that compounding rate would take all of a month.
The most ardently anti-housing members of the council bit back in the press. Councilmember Hank Spallone compared the judge to Hitler (Sand happened to be Jewish) and Nicholas Longo said he was a “liberal lunatic,” but even the less voluble on the council agreed that Sand had gone too far.
"There does have to come a moment of truth, a moment of reckoning when the City of Yonkers seeks not to become a national symbol of defiance of civil rights, heaping shame upon itself," Sand said when levying the fines.
Even with such a city-destroying fine enacted—libraries and parks closed, public works halted, and every government employee faced a lay off—white residents continued the fight against the ruling. Wasicsko, who after losing an appeal, saw the housing as a battle white residents had lost, couldn’t lead a city that refused to give up the cause. Hundreds of angry protesters shouted throughout city council meetings. Death threats and bomb scares were called in. Single bullets, stuffed in white envelopes, were addressed to Wasicsko and any other councilman who dared vote with the judge.
All the while, minority residents on the west side of town, packed into a single square mile of public high rises, waited for their chance to escape the ghettos that Yonkers had crowded them into. Belkin tells their stories, too. Among the 220 people entered into the lottery for the new low-income public housing were Alma Febles, a recent immigrant from Santa Domingo who kept close watch on her three kids to protect them from the danger outside the apartment door; Doreen James, a reformed crack addict and single mother to an infant son; and Norma O'Neal, a home health aid left to fend for herself when she became partially blind.
Moving to the east side predictably didn’t solve all their old problems, and new ones popped up—the largest of which was how to call a place home where no one wants you.
“Show Me a Hero” is slated to run sometime in 2015, 13 years after Yonkers finally built the first 200 townhouse style units. Not until 2007 did the city finally fulfil its complete housing obligation, 27 years after the desegregation battle began.