The heroes, tragedies, and hope of segregated housing

“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” ~F. Scott Fitzgerald.

*Warning! This post has the potential for spoilers.

Show David Simon a hero and he’ll write you a biopic tragedy full of injustices, passive-aggressive slights, and indifference. He’ll also create original characters, like Tommy Carcetti, Bubbles, and McNulty, who will test the needle of your moral compass on an episodic basis. You’ll want try to find the good one, the one who consistently plays it above board, the incorruptible. You’ll find yourself at bars and cocktail parties when the inevitable discovery that all parties present have binged The Wire debating who the least bad character is. But none such character exists in nearly any of his HBO series. I say nearly because I can’t speak for Treme. Like the rest of us, I never made it through the entire series. My hunch is he’s not in New Orleans either.

The latest Simon series, Show Me A Hero, a short six-episode HBO series about housing, race, and politics set in mid-1980’s Yonkers, New York is one of his more hopeful tributes to social justice, but no less delivers on the tragedy.

White citizens of Yonkers protest and riot against a federal court order to enforce desegregation by building two hundred mixed-income and public housing units. Newly elected hero mayor Nick Wasicsko campaigned on the promise to appeal the order, but discovers almost immediately after his election the appeal has been denied and he must enforce the law by building the homes.

Vignettes of women, almost all single, working Latina and African-American mothers, who seek the dream a low-story townhome in Yonkers – a refuge for their children from the violence, gangs, and drug dealing prevalent in the high rises – provide proportionate humanity to the legal and political battles in each episode. Though his character rarely if ever sees the housing issues through the lens of these women, Wasicsko changes his mind, seemingly worn down and physically exhausted by the unrelenting, violent, and venomous housing opponents. Down but not out, Nick becomes a champion for the cause he campaigned against, seeing the construction of the housing development through to the end.

Hope. A weird, unnatural feeling from a Simon series, right? Relax. Simon delivers on the rest of the Fitzgerald quote left off the show’s title–He did in fact write you a tragedy.

This one is chock full of injustices, “codespeak,” and indifference masquerading in 80’s hair, shoulder pads, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen hits. Gentle warning if you’re watching Hero and sub-40: Don’t be fooled by such tropes. You’re inclination will be to screen-capture the images and stories as events in the past that were extensions of the post-Brown v. Board integration efforts such as white flight and redlining. They continue today in cities and states everywhere.

Emboldening such delusions are cities like my hometown, Chicago, where vestiges of public and mixed income housing have been erased. Cabrini-Green homes, public high-rise buildings constructed in the early 1940s, loomed large over what is now a tony, predominantly white neighborhood. How would you know Chicago, like Yonkers, was the setting of similar housing disputes when a Target now stands in the old Cabrini lot? You wouldn’t. That was intentional, according to David Simon in an interview with Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Julian Castro. According to Simon, “Federal, state and local governments spent their resources, spent our resources to build a segregated society. We didn’t arrive at a Yonkers that magically self-segregated without a plan. We planned this society. We spent our money, our treasure, our tax dollars to achieve this over the course of decades. We spent it to create public housing when it was white folks who were the beneficiaries during the Depression, or the redlining that happened under the FHA, which was a New Deal program, or the great mainstream use of public housing to help veterans coming back from World War II. It was all a program that had widespread support — until people of color became the beneficiaries.”

SCOTUS reporters tried to write this into the mainstream political narrative during coverage of the surprising 5-4 decision in Texas Housing case from last term. It had the unfortunate timing of coming down the same day as the Obamacare decision (King v. Burwell) and the day before the same-sex marriage decision (Obergefell v. Hodges), thus it ended up lost in the frenzy.

A group called the Inclusive Communities Project (ICP) challenged Texas’ Department of Housing and Community Affairs for giving too many tax credits to housing in predominantly black neighborhoods. The credits were repeatedly awarded to housing developments in predominantly black, low-income neighborhoods which had the effects of keeping black neighborhoods black and white neighborhoods white. When money stays in the same neighborhoods it does nothing to integrate them, especially those segregated for decades. Think about the long term effects of a lack of housing mobility. It doesn’t simply limit geographic options, it impacts what schools children attend, the quality of their education, health (more food “deserts,” less quality grocery options), safety, access to transportation, job opportunities, and life expectancy.

These effects may not arouse your interests like a binge-watchable David Simon series does, but they are real and no less tragic today, in 2015, as they were in the 1980’s.

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