You Have to Watch ‘Show Me A Hero’

SMAH meeting

Slow motion car crash public meeting in Yonkers.

Watching a new David Simon show is like opening presents on Christmas Day. I loved The Wire (of course), and Treme hit all my favorite sweet spots: jazz, New Orleans, street life, and affordable housing debates. So needless to say, I’ve been watching Show Me A Hero with a big grin on my face, savoring every moment.

And Simon’s latest show surpassed my expectations, most especially because it has proved to be so timely. Show Me A Hero brings to life the hidden dynamics of race and housing that are omnipresent in every city in America today, and that makes it must-watch viewing for anyone who cares about our cities.

Here are five reasons you should sit yourself down and watch the mini-series.

#1. This is what US racism looks like

Residents of Lake Elmo are up in arms over the city council decision to fire city manager Dean Zuleger, and lawn signs are popping up on the streets, photographed Monday, March 16, 2015. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)

Residents of Lake Elmo are up in arms over the city council decision to fire city manager Dean Zuleger, and lawn signs are popping up on the streets, photographed Monday, March 16, 2015. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)

People like Dylan Roof aside, explicit racism has ceased to be the main problem in US cities. People rarely state clearly that they want to live in a “whites only” community, or that they want to send their kids to majority white schools. But people use other language to say the same thing.

Show Me A Hero tells the story of the last big fight over public housing placement, where the Federal government forced the city of Yonkers, New York (just north of the Bronx, along the Hudson river) to build “scattered site” public housing in its white, single-family neighborhoods. The proposal was met with violent resistance from white homeowners, and it took years of litigation and millions of dollars in fines to get Yonkers to finally build the townhomes.

Take the most heated public meeting you’ve ever been to (mine would be the Cleveland Avenue bike lane hearing), and multiply the NIMBY anger by factor of 20, and you’ve got the scenes in Show Me A Hero where mobs of white home owners are protesting the affordable housing, about how “those people” will ruin their neighborhood and its property values. Rarely does anyone say anything explicitly racist — nobody uses the ’n’-word — but you do get every other kind of veiled racism under the sun. People talk about “neighborhood character” and “quality of life.” At one point, Catherine Keener’s worried NIMBY character says “those people don’t want what we want,” and the great tortured racial logic of the show’s white homeowners emerges into plain sight. 

Today’s mainstream racism isn’t cross burnings and name calling (though those things still exist). It’s zoning codes, height limits, and concerns about parking. And Show Me A Hero depicts this strain of America with vivid disgust. 

#2. The affordable housing debate is back


From one of Orfield’s reports on Twin Cities’ segregation.

Simon has been pitching Show Me A Hero to networks for years, and by telling a story set in 1987, you’d think that it’d be impossible to find a timely hook for the series. But in reality, there’s never been a better time to start thinking about how our cities use housing policy to segregate race.

Earlier this year, the US supreme court passed down a decision that’s almost a direct mirror of the Judge’s claim in Show Me A Hero, that US cities are concentrating affordable housing in places with already-existing poverty instead of distributing it throughout the (single-family, wealthy, white) neighborhoods.

Here in the Twin Cities, that’s a familiar refrain. One of the leading researchers on affordable housing concentration, the University of Minnesota’s Myron Orfield, runs a small think tank from the West Bank campus, and has spent years producing reports about the concentration of affordable housing in the Twin Cities.

The on-the-ground reality for affordable housing builders is pretty simple. Core city neighborhoods welcome an affordable housing project with open arms, while wealthy, white suburban communities often fight tooth-and-nail against projects (or keep them confined to very small areas). Given that political landscape, who is going to stand up and be “the hero”, and do the hard work of “forcing” affordable housing into our region’s white ‘burbs?

Show Me A Hero shows what a thankless job that can be, and I don’t see many folks at the Met Council lining up to fight with the Lake Elmos of the world.


#3. A #blacklivesmatter-style march


“No justice, no peace.”

At the end of the 4th episode, there’s a great scene where the Yonkers’ black community (led by its religious leaders) march through the white neighborhoods in support of the public housing. Though Simon takes great pains to show the lives of the people of color living in the substandard (concentrated) public housing, the march is the first time that the voices of the black community appear within the show’s “public process.”

And it looks very familiar. The marchers chant “no justice, no peace,” and except for the 1980s outfits, it could be a scene straight out of today’s paper. It goes to show you just how long the struggle to end structural racism has been going on in the US.

(For me, the show’s most obvious progenitor is Thomas Sugrue’s great book on public housing battles in Detroit, set in the 1950s. Sugrue’s story is almost exactly like the Show Me A Hero, and shows why so much about US urban planning and racial inequality can be explained by looking at the history of housing.)

#4 & 5.  Nerdy details + super timely

SMAH map

Classic planner scene.

Show Me A Hero is full of all kids of delicious wonky bits. My favorite has to be the Amish-looking “HUD expert” character, who lurks in judgement at the margins of public meetings. There’s a great scene where the Jewish NAACP lawyer, the determined Federal judge, and the bearded HUD expert are sitting around debating the final design of the scattered site projects. It turns into a mini-Jane Jacobs lecture about “defensible space theory,” and why quasi-public spaces like stairwells and elevators lead to crime.

The show is full of these little details, so it’s a real treat for anyone who’s nerdy enough to know the difference between Section 8 and HOPE VI.

On top of that, as David Simon explains in a great Salon interview, the issue of segregating US affordable housing has been on the back burner since the Carter Administration (when the Yonkers case first emerged).

Here’s how Simon describes the history of these arguments:

Because of how blistering Yonkers was, how insanely volatile and irrational Yonkers was. You have to remember that this case was brought at the end of the Carter administration. There wasn’t a single civil rights action filed by the Justice Department from 1980 to 1988 that mattered. Reagan effectively shut down the civil rights division of the DOJ. Then you had Clinton, who was doing everything he could during the Gingrich years to maneuver to the center. The reason you didn’t have aggressive use of this legal precedent under Clinton is the same reason you have those omnibus crime bills that filled up prisons as fast as we can construct them. Bill Clinton’s triangulation with the political center made things like fair housing prohibitive for his political priorities.

We haven’t seen any movement on this in any presidential administration until the last two years of Obama. They sort of opened the books on all their data to basically encourage the use of the Fair Housing Act to do precisely what they did in Yonkers. But notice that this is coming in the last two years of the administration, and it’s coming as an administrative act.

In short, Racist zoning and density fights aren’t going away any time soon, which makes Show Me a Hero required viewing for anyone who cares about our cities. 

(I won’t tell you how it ends.)

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.