Let me start of by saying that if you haven’t watched “The Wire,” you have to watch “The Wire.”
But if you don’t have time for 5 seasons of the most important American TV show ever made, then at least watch series creator David Simon’s new mini-series “Show Me A Hero.” It focuses on the court ordered placement of public housing in Yonkers, NY in the 1980s and its ripple effects throughout the political and social networks of the city. The court forced Yonkers to construct housing in white neighborhoods in order to combat the segregated nature of the Yonkers residential areas, but was viscerally opposed by the white neighborhoods seeking to defend their property values and their perceived security from crime. The political fallout on the Yonkers City Council, as well as the effect on the day to day lives of the Yonkers citizens, takes the central role in the drama.
However, I’m going to focus on one specific theme. At the center of the narrative is the use of “defensive housing,” a notable public housing innovation. Traditional public housing was based around the apartment complex, where stairwells and courtyards had unclear ownership, and thus often became loci for crime and property damage. Defensive housing instead emphasized townhouses scattered around a region, each with a front and back lawn, such that there was a desire to “defend” one’s own clearly delineated property.
Most interesting is the moral coerciveness central to the theory. There is a critical moment in the show when the creator of defensive housing, Oscar Newman, describes how there has to be interaction between those living in the townhouses and their neighbors. The public housing dwellers need to encounter their middle-class neighbors in order to acquire “their neighbor’s morality.” This is followed by a scene where the new homeowners are taught how to accommodate their neighbor’s social mores, right down to how to take care of their garbage. Naturally, they protest, asking if their white neighbors are getting lectured about how to get along with them. It’s troubling, this emphasis on respectability politics. The State is willing to offer free housing, but only if the homeowners are willing to integrate themselves into the mainstream’s way of being.
At the same time, there’s a positivist view that this is a very successful program. Crime rates remained static, family incomes increased, and children did better in school. But if the mechanisms by which these changes occurred were necessarily morally coercive, what are we to make of this? Even without the explicit instruction for “acting right,” the goal of defensive housing was the inculcation of white, middle-class notions of property and responsibility. In fact, the class can be seen as less coercive, in that it made the instructions explicit, rather than through unseen conditioning. And yet, the show demonstrates how inadequate these lessons are in getting the white citizens to respect their new neighbors, from the constant stares to a woman who constantly lets her dogs do their business on the townhouse lawns.
“This American Life” recently produced a two part radio show titled “The Problem We All Live With,” also exploring and advocating for desegregation, this time emphasizing schools. The show demonstrated the consistent ability of desegregation to reduce the black/white achievement gap in education. However, as in “Show Me A Hero,” this improvement came from surrounding black students with white students who were academically successful. In other words, it required a shift towards mainstream normative behavior.
All of this is to say that our positive policy goals are often deeply linked to normative, behavioral shifts, and in fact are probably inseparable. Even fairly radical solutions like desegregation that physically move whole groups of people do not address the challenge of creating a cohesive community constructed from diverse moralities.
“Show Me A Hero” declines to resolve this tension, leaving us with the challenge of morality politics. The show looks at the process of local governance with a journalistic eye. In doing so, it counters both the wish-fulfillment of “The West Wing” and the lazy cynicism of “House of Cards,” instead offering a realistic portrayal of the motivations driving politicians and the human consequences of their decisions. The themes are timely, focusing on the racial segregation of urban America and its accompanying political maelstrom. But, while it is a capital-I Important” show, it retains a sense of humor and a dedication to narrative pacing, even as it lacks the familiar cop-show structure “The Wire” so carefully used and subverted. It’s anchored by Emmy-worthy performances by Oscar Isaac, Catherine Keener, and LaTanya Richardson. And this is all topped off with some incredible Bruce Springsteen deep-cuts. In short, it’s required viewing for those who are interested in politics, for all its messes.