[photo: HBO]

“Don’t tell me about the Bronx. I was there!”

So says City Councilman and soon-to-be-mayor of Yonkers, N.Y. Henry J. (Hank) Spallone to a reporter, encapsulating all the fears of his constituents regarding the erection of low-income housing in their neighborhoods. He references the burned-out borough of nearby New York City, an adjacent living space that saw more than a few of its citizens leaving for Yonkers to escape deteriorating conditions.

In this week’s Show Me A Hero, which are episodes three and four of the six-part mini-series, we see the rise of the demagogic Spallone (played with scenery and toothpick-chewing disdain by Alfred Molina), who unseats heroic young Mayor Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Issac) over the court-ordered plan to build low-income housing in East Yonkers, a largely white enclave.

Although the politicians largely have their hands tied by court orders and the prospect of huge fines for non-compliance, their constituents refuse to believe there’s no recourse. Thus, we have two sides of the issue trapped by this Kobayashi Maru of a scenario. The result is Mayor Wasicsko is tossed out of office in favor of the blustery Spallone, only to have Spallone forced into the same position Wasicsko was in by the courts and fines. It’s a commentary on how easily duped the public can be, a wonderful lesson for the forthcoming presidential election cycle.

With Spallone in office and Wasicsko out, the rest of the hour focuses on building up our empathy for the people who will likely live in those new Yonkers housing projects, and also focuses on the behind-the-scenes strategies designed to maximize the chances for their success.

To its credit, the series doesn’t shy away from admitting there’s some truth to the notion that the Yonkers housing projects could be a blight on property values for adjacent homes. One of the character focuses is on a widowed mother with a drug problem, and we see another young girl drop out of school and quickly become pregnant with a jailbird’s kid. Add in the menacing youths who suspiciously eye a home healthcare worker in a crowded elevator, and we soon understand that the world isn’t black and white, even though its residential neighborhoods may be.


Yet we’re also captivated by the truly empathetic characters whose lives would be changed by decent living conditions. There’s the blind diabetic mother with a strong family support system; her nurse friend who believes people would like her if they only got to know her; the father who sees his drug-addled daughter’s deterioration but is powerless to stop it; and the striving single mother trying to balance a job with keeping her family intact. These are good people, the show seems to tell us. All they need is a break.

While Wasicsko is out of office, his foresight in defending the low-income housing as inevitable gradually swings back into favor. Polls show a “silent majority” of Yonkers citizens don’t want to keep fighting it, and a nomination for a JFK “Profiles in Courage” award stimulates Wasicsko to consider getting back his mayor ship, even after he was spit on and subjected to death threats on the first go.

The episode ends with the red-flag of activist Al Sharpton marching through the east end of Yonkers, a move which hardens the positions of the entrenched homeowners who oppose the projects. But as the racial barriers go up, at least some of the white citizens start to question whether the fight is over “property values,” as they claim, or is truly about race and segregation.

As we close on the graphically racial graffiti marring the first of the newly installed low-income townhomes, it seems that the battle is moving from the courts to the streets. Next week, the concluding two parts of this history lesson, whose issues are still alive in our country, will focus on the resolution of the Yonkers scenario. Hopefully, there will be lessons we can apply to similar face-offs going forward.