Property Values: A Q&A with Lisa Belkin
“Show Me a Hero,” the critically acclaimed miniseries airing on HBO this month, brings to life the bitter fight over public housing in Yonkers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The six-part miniseries tracks the tumultuous events that followed a judge’s order to build low-income housing to remedy the city’s long history of racial segregation.
The basis for the show was a 1999 nonfiction book by Lisa Belkin, the senior national correspondent at Yahoo News and a former New York Times reporter who also served as an adviser during filming. Belkin’s book chronicles the relocation of minority families into new housing units spread throughout the affluent side of the city and the angry opposition of white, middle-class residents. At the center of the story is the unexpected courage of a young mayor named Nick Wasicsko amid the pandering and posturing of other elected officials.
With the miniseries wrapping up on Sunday and a new paperback edition of the book due out on Sept. 1, Belkin spoke with City & State’s Jon Lentz about the ways Yonkers has changed, why the events didn’t spur similar action elsewhere and how the message of her book is now more important than ever.
The following is an edited transcript.
City & State: In your own words, what is this story really about?
Lisa Belkin: Home. It’s about home. It’s always been about home. What everybody is fighting for is a feeling that they belong someplace and have someplace that’s theirs. Some of them aren’t doing it well and some of them aren’t doing it nicely, but that’s what it’s all about for all of them.
C&S: How did you end up writing the book?
LB: I had just bought my first home and it was 1992. I came into the book with the lottery. They literally put all the names of people who wanted to move into this new housing into a bingo drum from the Polish community center. They pulled names out and that’s how they decided who got to move. I had just moved into my home, which is a couple towns north of Yonkers, and I saw a small mention in the local paper. I had been living in Texas when this whole thing went down, and even there you heard the yelling. It made national headlines at the time. I was working for The New York Times and I thought it would be a New York Times Magazine piece. I went that night, and I think if it hadn’t been a bingo drum, I might have never written the book. But the metaphor, that symbolism, was mesmerizing. So I met almost all of the main characters, the actual women that moved, that night. I met dozens of them and gradually decided who to focus on. So my reporting started in 1992 with that moment. Then I followed them for seven years. I realized it wouldn’t be a magazine piece because it was going to take years to answer the remaining question, which is, how did it work? So I spent years watching and also researching and reporting what had led up to that. In the back of my mind the entire time was, OK, so what if it was my neighborhood? What would I do? How would I feel?
C&S: Has anything changed, either in Yonkers or in the attitude of the country as a whole?
LB: If you were to script the context against which you wanted to release this miniseries or this book, if some PR person were to say here is the perfect backdrop for this piece, unfortunately it would be what’s going on in the country right now. None of us takes any happiness from that, but you can’t miss it. They filmed this during Ferguson. They edited it during Baltimore. It was a part of every scene. It’s not only about the past, which infuses every shot because it was filmed in the places where it actually happened and the people it actually happened to were often standing out of frame watching them film. So the past is really a part of all of this. But the present was also. Every day when people came to work there was another young black man shot by a white cop, another protest gone somewhat out of control, a president standing up and talking about race in a way that no president ever could before. So all of that has changed, and in that way the message of the book is more resonant today than when I wrote it.
C&S: You wrote recently in the Times that the Yonkers housing case didn’t end up being the turning point you expected. Why wasn’t it?
LB: I think because Yonkers absolutely exhausted everybody involved. The Justice Department originally brought the case, and it was supposed to be the first of many suits that would link school segregation to housing segregation. The reason your schools are segregated, people, is because your housing is segregated. And so we are not only going to work on your schools, we are going to work on your neighborhoods. This was supposed to be the first of those statements. The NAACP joined in also expecting that to be the first. It was such an absolutely bruising battle that even though they won the battle, they paused the war. It quietly made changes. They don’t build the huge blocks of brick public housing any more. They now build smaller townhouse-type units that are designed to blend into the neighborhood but don’t overwhelm neighborhoods and are far more likely to “work.” That was a permanent change brought by this. But as far as the declaration that we are no longer going to use federal funds to segregate? That’s until now. And I really think it’s because nobody had the energy or the resources to fight that fight again.
C&S: You have also noted that Westchester County is now facing a similar battle.
LB: There’s an affordable housing battle going on in Westchester. Tarrytown is north of Yonkers, and they’re gearing up for the same fight, with the same protests and some of the same words coming out of people’s mouths. This is frightening when for most homeowners, your home is the single biggest investment you will ever have. It’s daunting how much we spend on our homes. And the idea that somebody is going to come in and take that away and change that is terrifying. On the other hand, if there’s a message of Yonkers, it’s that the boogeyman didn’t come. The fears are largely unjustified, if this is done right. So yeah, they’re scared in Tarrytown, they’re scared throughout Westchester, they’re scared any time someone mentions this. “Not in my backyard” is a cliché because it’s true.
C&S: In the first few episodes, it’s shocking to see how angry and even violent some of the Yonkers residents were.
LB: You look at that and you think it couldn’t have been that bad. And then you look at the actual footage and realize, wait, whoa! I put something up on Facebook yesterday of an actual exchange between Hank Spallone and Nick Wasicsko at an actualboard meeting, and you realize how dead-on Alfred Molina and Oscar Isaac were. And those crowd scenes were taken from archival footage. It got really, really bad.
C&S: Have you heard from any of the Yonkers residents who were depicted in the series?
LB: I was watching them film some of those horrible City Hall scenes where people were nearly rioting. They bussed all the zillions of extras to lunch and then everyone took the bus back from lunch, and I was standing in the aisle on one of these buses. I got to talking to some of the people around me and I complimented them on playing a riotous, out-of-control mob, which is when many of them told me they were at the original meetings and they were just playing themselves. So people in Yonkers recognize themselves to different degrees, have reconciled themselves to the housing to different degrees, have made peace with their past to different degrees. I think Yonkers is a different place than it was then, which is very important to the city. Their fear was that people were going to think of them as that, as opposed to what they now are. Yonkers has grown up. Yonkers has largely grown up because of what you saw in episode four, which is when Nick managed to get the strong mayor system passed. It was a very immature, purposefully dysfunctional form of government that was then changed. So for that reason, Yonkers has grown up. But it’s also grown up because it went through this. You can’t keep functioning like that. They almost went over the brink. That means some people decide we have to change things around here.
C&S: What’s it like to see a recreated world that you described decades ago?
LB: It’s like watching ghosts. They were absolutely so respectful of history and stuck to fact. A writer’s fear is there’s suddenly going to be Martians and velociraptors, and they were religiously scrupulous about facts. They were in the rooms where it happened. There’s the feeling just among the actors and in every frame of reality. You can’t take 352 pages and get every single bit of it into six hours. There are some things I missed. There are some stories in the book that I wish had made it, some people I wish had made. On the other hand, what I think is there is a breathtaking way of storytelling. I mean, they told my story, and they told the story of these people, which is the entire point.
C&S: Do you have another book in the works?
LB: I am working on a next one, which is theoretically out in the summer of 2017. It’s about the shooting of a cop in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1960. So I’m going back in history again. It’s actually based on a family story. My stepdad inadvertently set that shooting into motion. It’s the story of three families from 1900 to 1960 and how their lives intertwine.