Review: Show Me A Hero
David Simon's eulogy to a YIMBYism grounded in political courage
One of the few things that my wife and I fight about is the correct level of cultural importance that should be assigned to Bruce Springsteen. She is a huge fan: she was raised by Springsteen in the same way I was raised by Jarvis Cocker; she thinks he throws light into a world both alien and familiar. I think he is overrated, a little saccharine and prolier-than-thou, a tiresome reminder of an Americana that never was, to be celebrated for avoiding the kitsch but not given the universal respect he seems to enjoy. This is a whole other post, but Springsteen is to Le Carré as Meat Loaf is James Bond.
Nick Wasicsko would side with Jessica. There were, by my count, twelve different Springsteen songs in David Simon’s Show Me A Hero., at least four of which were played directly by Wasicsko, the show’s protagonist. At one point early on in the series, Wasiscko and his team are planning his mayoral run. Bored of going round in circles, he walks over to the jukebox. “Springsteen? This again?” Wasiscko replies: “It’s my theme song.”
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It is a truly excellent piece of television, and recommend it wholeheartedly to anybody interested in housing, NIMBYism, and politics. There is a flavour of The Wire, believable and stylistic images of housing projects and life gang-adjacent, the racial and class injustices of 90s America. But it’s a bit like The Wire in a deeper sense, namely that it’s about process as much as it is about outcome. The process of getting politics to happen, getting decisions made, recognising trade-offs and attempting to communicate them.
In 1980, a significant legal challenge unfolded when the US Department of Justice brought a case against the City of Yonkers. This lawsuit, filed in the district court, accused the city of violating the Civil Rights Act by intentionally segregating its schools. The core of the plaintiffs' argument was the city's approach to public housing: by concentrating these units in predominantly Black and Hispanic neighbourhoods in the southwest, the city effectively underwrote racial segregation. This strategy not only segregated residential areas but also had a direct impact on school demographics, effectively dividing the city's educational system along racial lines. According to the DoJ, these actions constituted a clear breach of the CRA.
After a couple of years of lawyering, the court negotiated a deal that, amongst other things, required the City (and the Department for Housing and Urban Development) to provide access to housing in the mostly-white east of the city, as well as construct a small number of public housing units in that area. The City and HUD didn’t do what they said they would do, the issue became even more contentious, and the lawyers rubbed their hands with glee.
Some more lawyering up ensued, and, in 1985, Judge Leonard B. Sand, decided to put all the lawyering to an end and issued a desegregation order, forcing the city to build 1,000 housing units in the white, middle-class east of the city. The city didn’t have my disdain for litigation, so fought back, and took the case as far as the Supreme Court, spending upward of $11 million in the process (roughly ~3.3% of the city’s budget at the time.)
The order was upheld, but the City Council still refused to budge. So Sand was empowered to hold the City in contempt of his order, layering fine after fine onto the City (and threatening the opposing council members themselves with prison time) until they complied.
It’s at this point that the storyline of Hero begins. Nick Wasicsko, a young and newly-elected councilman for the city’s seventh ward, decides to run for the Mayoral role, defeating a six-term Republican incumbent. The election was, predictably, entirely about the housing issue: both Martinelli, the incumbent, and Wasicsko ran on opposition to the integration plan, with the latter promising to “resist the court-ordered integration by legal appeals”. Martinelli, who had been tied to the housing issue and was therefore the target of much of the vitriol, lost the election. On November 3rd, 1987, Wasicsko became the city’s youngest-ever Mayor.
Then? He has to govern. And as George Washington says to Hamilton in the musical, “winning is easy young man, governing’s harder”.
The issues are a bit complected, but opposition to the housing came in a few different flavours:
Racism and/or racial prejudices. Concerns that low-income housing might increase crime rates in East Yonkers featured prominently in the show, as well as instances of overt racism, culminating in an arson attack. Judge Sands and several of the HUD appointees are Jewish, and this further flares up tensions.
Preserving ‘neighbourhood character’, an understandable reason in itself, but easily racism-coded.
Legal precedent causing runaway development, while not mentioned much in the show, does pop up occasionally.
Property values, and the seeming unfairness of giving people access to a space that they haven’t paid for.
The top-down enforcement of the plan from above, reflecting a lack of care about what the community says it wants, especially from a liberal Jewish judge who doesn’t live in the area and who doesn’t share the interests or history of the predominately working-class, post-industrial community.
I was worried that it would become a story of racism through-and-through, but it didn’t. (If it had been made today, by somebody less blessed with subtlety than Simon, I suspect it would have been.) Racism was clearly a big part of the opposition, and the show deals with that sensitively and well. But most of the items on that list, and the process surrounding it, aren’t really about race at all.
Earlier in the series, before the debates get too heated, there’s a clear sense of community pride. The community are frustrated, are concerned, and these concerns come from what seems to be a place of sincerity. It is racialised explicitly by the council, who present it as a wedge issue. One memorable scene involves Hank Spallone, aggressive and spiteful and disdainful, the councilman doing the most to encourage opposition to the housing, driving round the existing projects and taking selective photographs of young black men and pregnant teenagers.
Before Spallone stokes the fire, it is burning with legitimate concern. These people, like many NIMBYs, are earnest when they say they are worried about their neighbourhood changing, the fears of runaway development, the suppression of their property values. These people are proud. They’ve worked hard. It’s difficult to not feel sympathy for them.
But Spallone does stoke the fire, and the vitriol increases, and the energy transmutes into anger. There’s a crackle of that anger long before the racialised campaigning begins explicitly. The town hall meetings are chaotic, with residents shouting and booing and screaming at the council for their betrayal. The councilmembers receive death threats; Wasicsko receives a bullet in the mail. Protests start to form around those who the community take to be iconic of the developments; first Martinelli, then Wasicsko, then others.
And it ultimately becomes a matter of loss-of-control. As the City is held in contempt and the fines and legal fees begin to mount, a hapless council are pushed in an increasingly difficult corner. The object-level matters begin to fade away into the background, and the perceived betrayal comes to the forefront.
The community ends up in a war of attrition against itself, the Save Yonkers Federation becoming more and better organised against the housing, the Mayor and council subsumed by infighting and politicking, and HUD and Judge Sands at the sidelines, equal parts exasperated and bemused.
But there is some redemption. One of the main redemptive arcs involves a significant NIMBY campaigner, Mary Dorman, who starts out as one of the council-screamers, and whose disdain for the black members of her community borders on the cruel. But Dorman ends up supporting the new housing, and plays an important part in making the actual integration work and rendering it legitimate in the eyes of her neighbours.
There is also a clear willingness on the part of HUD to adjust the designs and locations of the housing to accommodate the community’s worries. The main architect of the new housing, Oscar Newman, sees this as a test of his ‘defensible space theory’, and the show goes to some lengths to illuminate why. Higher crime rates existed in high-rise housing projects, in part, Newman argued, because of a lack of ownership over the public space. If the garden is nobody’s garden, the square considered abstractly public, not communal, then there is much less of the informal social policing about which Jane Jacobs wrote so persuasively, some twenty years prior.
Following Newman’s designs, the new projects are emphatically not to be high-rise tower blocks. They’re designed to be low-density homes, townhouses for families at one end, mid-rise condos at the other, scattered through the white areas of the city, to both improve the quality of the housing for its tenants, reduce the likelihood of crime and antisocial behaviour for its neighbours, and help dilute the political effects for the councilmen. All of this forethought makes the council’s intransigence all the more frustrating.
There are, I think, plenty of lessons for the modern YIMBY to learn.
Hero is a story of political courage and naïvety and the inevitable relationship between the two. The entire saga is, in many ways, a referendum on Wasicsko’s political courage, and the grubbier side of its motivation. But it’s also an incredibly clever look at the violence of bureaucracies, and the contradictions that sit at the heart of high modernism.
NIMBYism is a procedural phenomenon as well as a psychological one. I feel that many YIMBYs miss this point. It isn’t just that NIMBYs have economic interests against development, nor that they are fundamentally opposed to it in some vibes-y, worldview sense (though in many cases both of those things are true.) It’s that we have allowed systems to be designed with veto points. Political asymmetries mean that these systems get captured by the anti-development lobby, and the veto points proliferate. And then, like all systems, they ossify around those veto points, which makes it near-impossible to reverse course from within the system.
Hero’s vetocratic capture looks quaint in comparison to ours. The protestors and councilmembers are more loud than they are powerful, and the entire story is ultimately motivated by the failure, and the inevitability of the failure, to veto. But there are so many instances of our modern problem appearing inchoate: the local council refusing to comply, even when overruled by entities higher up the legal hierarchy; the protest groups and public meetings and harassment of officials; perennial legal appeals and the rent-extraction that entails.
All this in mind, the real power of Hero is that it shows what is necessary for a development to happen outside of the system’s regular scheduled programming. Political courage in itself isn’t enough. It’s a much shakier basis for campaigns than we might like; it’s always political courage up to a point, and once that point has been reached, the political incentives change. In Hero, a Catholic bishop offers support for the new housing, but then quickly u-turns. He grounds his support in moral terms, which is enough inertial energy to overcome the opposition, but when the opposition continues to mount, he is forced to reverse his position. Short term political incentives will almost always override longer term plans, and under those conditions ‘political courage’ seems to be emptied of much of its content. (Compare, for instance, Labour and their reversal on nutrient neutrality.)
If political courage isn’t enough, reason isn’t either. The loudest politicians care very little about the object-level issue. It is almost instantly mobilised by almost every person running for election. We see three cycles of Mayoral elections, and each time the housing debate is the fulcrum on which the winner gains his leverage. Spallone understands that the fines will be crippling, but pushes on opposing anyway. Every attempt to lead is quickly forgotten; they only end up responding. There ceases to be any spirit of negotiation, any attempt to communicate the finer points.
In an institution captured by inertia and a lack of ambition, an exogenous shock is what’s needed. But even in that case, it is far from easy. The system will put up a fight. Lawsuits will be brought, protests will be had. And the protestors’ ultimate frustration – that of being ignored, sidelined, talked down to – only becomes validated. Thus the tension of the reformer from within a vetocracy: forcing a system to adopt change it opposes, without rendering legitimate the opposition.
That’s why outside mechanisms are often crucial: they help push the equilibrium above a local minima. This is, incidentally, supposed to be a virtue of the way the UK system is structured - heavy centralisation should allow for such equilibrium-pushing. But we lack serious politicians, possessed of political courage and clear reasoning, and who ultimately are missing the actual power to see these changes through. As Hero teaches us, even political courage won’t be enough if the vetocratic rot has set in.
This raises the question: what sort of exogenous shock could drive more development in the UK? The obvious answer is a significant legal change: if Parliament decides to zone the whole of England independent of the councils, then the veto points could be dissolved and the system would realign, ideally – though not necessarily – around more development. There are more subtle reforms, such as the excellent Street Votes, that are being passed, which might help nudge the system toward more development. In the case of Street Votes, this is in effect by bypassing the local authorities altogether. In the case of Community Land Auctions, it attempts to solve the ‘value capture problem’, allowing local authorities to capture more of the uplift in land value, effecting something like a Coasean bargain.
Another obvious answer is rely on the legal system. This seems de facto to be what happens now; developers get rejected, appeal, then often win. This is especially the case in local authorities that are falling behind on their required housing supply; the NPPF provides a mechanism for applying a presumption in favour of development when housing delivery in an area is insufficient. But there’s a lot of legal wrangling involved to get there, and there are still opportunities to veto: the development must still be ‘sustainable’, ‘in keeping with the character of the local area’, etc etc, all good things on their own merits but in aggregate used to prevent any development at all. It’s also worth pointing out that the costs in both time and money are huge; appeal just isn’t an option many of the smaller developers can justify.
We could punt on political courage, which in some cases does work; though there are lots of times when the power given isn’t wielded effectively, and, at any rate, Hero shows us that it’s only ever ‘courage up to a point’. So we ideally need to work around the system without relying on people whose incentives are internal to the system at all. That means we have to presume we can’t rely on the Secretary of State, nor on the Mayor, nor the council, nor the planning officer. Unlike the US, we don’t have a federal system where higher level courts sit strictly above, deriving their power from a constitution that allows them to override the decisions of elected representatives.
Like The Wire, the real point of Show Me A Hero is that an outsider to a system will inevitably be destroyed by his attempts to reform it. “Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy”, says Fitzgerald. So we need something else. That something else might be technology. At least, that’s the bet we’re making at Tract. But it’s not going to be easy.
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