“Show me a hero, and I’ll give you a tragedy.”
The Wire changed television and remains one of the greatest stories about life in an American city ever created. So, no pressure, David Simon, as we follow you to another embattled burg: Yonkers in 1987. Instead of the effects of the Drug War, this time the story concentrates on a less explored topic, but one that is still contentious today: affordable and low-income housing, or the court-ordered act of northern desegregation.
The series is directed by Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Casino Royale) who is quite adept at following multiple storylines, David Simon’s writing forte, and keeping us interested without becoming confused. We’re introduced to a lot of people very quickly, and their names aren’t lingered upon, but their stories are concrete and familiar, so we have a cohesive mosaic of lives that make sense as the camera slowly pans back as the episodes go on.
Culturally we tend to think of racism as a Southern affliction, but nothing can be further from the truth; redlining, blockbusting, and fights over school bussing and affordable housing are a country-wide phenomena, but the story of Yonkers is especially tragic and makes for a riveting story, despite the subject matter. What’s this doing on a crime blog? Watch the show, and find out.
The story opens with young, newly elected mayor Nick Wasicsko (played by Oscar Isaac, of A Most Violent Year, Inside Llewyn Davis, Ex Machina, and he played “Standard” in Drive) chugging Maalox in a cemetery and ignoring the 911’s on the screen of his pager. We see he’s carrying a revolver, and he gets sick outside his car. We see Yonkers in crisis; Judge Sands (Bob Balaban) has ordered the city to build 800 units of affordable housing, after six years of court fights by the NAACP to desegregate their school system. Mayor Anthony Martinelli (John Belushi) and the city council have delayed as much as they can, and Sands issues an ultimatum: either issue a plan with specific locations to build the low-income and affordable housing, or the town will be held in contempt of court and fined $100, a fine that doubles each day until they comply. A lawyer whips out a calculator: at that rate, the city of Yonkers, of 200,000 people, with a 1987 budget of $300 million, will go into receivership and default on their municipal bonds in 22 days. They delay the inevitable one more time with a last-ditch appeal to the circuit court.
Much like The Wire had politicians, police, dealers, teachers, and families caught in the middle, we have a trinity for this series: the poor who want to get out of the projects, the older Yonkers residents who are fighting against the public housing, and the politicians, lawyers, and judges who are forced, often against their will, with upholding the law.
A city power broker sees the tight spot this has the mayor in, and suggests to young councilman Nick Wasicsko that he run. Nick is likable, a young Tommy Carcetti go-getter type, and we follow him as helps his constituents, he knows their names, and he wants to help his city. At first he runs like a benchwarmer, happy just to be there, but when the people are so at the incumbent mayor that they start mamking homemade election signs to Vote Wasicsko, he is inspired. They vote for Wasicsko not so much because he says he’ll fight the housing ruling, but because he’s the only other choice. And he wins.
Be careful what you wish for. Nick and his small crew of allies celebrate, only to learn on the day he’s elected, that the city’s appeal has been denied. And now he’s the target of the city’s anger.
In the first episode, we were barely introduced to the people that the ruling affects most; in the second, the camera zooms in a notch, and we start getting more detail. Doreen (Natalie Paul) is a young woman from the suburbs who now lives in the projects, and becomes pregnant with street dealer Skip’s (J. Mallory McCree) child; he has asthma, and may not be totally honest when he says he’ll quit the life and go to Westchester Community College as soon as their baby’s born, but he is earnest and likeable, and we want him to make that choice. Norma (LeTanya Richardson Jackson) is a grandmother at 47 with bad eyes from diabetes. She works as a caregiver at a nursing home, and her health is deteriorating further. Carmen, a young Dominican mother working 12 hour days takes her children back home and flies to work weeks at a time in the States, because “at least it’s not a crime to be poor in the DR.” The poor, but homey neighborhood in the Dominican Republic is in stark contrast to the “ghetto in the sky” of the X-shaped project towers where men play dice in the hallways and she had to take the stairs because dealers used the elevators.
Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener, Captain Phillips, Capote) is an older retiree and long-time Yonkers homeowner, who has been watching the town hall meetings on TV, but eventually is drawn in to the fight against the housing construction. “These public housing people…they don’t live the way we do. They don’t want what we want.” This is a character who could easily be played as caricature, the angry white homeowner, but she is civil and polite and afraid for her way of life. The show does not shy from more overt racism, however. At this point the protesters’ ire is aimed at the judge and the NAACP lawyers, who are Jewish, and more than one say that “the Jews” are breaking up their Catholic town by forcing desegregation on them.
The second episode picks up after the appeal fails, and Nick attempts to lead a furious city. Vice Mayor Henry Spallone (Alfred Molina) is the most vociferous opponent to the housing. “I watched the Bronx die from this,” he says, and says it will unleash a “crack jungle” onto their streets. The rest of the council decides to say they fought and lost, lay the blame on Judge Sand, and split the units into 8 parcels to spread the “pain” across all of their districts… with a double “dose” for Spallone, because he won’t play along. They get their first parcel confirmed on land owned by the Catholic church, when Cardinal O’Connor calls in to confirm that “the church wants to help the poor,” and they will gladly offer the land.
The opponents parlay the race issue into economics “Anyone is welcome to live in my neighborhood if they have the money,” one man says, and Simon is showing how in the north we never used overt racial language, after Nixon. “Law and order” was code for “keep them in their place,” and the only time we admit the structure of our so-called classless society is when we want to frame racial hierarchy in terms of economics instead. They fight back in many ways. The councilmen all receive a .22 cartridge in their mailboxes with a note, “You won’t see the next one coming.” They are issued guards and metal detectors are put in city hall. The police have to be coaxed and pushed into pulling out rowdy protesters who throw diapers at the “baby mayor” Wasicsko. They withhold donations to the church and complain to the archdiocese, which makes Cardinal O’Connor renege on his offer and say he was “bamboozled” by the politicians, who are “attacking religion” by “forcing” him to take the deal. And one by one, Wasicsko’s allies turn against him, going back on their word, and voting no in the face of popular opposition.
Nick isn’t a warrior in this fight; he is a lawyer, and as mayor he feels he must uphold the law. He listens to Springsteen, “Hungry Heart” mostly, but as the man said, Nick’s learning that “it’s hard to be a saint in the city.” Judge Sands does not take their decision to defy him and go back on their word lightly. He fines the councilmen $500 a day, as well as holding the city in contempt, and gives them one week to comply before they are imprisoned for contempt of court. In three weeks, Nick’s city will go bankrupt, and in seven days, half his council will be in jail.
He invents a new cocktail, Maalox and Stoli. Alone in the lonely castle of the Mayor’s office, he answers the phone. It’s Mary Dorman, who he had thrown out of the town hall meeting for disrupting the vote. She doesn’t expect him to be answering the phone, and their conversation, as subdued as it is potent, shows us two people who are just trying to do what they think is right. Without gunfights or a single murder, this story is gripping and intelligent, never preachy or smarmy. It’s as close to a subseason of The Wire as we’ve gotten in a long time.
Thomas Pluck is the author of the World War II action thriller Blade of Dishonor, Steel Heart: 10 Tales of Crime and Suspense, and Hot Rod Heart: A Noir Novelette. He is also the editor of the anthology Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT and hosts Noir at the Bar in Manhattan. His work has appeared in The Utne Reader, PANK Magazine, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Hardboiled, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Crimespree, and numerous anthologies, including Dark City Lights, edited by Lawrence Block. You can find him online and on Twitter as @thomaspluck.
Read all of Thomas Pluck's articles for Criminal Element.