Show Me A Hero

Yonkers in the 80s.

Yonkers in the 80s.

We just finished watching the HBO mini-series “Show Me A Hero.”

It was incredible.

Great acting, great writing and a subject that is as relevant today as it was when the series took place 30 years ago.

For those who missed it, “Show Me A Hero” is based on a famous housing case in Yonkers, N.Y. in the 1980s. A judge ruled that Yonkers needed to allow an additional 200 units of public housing throughout the city in an effort to stop the concentration of poverty and integrate a highly segregated city.

The City of Yonkers fought and fought and fought the decree, creating controversy, racial tension, financial and human hardship. The units were eventually built and were considered a success. The widespread fears of “there goes the neighborhood” were unrealized but the debate took a toll on residents on all sides of the issue.

The series is also the story of Nick Wasicsko, the 28-year-old mayor of Yonkers who first got elected by supporting residents who fought the expansion of public housing and then over time changed his position.

What’s intriguing about Mayor Wasicsko is that he changed over time and by degrees—a very human evolution.

At first, he agreed to the expansion of housing because the city kept losing in the legal arena and it was bleeding the city financially and spiritually. As an attorney, Wasiscko knew the fight was futile and as a pragmatist he wanted to stop the bleeding. But over time, he became a believer and genuinely wanted to help people escape the crushing poverty, crime and violence of the projects. He was named a finalist for a JFK Profile in Courage Award as a result.

Along the way, he lost his seat as mayor. He later won a council seat and then lost a political battle with the new mayor who redrew his district forcing him into a losing battle against his former best friend for a seat. Wasiscko committed suicide at the age of 34.

The final part of the quote “Show Me A Hero” is “and I will write you a tragedy”. That phrase was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald and sadly, that is often true.

What made me “Show Me a Hero” so intriguing was that it’s heroes were not perfect people, but real human beings struggling with public sentiment, old prejudices, anger and doubt.

We’ve been through a long year in terms of race relations in this country. Ferguson, Baltimore, Staten Island—we’ve all seen the headlines and watched the news.

We are not immune.

When I watched “Show Me A Hero” I thought of my own experience in public office as I watched a young elected official get consumed by the anger, fear and sadness in his community over housing and race.

I saw some of those emotions as well.

One of the enduring lessons of “Show Me A Hero” was that the world didn’t end when those 200 affordable townhomes were built in white neighborhoods. In fact, some opponents of the affordable homes had a change of heart when they actually got to know their new neighbors as people looking to live in a neighborhood that was safe for their children.

“Show Me A Hero” depicts a city that nearly blew apart as a result of hatred, fear and anger.

It’s a cautionary tale with an enduring lesson: leadership has a responsibility to heal.