Making housing activism attractive on-screen

Fighting housing issues may be necessary but it is probably not the first topic viewers, producers, and networks think of for a good product. Until Show Me A Hero:

At its heart, Show Me a Hero is a wonk procedural, exploring all the seemingly impossible and impassable hurdles that policy has to traverse to become reality. But it’s brought to life by Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac), the titular hero. In 1987, when the show begins, Nick, a former cop and lawyer, and current Springsteen superfan, is an eager and ambitious new member of the Yonkers City Council, which is already being roiled by a court ruling. A long-gestating lawsuit has finally found Yonkers, a working-class city just north of the New York City border, guilty of intentionally segregating its housing. The judge presiding over the case has ruled that 200 units of low-income housing must be built on the east, and white, side of the city. That is, more precisely, 200 units of housing, to be spread out over eight different locations, in the white part of a city of a couple hundred thousand people that has spent 40 years practicing systematic housing discrimination and segregation. That is, also, 200 units of housing greeted by white homeowners as an existential threat to their property values and way of life, visited upon them by liberal outsiders, to be fought viciously and rancorously, lest any of the “public housing people” come to live next door.

Nick is soon tapped to run against the Republican mayor in what is supposed to be a slam-dunk election for the incumbent but turns into an upset when the virulently anti-housing voters elect Nick simply because he is not the mayor, who has assented to the judge’s ruling in the case. Nick is happily swept into power by an incensed and racist cohort who expects Nick to fight the housing order, even though it is legal and will never be overturned, and disobeying it will bankrupt the city. Nick is not a simple, straightforward hero: He doesn’t come into office intent on doing the right thing, damn the consequences. He’s a cocky kid, tickled to be the county’s youngest big city mayor, who has to choose between being reasonable, responsible, and righteous or a recalcitrant, unrealistic bigot—when it is the latter choice that will let him keep his job. Nick does what is right. How he does this, and at what personal and professional expense, is the meat of Show Me a Hero, which, tellingly, gets its title from the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, “Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy.” (A piece of advice: Don’t Wikipedia Nick Wasicsko if you want to avoid spoilers.)

Plenty of critics and viewers have echoed Newton Minnow’s claim that television will become a “vast wasteland” when it is bad. Yet, couldn’t a show like this be entertaining and provide a public good?

While I noted above that housing activism is an unlikely television topic, it is also an underdiscussed topic overall as many prefer to talk about the promises (and occasional perils, particularly after 2006) of the housing market without acknowledging the influence of residential segregation and the need for interventions to make affordable housing possible as well as to break down persistent clusters by race and class.

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