David Simon and Cory Booker on ‘Show Me a Hero’ and the Future of Cities

After desegregation, Yonkers suffered white flight and its schools took a hit. The population in 2010 was 56 percent white. The city changed but it also moved past the deep racial divide that defined the struggle in the 1980s. In the edited conversation that follows, Mr. Booker and Mr. Simon traded ideas about cities as America’s future, where not just the economy and creative capital but also equality and justice need to be worked out

Q. David, you’ve wanted to tell this Yonkers story for a while.

DAVID SIMON Well, Gail Mutrux, who was a producer on [NBC’s] “Homicide” years ago, a show that I was on, sent me the book a couple years after it came out. HBO optioned [it], and then a lot of things intervened that have nothing to do with that project. “The Wire” came up. Then “Generation Kill.” And “Treme.” So it kept getting bumped, but we kept working on the scripts because guess what? Race isn’t going away as an American political dynamic. It transforms itself.

[Yonkers] was such an obvious allegory for a world that a lot of people want to pretend is post-racial, but is actually an even greater tangle now that the country’s being asked to actually contemplate not just sharing space, which is problematic enough, but sharing power.

SENATOR CORY BOOKER What I saw in that first episode [of the series] was so charged for me as somebody who has dealt with these issues for my entire professional career, and it touched on so many chords for me. I grew up in a small town, Harrington Park, N.J., that my parents were initially denied entrance to. They had to get a white couple to pose as them through the Fair Housing Council in order to be the first black family to move into the town. Literally, a fight broke out at the closing, with the real estate agent realizing he was caught in a ruse.

This was 1969, and so I was a senior in high school in ’87 when this [series starts]. What most Americans don’t realize is a lot of the challenges we’re struggling with today are the result of conscious housing policies. In fact, so many families in America made their wealth or secured their status as middle class through housing, and you have the government systematically devaluing neighborhoods — taking away that wealth, in effect — then concentrating poverty very consciously. Newark is called Brick City, because it had these canyons of high rise [projects]. So, when you showed that woman trying to get into the elevator, I have those memories of guys playing dice against the wall, of seeing mothers taking stairways filled with all kinds of depressing or painful realities. Many people ascribe those things to African-Americans, but that is their government creating this outrageous policy to create dense poverty in the very areas where jobs and resources were leaving.

And then very often failing to provide assistance and money to sustain those projects, so leaving the people in them with no resources. David, your mission is clearly to humanize abstract issues like housing, poverty and race for television.

SIMON In the case of the Yonkers project, what we hope drives the piece forward is having a very good actor maneuvering through a character arc that is something of a Shakespearean tragedy. And Oscar Isaac portraying Nick Wasicsko’s rise and fall is very much that. If we can get you to care about Nick, we might just have a chance to tell a story about hyper-segregation, public housing and politics.

Nowadays, there’s an increasingly entrenched libertarian notion in our political culture: Well, why is the government even providing housing to anybody? What is this public housing you speak of, and why are we dealing with it? It’s sort of an astonishing moment of political amnesia, because the concept of public housing has its origins in the New Deal. These structures were built for white people in the Depression to allow families to regroup and retrench in hard times and to move on from there, and then it had a second generation in terms of the returning veterans when there was a housing shortage after World War II.

These projects were white, and nobody had the slightest doubt that this was effective government policy at the time. But of course you can’t take it forward two generations to a time where deindustrialization has happened. The same economic levers for getting out of the projects are no longer there, and now the clientele for public housing is people of color. It creates a completely different dynamic.

BOOKER We now see incredible data coming out about children growing up. Poor children who grew up in more diverse neighborhoods, diverse economically, do so much better than poor kids who are growing up in concentrated neighborhoods of poverty. It’s yet another highlighting of how wrong our policy’s been all these years by creating these concentrated, dense pockets of poverty.

For me in Newark, it was this interesting reality, right? We were able to reverse the trend from 60 years of losing population. Now people were coming in, but we didn’t want to make the mistake we saw in other places. We wanted to get to a 24/7 downtown, building all these loft apartments, but we were very aggressive [about being] 40 percent affordable, 50 percent affordable.

How much do you think a mini-series can change the conversation about race and housing?

SIMON I’d be happy to just keep the argument going. You’d be amazed how few people are comfortable talking directly about race and class in this country. I mean, beyond the cheapest slogans.

BOOKER When my father moved in [to the house in Harrington Park], the story as he told it was that the real estate agent starts begging him, pleading with him. He’s terrified that this one black family moving into the town will kill the housing prices, hurt his business and drive people out of the town. You know, when I moved in, I was, for many of my friends, the only black person they knew or met, but now that we’re living so on top of each other, we’re becoming more familiar.

SIMON America’s becoming less white. There is a subtext of: “We’re in a time where I have a president of color. We’re in a time where I’m not merely asked to share water fountains or approximate space, but I’m being asked to share power.” I think for some people, it’s a terrifying moment. But the fact is, more and more Americans are figuring out race, and their kids are figuring it out, with a degree of sophistication that is progress.

And, Senator, the crime rate has fallen dramatically.

BOOKER It’s great that the crime rate’s plummeting, but New Jersey’s [population is] 14, 15 percent black; 60 percent of the prison population is black. African-Americans convicted for similar crimes [as] whites will get 20 percent longer sentences, 20 percent more likely to get the mandatory minimum. A black boy and a white boy smoking marijuana: The black kid’s about 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for it, even though there’s no difference between marijuana usage in our country.

SIMON Are the poor in America being overpoliced or underpoliced? The answer is both. For things like drugs and nonviolent offenses, they’re being hideously overpoliced and overincarcerated. Meanwhile, the things that these communities really do need policed, they’ve absolutely failed to respond to [them] in any meaningful way. The clearance rate for murder in my city, [Baltimore,] is now as low as the mid-30s [percent].

So when you go down to the corner and you grab the five guys who have vials in their pockets and you leave the guy who just shot three people in the last month, the whole neighborhood knows it. And if you arrested everybody and their brother for drugs and you’ve thrown them all against the wall, who do you expect to pick up the phone and call you as a homicide detective, or to be on your jury and convict? My city is going through a bloodletting in the wake of the riot [in April] that is just debilitating, and the police have no resources in the community.

BOOKER And nobody can understand the vastness of this broken system, the fact that one out of three black boys born today are going to go to prison. There are estimates now that we’d have 20 percent less poverty if we did not have a disproportionate mass incarceration system. The collateral consequences [are enormous] if you have a critical criminal conviction. You can’t get a Pell Grant. You can’t get food stamps. You can’t get into public housing. You can’t get a loan from a bank.

SIMON You can’t vote.

We don’t build enough affordable housing, but we build a new prison every 10 days.

BOOKER We looked at the murder victims in [Newark] — who was getting killed. We found that 84 percent of the murder victims had been arrested before, an average of 10 times. So basically guys from the earliest ages were getting ground up into a system that’s not empowering them, not making them better, making them far worse with things like juvenile solitary confinement. And then by the time that they’re in their mid 20s, they’re on a path towards death.

David, “Show Me a Hero” continues a story you’ve been telling about American cities since “The Corner.” Do you see it as one grand project?

SIMON Listen, it’s a big enough elephant that you can grab it at any narrative point and come up with something new. But “The Corner” began the conversation as a case study in addiction and a street-level schematic of the largest single industry and employer in many American inner cities. It was, I hope, an introduction to the other America, the one that our politics and our economy left behind. And “The Wire” was a pointed critique of the drug prohibition as well as a depiction of unaccountable institutions in American civic life. “Treme” is the most patriotic thing I think I’ll ever be able to write in that New Orleans and its recovery afford a filmmaker the opportunity to use sound and image to argue for the American city.

I believe in the city. I have to. I live on a planet where the rise in urbanity requires all of us to master the multicultural beast that is the city. We figure out the city or we fail. “Treme” was an argument for the American city. And now, “Show Me a Hero,” because of all of our pretense of being a post-racial society, is just that. For every city to thrive, burying the American pathology of race has to be this next century’s first order of business.

BOOKER These false barriers that we’ve erected of space and race, all these illusions that we’ve allowed to infect us like toxins, we’ve got to rid ourselves of that. We are a better nation when we are ultimately united in a common purpose and a common cause.

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