This mini-series was based on historical events. The City of Yonkers, circa late 1980s, was rife with racial tensions. This was due to a legal order issued by federal Judge Leonard Sand, in order to establish the building of low income housing developments for residents who qualified. On Night One, (remember its debut ran three consecutive Sundays) we were introduced to all the major power players in the political arena – Nick Wasiscko (Oscar Isaacs), Councilman Henry Spallone (Alfred Molina), Judge Sand (Bob Balaban) , lawyer Harry Sussman (Jon Bernthal), City Council President Vincenza Restiano (Winona Ryder), Mayoral opponent Angelo Martinelli (James Belushi), city planner Oscar Newman (Peter Riegert), Peter Smith (Terry Kinney) and James Surdoval (Michael Stahl-David) and the residents of Yonkers.
The politicians in Yonkers were divided on the topic of housing integration. Many of the residents did not want to have these public housing units near them, as they feared their property value would decline and they were worried about the quality of people that would be living in those units. Sadly, ignorance and prejudice spread quickly among the citizens of Yonkers. The politicians who were in favor of bringing in the public housing were met with scorn and public hatred. At the heart of it was Nick Wasiscko, the youngest mayor ever for Yonkers. He was young, full of promise and wanted to bring in the housing. That stance brought on a lot of tension at City Hall, so much so that he became concerned for his safety due to the volatile issue and even purchased a gun.
Night Two examined the lives of several residents in the projects, many of whom had challenges to face like declining health, drug addiction, lack of education or just struggles as a single parent. Some citizens attended meetings about the housing projects, in order to get a better understanding of the details; others kept protesting against the housing. The city became financially deadlocked due to some council members opposing the court order. Thus, drastic measures, such as library closures and job cuts, took place in order to get the City of Yonkers out of financial ruin. Literally, while the ground was being broken for construction, senseless acts of vandalism and racism came to a head.
Night Three portrayed the behavior of some of the homeowners who chose to remain jaded against the housing. Others began to understand that people just wanted to have a second chance, a safe environment and opportunities to improve the quality of their lives. We were shown that many of the former residents from the projects thrived in their new homes while others did not end up with a happy endings at all. But, such it life in any neighborhood.
You know, politics is a field in which you get voted in by the people in one instant and thrown under the bus the next. Nick Wasiscko got caught up in that fickleness when he made another bid for office but only got elected counselor. The new mayor, to replace him, ended up being a lying, backstabbing sort who caused a lot of grief for Nick, personally and professionally. Wasiscko became so preoccupied with trying to get back into the political ring it caused strife in his marriage and created a lot of undue stress. In the end, we saw a man who was desperate to clear his name, while trying to find some purpose. Nick Wasiscko may not of come out of it looking at all like a hero, (actually heroics were pretty impossible in this situation) but he did end up doing something purposeful.
This was a man who tried very hard to bring about change to his neighborhood and was unsuccessful at it. He took the fall for the court ordered housing and could never really wash that stain out. He was so terrified at the thought of being found guilty – in what he perceived to be an impending investigation – that he became depressed and fearful. He took the ultimate measure to make sure he was never dragged down again and committed suicide in the cemetery, right next to his father’s tombstone. He left behind a heart broken wife and devastated mother as well as friends, political allies and foes. The fact that Nick Wasiscko committed suicide at age 34 makes him a tragic hero, if anything, because this man still had much to give to society.
In watching this mini-series, I felt that it was laid out in terms of careful pacing and character development. We were introduced to a number of characters each Sunday night, got to know their political and/or personal backgrounds and got to see the growing concerns and tensions that this federal court order of 800 public housing units brought about. I didn’t feel confused – I think the fact that the series was shown in two hour blocks over a period of three Sunday evenings was perfect – again, each portion allowed us to capture the greed, ambition, frustration, determination and concern of the characters. At the end of it all, we ask ourselves: was Nick Wasiscko a hero? I feel that he had some hero-like qualities – he was a leader, even though many of the people grew to dislike him over the housing. I feel the he was too young and maybe a bit naïve. I think that the idea of trying to offer affordable housing in order to give some residents a second chance was noble. He was young and bright, full of political promise but he was also naive in thinking that he could bring the housing in with no issues whatsoever, especially in an area that was predominantly white. I don’t think he envisioned the political and emotional fallout of the court order, nor the problems it would bring.
David Simon is known for The Wire and Treme and in watching this mini-series, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. I found myself wishing for a fourth night to watch. He was able to recreate this story and with it, explain how the political system of Yonkers worked and gave us a cast and story that we were riveted to. From the wardrobe, to the hairstyles, to the music of the late 1980s, I would say that David Simon produced a mini masterpiece. I highly recommend people watching this. The performances by Oscar Isaac, Catherine Keener, Wynona Rider and Alfred Molina were amazing. The cinematography was fantastic – you often saw the nice, picturesque neighborhoods juxtaposed against where the lower income housing units were, giving you a small glimpse into two very different lifestyles. David Simon brought us another quality mini-series and I hope that he will bring us many more in the future. If you haven’t see the HBO Miniseries: SHOW ME A HERO I suggest you catch it and see David Simon at his best. Fing it on HBONow/Go.
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