David Simon has made a career turning sprawling, deeply rooted urban problems into riveting TV, with shows like The Wire (famously set in Baltimore) and Treme (in New Orleans). His latest, the HBO miniseries "Show Me a Hero" that aired last month, recounts a real-life, court-ordered housing desegregation case in Yonkers in the 1980s. Perhaps that doesn't sound like the stuff of spell-binding TV. Simon manages, again, to prove otherwise — in large part because the racial animus and political brawling at the heart of the story still resonate today.
This weekend, Simon is in Washington to air part of the show and discuss it at an Urban Institute event with Julian Castro, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development who actually has some influence over these things. Their event is, alas, sold out. But Castro and Simon spoke with us beforehand in a wide-ranging conversation about modern-day racism, why this presidential election is ignoring the poor, and the benefits and limits of making TV about incredibly wonky topics.
The transcript, edited for length, is below. You can also jump to some of the highlights:
Badger: Secretary Castro, you watched the series. What did you think?
Castro: I told David that it’s very powerful because it puts in artistic form the challenges that people have faced for many years — and that they continue to face today — folks of different background, folks with disabilities, when they go out and try to get housing. By putting it in artistic form, it makes a much greater impact than we can with our statistics and the analyses that HUD or nonprofit organizations do about fair housing.
Badger: David, did you feel like that was missing from our public consciousness about segregation — the appeal of an emotional story? That’s something that we struggle with in newspaper articles, too.
Simon: I’ve been on both sides of that fence, having covered stories as a newspaperman. When I was trying to do it on the other side of the fence, you could only do so much, you could only have so much impact. The world is seemingly inured to fact-based journalism in a way it ought not to be.
But if you can frame a story in terms of somebody’s victory or somebody’s tragedy or narrative, and you can make [people] care about that person, that’s always been an incredibly powerful rhetorical device in any argument. It just is. You can talk about something as profound as, say, the Holocaust, and yet in some fundamental way, you need Anne Frank to be Anne Frank, and to write her diary, and to be able to go visit her attic in Amsterdam.
Otherwise, the problem becomes strangely ambiguous, regardless of how profound it is. I wish it were not necessary. I wish the facts themselves could argue sufficiently for people to behave.
Badger: The show had this kind of dumbfounding timing. You optioned Lisa Belkin’s book about 15 years ago, but then the series finally aired at this moment when the Supreme Court and the Obama Administration are talking about race and poverty and segregation. The media is, too, with Baltimore and Ferguson. Was the timing just sheer luck, or did you have a kind of depressing faith that this story wasn’t going to get stale any time soon?
Simon: A little of both. What the administration and Secretary Castro did with regard to [new fair housing rules], in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, we could not have anticipated that delicate bit of timing. That happened after the mini-series was largely completed. We were doing the last sound work when the decision came down, and when the administration made that decision, we were all-in. That was completely, and gloriously random.
But as far as race overall, and the inability of the country to accept some core remedies to our patterns of hyper-segregation — that we knew was ongoing, and sadly eternal. I hope it’s not eternal, but it seems to be. I’m from Baltimore, and we went through the same thing, more than a decade after Yonkers. Our Move to Opportunity efforts in Baltimore County ran into the same kind of opposition. The same rhetoric. And we knew it was ongoing in Westchester County just a couple towns up the river even while we were filming in Yonkers.
Wherever you go in the country, wherever anybody attempts this kind of remedy, the political cost becomes exhausting. I didn’t think that was going away. And for that reason, other mini-series that we had on the books got bumped in front of this, because we felt like this one could wait. The problem is not going to be gone when we come back to it in two or three or four — or ten years.
Castro: There’s no question that it’s still very timely. But I would also say, as President Obama reminded us at the base of the Edmund Pettus Bridge when we commemorated 50 years after the Selma march, there has been progress that has been made. Generally, this generation’s attitudes on race are better than they were in 1968 when the Fair Housing Act was passed. I don’t want it to go without saying that I believe our nation has made some good progress on race relations.
However, having been a local mayor and now the secretary of HUD, the depiction of the NIMBYism, of the racial tension that often exists when minorities try to move into certain communities — there’s no question that that is still too common in our country.
Badger: I suspected, Secretary, that you would be more optimistic than David. Maybe we need our policymakers in government to be optimistic, while we need our artists to be realists.
Simon: If you were asking me if there’s been any transformation in the last 50 years, I would have agreed with the Secretary. There has been. In some ways, the NIMBYism and the fear is no longer couched in the most overt and unreasoning racial animus. Our vocabulary has changed, and it reflects the fact that this stuff is entrenched: the fears of losing your property value, or of your kid’s school becoming vulnerable to forces you can’t control and the test scores coming down. To give some measure of credit to the opponents of change, there are substantive things that are more rooted in class-based fears than race.
But it’s a very delicate line, where race ends and where class begins. The question of what are people really saying is hard. And we try to depict that in the series. People have learned what’s acceptable, or what the American ethos is now with regard to race. And it has changed since ’68. And by the way, there were people in Yonkers who were arguing for a more reasoned approach. They were shouted down, but they were there. And they might not have been there in ’68.
Badger: There’s a particular moment in "Show Me a Hero" where Yonkers Mayor Nick Wasicsko actually says this. He’s talking about the opponents of the desegregated housing and he says, “you’ll never hear them utter a racist phrase. It’s all ‘property values and life and liberty…’” Were you explicitly thinking this was something that needed to be called out in how we talk today?
Simon: Yes. I’m very attentive to the language people use. It’s my stock and trade. And I had a lot of years reporting in Baltimore, a lot of years as a citizen acquiring the political vernacular. And the maturation of fear, in terms of vocabulary, has been profound. You can’t get away with saying some of the things — well maybe not Mr. Trump — that used to fly in ’64, ’68 or even in the ‘70s. But those fears still find a way to express themselves. And even if they’re rooted in economic terms, underneath it, there is a real fear of the other.
Badger: Secretary Castro, if David has this incredible power to convey an emotional story about hard-to-explain problems, is there an issue that you or the government in general have a hard time explaining and getting Americans to care about that you’d want him to take up? If I had the ability to give you the ability to tell David what to work on next…
Castro: That would probably be a very long list, for me or for anybody out here.
But what we see today is a striking disconnect between the governing majority in Congress and the needs of the American people when it comes to basic housing. We have a crisis in terms of affordable housing.
The National Low-Income Housing Coalition found that there was no community in the United States where you could get a decent two-bedroom apartment if you’re working a full-time job at minimum wage. And there were only a handful where you could afford a one-bedroom apartment. This crisis that we have of affordability, people having to double-up, people not having a place to live, or folks spending a greater and greater percentage of their income on rent — there’s a strong disconnect between that reality and what Congress is doing.
Badger: David, aren’t you actually working on something right now about dysfunction in Congress?
Simon: Strangely, yes. It’s the pilot we’ll film after the one I’m presently working on. But it’s only a pilot. It hasn’t been green-lighted as a series yet for HBO. It’s a piece with Ed Burns, my former producing partner on the Wire, and Carl Bernstein. The origin of the idea is with Carl. He’s been saying in my ear for three years “the part of the American government that’s broken is the legislative branch.” That’s the part that has become inert — and purposely inert — because it is the part that is susceptible to capital. It is the place where the money in this country has purchased a sufficient amount of government to prevent any actual act of reform.
If you have money and you don’t want to share any of it, what’s been spent on Congress is money well-spent. That’s the piece. Whether or not it will go is subject to how well it’s directed and the scripts that have yet to be finished. I can’t possibly suggest it’s going to be on the air any time soon.
Simon: There was a part of me that thought, "man, this is the one where I fall on my ass." Because six hours on fair housing and desegregation certainly doesn’t contain a lot of the currency of television. It helps that Nick Wasicsko has this central Shakespearean tragic arc. But even so, a lot had to happen for it to turn out as well as it did. And I live in a different world where it’s not just the idea, it’s the application of the idea. The directing and the actors — sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t.
It’s not like I’m ready to do an eight-part series on tax reform.
Badger: I keep saying that everyone is talking about these topics now. But one exception is the presidential election. We don’t have presidential elections in America about urban issues.
Simon: We don’t mention the poor. Even administrations that have it mind — to address urban issues — I think know enough to realize that speaking of the poor and of urban problems has no political efficacy. It’s a losing proposition in an election cycle.
Badger: Secretary Castro, do you agree with that?
Castro: Unfortunately, over the last several decades, that has not been at all where the focus has been. People of course legitimately often address the concerns of the middle class. And there’s a sense that there’s more political reward to be mined there. But, unfortunately, we have not had folks address the concerns of those who are impoverished. I think about listening to old tapes and watching video of the 1960s, and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King are addressing the concerns — very forthrightly — of the poor.
And then compare that to the language we often hear on the campaign trail today, and that has been the norm for the last 20 years, and there’s a difference there. My hope is that in 2016 and beyond that we will address the poor. One of my concerns is there’s been this unspoken sense and acceptance by too many people that if someone is poor in America, it’s somehow their fault.
David: I absolutely agree with that in full.
Castro: That gets [reinforced] by folks only addressing the middle class. It’s almost like all of us who do have a concern for the poor, and policies and investments that will help improve their lives, sometimes are inadvertently complicit in giving ground because we’re only speaking in terms of the “middle class.” I guess I can say that because I’m not running for anything.
But I will say that the work continues. The investments that HUD is making in public housing, that we’re making trying to help communities desegregate, the work that we’re doing to functionally end homelessness and the progress that’s been made there — I do want to lend some optimism here. The work continues, it’s just that there’s a need to enhance that, and for more Americans to champion that.
Simon: I would add this: There’s one part I am unable to convey because it’s just too much exposition for television drama. We come to the story in 1987, which is of course eight years into the suit in Yonkers, and we leave well before the suit is completely settled in 2007. We also [come to the story] well after all the decisions were made about what kind of society we were building. After all of the resources of government were allied to create a hyper-segregated society.
We arrive way late to make the coherent case — which has been made in many other places — about how federal, state and local governments spent their resources, spent our resources to build a segregated society. We didn’t arrive at a Yonkers that magically self-segregated without a plan. We planned this society. We spent our money, our treasure, our tax dollars to achieve this over the course of decades. We spent it to create public housing when it was white folks who were the beneficiaries during the Depression, or the redlining that happened under the FHA, which was a New Deal program, or the great mainstream use of public housing to help veterans coming back from World War II. It was all a program that had widespread support — until people of color became the beneficiaries.
It would have been exhausting as a matter of television drama to have a character say what I just said. You can’t do it. Characters have to act, they can’t give discourse – or not for very long before you want them to get up out of their chair and do something. You couldn’t in some way explain the world.
If you were to look at one of the libertarian magazines about what they thought "Show Me A Hero" said, it was that "this reckless judge was engaged in social engineering." As if that phrase is enough to dismiss what happened in Yonkers as being an undue reach by government. And of course the great lie there is that the social engineering began in the 1930s. It began as definitive acts of government.
You cannot make a coherent political argument using drama, you have to follow the characters, so it has its own limitations. I found that to be frustrating. I never like to just preach to the choir. I like to think I’m convincing someone in the middle. But when you saw some of the libertarian and neo-liberal commentary on what we had made, it was like divorced from the actual history of the country, and what was being remedied.
Badger: Secretary Castro, I know you hear this “social engineering” claim a lot, too.
Castro: David said it well. I don’t put much merit into that argument at all. I agree completely that the negative social engineering was done decades ago, and sometimes these things turn around for the better. FHA is a very good example of that. All of us have to acknowledge that it once played a role in helping to segregate communities. Today, in 2014, half of the home loans that were extended to African-American and Hispanic homebuyers were insured by the FHA. And it has remained a powerful vehicle for opportunity.
My hope is that over time we can have more instances where these things are able to turn around. Not just in the federal government, but also in local government, where a lot of this happens, and in the private sector.
Badger: Maybe that backstory is a Ken Burns documentary and not a David Simon miniseries.
Simon: I think so. Ken’s got to take up the slack there.