25 years after Show Me a Hero: Voices from Yonkers public housing
Housing policy hit the small screen this year. HBO’s latest miniseries, Show Me a Hero, shone a light on challenging housing issues faced by communities across the country, but seldom given such wide-reaching attention. Co-written by David Simon, the creator of The Wire, the miniseries tells the true story of a polarizing fight over the construction of public housing in Yonkers, NY in the late 1980s. (We recapped the miniseries and hosted policy debates over its polemics as well.)
The show focuses on the development of new scattered-site public housing in predominantly white communities and the families that move into those homes from the Schlobohm Houses, a high-rise public housing development. Many families, however, stayed behind in their existing homes and communities. The voices of those families are an important part of the story as well. We went to Yonkers to speak with some of the long-term residents of the Schlobohm Houses to hear their own reflections on Yonkers during the housing fight in featured in Show Me a Hero.
When I first moved here [43 years ago], it was mixed, black and white and Hispanic. It was all mixed. It was nice, very nice. Had soda machines. You didn't have to worry about locking your door. It was nice. When a lot of the blacks started moving in, the whites moved out. I don't know [why]. I really don't know. All I know that when the blacks started to move in, the whites started moving.
I raised my family here. I had five kids. I never had no problems. I minded my own business. My kids grown up and I had no problems fighting and going on with my kids. They trying to tell me, "why don't you move, mama?" I never thought about moving. I've been here, that been my home for 43 years. Nobody bother me. I don't bother nobody.
I've been living in Yonkers since I was 15, but I moved down here back in the '70s. When I first heard they was building the townhouses, we were very excited. But then as they were building the places, you were hearing all types of threatening talk. People protesting that they don't want the people from the projects to bring the drugs into their neighborhood. We heard about the threats to put pipe bombs into some of the townhouses.
When you hear stuff like that practically every day, who would want to move? I'm not gonna move over there, I’m gonna stay here.
I remember when they had the lottery. The first name she pulled is my sister's name. She was excited to move. When they got to my name [on the waiting list] and they called me and asked if I wanted a two-bedroom townhouse, I told them no. I wouldn't want it. I just didn't like the way they looked at people like us, like we were so bad and everything. They didn't want to live with us. That was terrible.
I can really say that I had a childhood down here, regardless of what the atmosphere was like. We played hopscotch, we played jump rope, we played dodgeball. My mother, she stopped a lot of things from happening down here, bad things. There were some shootings and there were a lot of people that used drugs in those days.
My family was picked—we could've lived in the townhouses. My mother was one of the people that was really into her community, so she didn't want to leave here. I was upset because I did want to move. I was like, "Mom, why didn't you take it?" When I saw the townhouses, I was even more upset. I said, "Wow, we could've had a little backyard." That's what I always wanted.
Even now, if they pick me today or tomorrow, I'm going and I'm staying. I'm not coming back here. Sometimes, you have to just take that chance, you know? Give your kids a better opportunity, something better than just being out here.
I was like 15 when I moved here. When I moved down here, I thought that this is like any other place you move to. It ain't dangerous. I mean, any place you go is dangerous. It was still a nice place, and I felt safer in here than I did outside of here. Honestly, my brother got killed down here, but that's totally something totally different. That was in a drug era. He got killed in 1990.
But I'm still here, so it must be something. It's not just that the rent is cheap. The people are good. Me, personally, when I walk outside, everybody speaks to me. Everybody. Little kids run up to me and give me hugs because I'm blessed. I just feel so loved. I only speak for me, how I feel about being around here. Everybody, everybody loves me, and I love them.
This blog is part of the Housing Assistance Matters Initiative which educates Americans about the vital role of housing assistance. The initiative is a project of the Urban Institute, made possible with support from Housing Authority Insurance, Inc. (HAI, Inc.). The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization and retains independent and exclusive control over substance and quality of any Housing Assistance Matters Initiative products. The views expressed in this product are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute or HAI, Inc.
Photos by Lydia Thompson, Urban Institute