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HBO’s Show Me a Hero and the Sordid History of “Negro Removals”

David Simon’s HBO TV series Show Me a Hero follows the racist fight against public housing in 1980s Yonkers, New York but, as author Kevin Baker reveals, it’s just one instance in the sordid American history of kicking Black people out of their neighborhoods. The issue is not only the refusal of white people to live with people of color, but their conviction that Black space is not legitimate, and that whatever Black people own can be expropriated.

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Protesters in Detroit in 1943 demanded housing for war workers be turned over exclusively to white people, sparking one of the worst race riots in US history., Associated Press

Show Me a Hero, David Simon’s TV adaptation of Lisa Belkin’s book of the same name, takes an unsparing look at one of the most corrosive issues in American life: the question of how we learn, literally, to live with each other.

Simon and co-writer William F Zorzi do this brilliantly, which should be no surprise. Their previous collaboration, The Wire, about life in Baltimore’s inner city, was the best show ever on American television. They are just as unflinching here, their canvas an endless, real-life fight over public housing in Yonkers, a small city just north of New York. Its overwhelmingly white, working-class population had already been battered by de-industrialisation when the fight began in 1980, and Simon and Zorzi are sympathetic to their fears. They never soft-soap the crime and dysfunction prevalent in Yonkers’ predominantly black and Hispanic public housing projects, while at the same time, they deftly uncover white Yonkers’ true sin: the inability to see the people of colour in the projects as human beings, just as desperate as they are to build a better life for themselves and their children.

Yonkers was just one of many such fights over public housing that went on throughout the United States for decades – and are still going on. But there is another dimension to the story, one that is probably beyond the scope of any six-hour TV series to tell.

That is, our past. Not only the refusal of white people to live with people of color, but their conviction, running back through the history of the US, that any black space is not legitimate – that whatever black people own can and should be expropriated by whites, if they so desire it. During the second world war, this idea of white primacy sparked one of the worst race riots in American history, after white people insisted not only that Detroit’s federal housing built for war workers be segregated, but that all of it be turned over to white residents.

The riot was no anomaly. During the first world war, in 1917, another white-on-black race riot all but annihilated the black community of East St Louis, Illinois. A few years later, armed white mobs (backed by local law officers) razed to the ground the all-black Florida towns of Ocoee and Rosewood, and the prosperous black Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Scores of black people were killed in these onslaughts. Greenwood was burned to the ground as airplanes dropped incendiaries on the neighbourhood. Some 10,000 African Americans were left homeless.

These flourishing black communities were erased not only from physical existence, but also from living memory. Bodies were hidden, accounts censored and the survivors scattered or intimidated into silence. To this day, we don’t know exactly what happened, or how many people died.

One of the most vibrant communities in black America vanished just across the street from where I lived almost all of my adult life. Until a few years ago, I had no idea it had ever been there. Soon after I graduated from college in 1980 – at almost the exact time the federal government joined a lawsuit by the National Association of Coloured People (NAACP) against the city of Yonkers – three friends and I moved into an apartment on West 99th Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

It was in a row of tenements on the south side of the street, apartment buildings that, as a city inspector once put it, were “little more than six stories of dust, held up by 100 years of paint.” The superintendent was a former member of a Brazilian death squad, given refuge by the US government, while the landlord would be sent to prison a few years later, not only for murdering his brother-in-law, but also for having some of his minions pick-axe their way down to the gas line below the street in order to finagle the meter.

The local stretch of Broadway then was a hodge-podge of greasy spoons, barbershops and pizza places. Musty little stores stuffed with newspapers and pornographic magazines, that sold loose cigarettes and lighters, and red and yellow dream sheets that told you the best numbers to bet in the lottery. Hookers roamed the sidestreets, servicing the car trade from Jersey, and liquor stores had partitions thick enough to stop anti-tank guns. We loved it. The rent was dirt cheap and there was an elevator. Best of all, though, were the people.

My neighbourhood is almost a joke about multiculturalism: black, white, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Indian, Chinese, Haitian, gay and lesbian couples, extended families, graduate students, widows and widowers, mixed-race couples and gender non-conformists live here. For years, our postman was a Sikh gentleman living on the first floor. We let in the guests of his Orthodox Jewish neighbour on Saturdays, knowing they couldn’t violate the Sabbath by pressing the buzzer. Working at my desk by an open courtyard window, I sometimes feel as though I am sitting astride the great hive of the world, hearing scraps of languid, evening conversations in three languages I do not understand.

All around us, up and down Amsterdam Avenue, are the sorts of high-rise, public housing projects that so terrified the residents of Yonkers. They’re not pretty buildings. But because New York has – usually – tried to integrate its public housing somewhat by income, and tie it into the rest of the community, they are generally safe and well-tended places. The lawns are unlittered and kids play happily.

Directly across from us is another sort of housing complex. West 99th street stops abruptly there, one of the few interruptions of Manhattan’s endless grid. Where the streets used to go from 97th to 100th street are giant lots crowded with luxury towers, many of them co-ops and condominiums with balconies and great views. A Whole Foods store moved in a few years ago, along with a gourmet cupcake shop and a pricey cosmetics outlet. Developers are trying to rebrand it all as “Columbus Square”, even though there’s no square there.

There’s no hint of what it replaced. No suggestion of “the Old Community” that once was one of the few places outside of Harlem that black New Yorkers could call their own.

So much of the history of African Americans in New York is that of being pushed off land by an encroaching white population. Before the Civil War, there was an integrated community called Seneca Village on the Upper West Side, that included three churches, a school and a graveyard. The majority of its residents were black, but American Indians and Irish immigrants, who had fled the potato famine, also lived there. Almost all were squatters, and so when the land was needed to build Central Park, they were evicted without recourse or restitution, their homes and churches and school demolished.

After the white-on-black violence that erupted during the city’s Civil War draft riots, the only place there were enough African Americans to feel safe was a few blocks of Greenwich Village, around Minetta Lane. Soon, they were moved on from there as well, pushed steadily uptown over the next 50 years by one wave of white immigration after another. First to the Tenderloin, and Hell’s Kitchen in midtown, then to the area around what is Columbus Circle and Lincoln Center today.

After a cop was killed in a fight with a black man in 1900, a police riot in which New York police officers encouraged white mobs to join them in beating local black people at random succeeded in getting the black population to move on again, this time to Harlem. Real estate speculators had hoped to turn Harlem into a wealthy, white enclave, but they misgauged the market. With black people forcibly prevented from living almost anywhere else in Manhattan, landlords could charge them two or three times the going rents – gouging that forced African Americans to double or triple up in their apartments, ultimately sowing the seeds of the community’s decline.

There was a modest alternative. In 1905, black real estate entrepreneur Philip A Payton Jr – who would make a small fortune managing the exodus to Harlem – carved out another niche for African Americans on 98th and 99th streets, between Amsterdam and Central Park West – just across the street from my home.

The tenements would have been good, middle-class housing at the time, and they attracted a dazzling array of black and Hispanic professionals, artists, scholars, entertainers and political leaders: Bert Williams, the popular song-and-dance man who put on the first all-black Broadway musical; Robert Earl Jones, a former Mississippi sharecropper who became a longtime star of the stage and was most famous as the father of James Earl Jones; James Weldon Johnson, the great voice of the Harlem Renaissance and longtime leader at the NAACP; Marcus Garvey, renowned leader of the first mass, black nationalist movement in America; and the incomparable Billie Holliday, whose mother also ran a restaurant on W 99th street, and many others – such a fantastic collection of talent, of intellect, that had they all been white people, we would have been taught about it in school and young people from around the country would have made pilgrimages to it, as they did to Greenwich Village.

Instead, by 1951, the Old Community was a tightly knit if poor neighbourhood, served by its own black church and settlement house. Its average family lived well below the poverty line, but rents were cheap, and because their neighbourhood was integrated, they enjoyed the benefit of good public schools and government services. Their children could frolic in the leafy greensward of Central Park, just next door.

But things were about to change. In one of the most unfortunate examples of what happens to good intentions that are not thought out, President Harry Truman had signed into law the 1949 Housing Law, with its notorious Title I, soon to become better known as “urban renewal”. Title I gave civic authorities the right to condemn “slum neighbourhoods”, and turn them over to a “reasonable bidder” to redevelop.

In theory, this was a laudable effort to put federal funds behind local and private-sector efforts to eradicate city slums. In practice, under the supervision of overwhelmingly white and often racist local officials, “urban renewal,” as novelist James Baldwin would famously put it, “means Negro removal.”

Nowhere was this policy more avidly and brutally pursued than in New York, where “master builder” Robert Moses then ruled as a virtual dictator. Moses, an inveterate racist, saw a double opportunity in urban renewal. He could remove whole black neighbourhoods from wherever he liked, and funnel millions of dollars of supposedly “honest graft” to the politicians, contractors and developers whose support he needed. In all, he would demolish some 2,000 city neighbourhoods to these ends, throwing at least 300,000 people – and probably many more – out of their homes. As Robert Caro points out in his magisterial study of Moses, The Power Broker, while only some 12% of New Yorkers were listed as “non-white” in the 1950 census, at least 37% of those evicted by Moses’ projects were minorities.

The most egregious example of this policy cited by Caro was the destruction of the Old Community. Moses wielded his power to condemn six square blocks of this remarkable neighbourhood, containing 338 apartment buildings and 3,628 families. The total appraised value of this property was $15m, but the “reasonable bid” Moses accepted for its “renewal” was just $1m, from a company run by one Samuel Caspert, who promised to build a wonderful new housing complex, dubbed Manhattantown.

Caspert was many things, but he was not a builder. Professionally, he was an auctioneer and appraiser, whose family business describes him today on its website as “a visionary”. His main vision seemed to be of money filling his pockets. He and his partners would build nothing at Manhattantown beyond a parking lot, and they did not even demolish all that much.

Instead, they continued to collect rents from the dwindling tenants, while slashing their amenities and finding inventive new ways to bilk more money out of their holdings. One such scam included Caspert having the company sell all the buildings’ stoves and refrigerators to a son-in-law’s corporation, rent them back for over three times the cost of the sale, then buy them back at the end of the year.

In return for providing the rents to finance such lucrative scams, the residents of the Old Community received nothing but the slow destruction of their homes and their community. In keeping with the provisions of Title I, evicted tenants were promised comparable living arrangements and “preferential status” if they applied for new apartments. In reality, as in most of Moses’ projects, this was just a lie. Little or no effort was made to find the evicted residents a place to go, and none of them could afford the nice new buildings of Manhattantown – provided they ever got built.

In other words, the “slum-dwellers” who urban renewal was supposed to be all about, would get nothing and lose everything.

Caspert and company simply slapped notices in lobbies announcing that the buildings would be demolished at once, and that all tenants had to leave. To encourage them to do so, their new landlord stopped cleaning the buildings or making any repairs, leaving their front doors open to bums and winos. Eventually, heat and hot water went, too. All around them, the few buildings that were being slowly torn down were converted into huge piles of jagged, dusty wreckage, until one observer noted: “Manhattantown looked like a cross-section of burned out Berlin right after the second world war.”

A band of defiant liberal reformers decided to fight back. Going from apartment to apartment to interview the remaining tenants, they found people wary and frightened by what would become of them, but discovered “that most of the apartments were well kept, clean”. They still would not become slum-dwellers, even as the slum was built around them. Scrupulously documenting all the wanton destruction and corruption they had found, the liberal reformers went public with their findings – and got nowhere.

In Show Me a Hero, the ranting white protesters on the news every night cannot understand how it is that federal judges can impose what they considered to be naive and dangerous anti-segregation statutes on their community. They punish one Yonkers mayor after another, for not wasting money on what are plainly hopeless appeals. But the black residents of Manhattantown and their liberal allies would not even get a day in court. Such was the power of Moses and the white establishment behind him, that almost none of New York’s many newspapers reported anything on the blatant corruption going on in Manhattantown. No elected officials were in a position to rein him in, even if they wanted to.

It was only when the liberals were able to force a hearing before a US Senate committee in 1954, three years after Moses’ “reasonable bidders” had obtained the right to build Manhattantown, that Caspert and company admitted that 280 of the 338 buildings they were supposed to have demolished already were still standing, and that their inhabitants were still being charged rent. It would also come out that the company was not even paying city taxes on the properties. But even then, there would be no punishment for any of this malfeasance. Only after a belated series of newspaper exposes, and three more years of negligible progress – after Caspert was used as a fake developer at other “slum clearance” sites by Moses – would the leading stockholders allow themselves to be bought out by a real developer and walk away from the rubble with a tidy fortune.

After that, things moved quickly enough. The remaining buildings were knocked down, their residents scattered. By 1960, Manhattantown had become Park West Village. A fairly charming, pricey set of red-brick buildings to start, its residents would include many of the same sorts of extraordinary black and Hispanic achievers who had lived in the Old Community – Duke Ellington, Odetta, Coleman Hawkins, Wilt Chamberlain, Cicely Tyson, Tito Puente, Hugh Masakela, Miriam Makeba. Though, in perhaps the ultimate irony, the number of black tenants was initially limited to 20% of all residents, lest their presence reach the “tipping point” that would scare off white renters.

Today, of course, there is no question of anyone being turned away from living in Park West Village, or anywhere else around what was the Old Community, due to the color of their skin. We live in the perfect democracy of money. All they have to have is the Brinks truck full of lucre that is required to buy into most of Manhattan these days.

The old dive bars and the greasy spoons are gone, but so are the wonderful little butcher shops, bakeries and corner cinemas that were there for decades, sustaining our community through all the crime and social decay of the drug years – crime and social decay that were, in part, drawn to the area in the first place by the long, government-imposed disintegration of the Old Community. Businesses on Broadway are being driven out of existence in droves by the exorbitant rent demands of landlords – many of which are the governing boards of the wealthy new co-ops. Even franchises of major national chains, such as Starbucks or Subway, are routinely shuttered, and shops sit empty for months at a time.

It feels as if we have gone full circle, and come out somewhere slightly worse. Almost all that survives are pharmaceutical chains, bank branches and nail salons, overwhelming our neighbourhood like invasive species of weeds. It is difficult to believe that this is what even the owners of the shiny new condominiums in “Columbus Square” had in mind when they invested in urban living, but here we are.

Meanwhile, the elderly, dignified alumni of the Old Community hold annual reunions and reminisce about past days. They seem remarkably devoid of bitterness, considering what was done to them. And my little block still hangs on, an island of neighbourly diversity in a sea of gentrification. Perhaps Yonkers, its population now almost half black, Hispanic and Asian, is coming to understand, too, what there is to be gained from living with people different from you.

Jim Epstein, a writer and producer who grew up on 99th street and made a scintillating short film about the Old Community, The Tragedy of Urban Renewal: The Destruction and Survival of a New York City Neighbourhood, likes to say, ironically, that “My favourite Robert Moses quote is: ‘Someday you’ll thank me for these projects and forget about these people.’” As Epstein understands, it’s the people who make a place unforgettable.

[Kevin Baker is the author of the New York, City of Fire trilogy: Dreamland, Paradise Alley, which won the 2003 James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction and the American Book Award, and Strivers Row; and the 2014 historical novel The Big Crowd.]