An onscreen epilogue in Show Me a Hero's concluding episode informs us that the "public housing theories of Oscar Newman," the architect (portrayed by Peter Riegert) responsible for designing the low-rise housing to be built at sites around Yonkers, NY, "are now widely accepted." As Jake Blumgart reports, however, Newman's key concept, "defensible space"--the idea that the sightlines afforded by low-rise dwellings supplied an antidote to crime ridden apartment towers--has been widely discredited by urbanists and architectural historians. The first season of The Wire already subtly belies the idea that architectural design alone could solve social problems when it depicts the drug trafficking that takes place in the low-rise courtyards of Baltimore's McCulloh Homes. If the housing site depicted in Show Me a Hero is, the epilogue reports between images of children playing and neighbors chatting, "free of controversy today," the likely reason is that unlike much of the public housing in America, this site was integrated into a white middle-class nieghborhood.
Linda Williams argues that David Simon's melodramatic imagination is more compelling than his tragic or realist sensibility, and it is in this aspect that the truth of defensible space can be discerned. In the final episode there is a scene where a young boy calls out to "Poodle Lady," a steely white woman who, in an act of rearguard micro-aggression against public housing, has routinely allowed her poodles to defecate on the front lawns of the units. Confronted now by the boy's adorable innocence the woman removes her sunglasses and kneels down to introduce "Martini," "Brandy," and "Alexander." As the boy's mother, Doreen (Nathalie Paul) catches this moment from the window (a perspective at the core of Newman's thinking) we hold our breath with her. Then, nothing happens. That is, nothing bad happens. Lest things become too saccharine, the scene cuts away. Simon too seems a little wary of overselling the moment, thus the deflationary gag of pure white dogs named after cocktails. But if we can admit to being caught up in this miniature sidewalk melodrama it is because we realize that to become truly defensible, designed spaces of mutual dwelling must also carry the possiblity of meaning produced through contingent encounters; which is what integration--as policy and design--actually promises, and what decades of segregation, real estate discrimination, and mass-produced housing have failed to deliver.
Linda Williams, On the Wire, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).