David Simon's Housing Problems

Curator's Note

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). 


Thank you for sharing this, Nathan. Your post reminds us that David Simon engages in a kind of virtual redevelopment of American urbanity in his work. The first and third seasons of “The Wire” as well as the second and third season of “Treme” dealt with similar issues and can be read as a critical portrayal of segregation and development programs that do not take into account the complex frameworks and histories of the local communities. Next to the McCulloh Homes mentioned in your post, another good example would be “Franklin Terrace High Rises” that featured prominently in the opening season of “The Wire.” Modeled upon housing projects that once ringed Baltimore’s inner-city, but that were torn down under the Clinton administration, “The Wire” shows how these areas turned into urban ghettos with capital investment and job opportunities moving out of the inner-city. Simon is thus keen to root his storylines in contemporary urban histories, while inviting his viewers to discover the lives behind urban fronts and affected by planners’ maps. It would be interesting to compare Simon’s urban topographies both in terms of their defensibility as well as their “surveilability”. Particularly in Season One of “The Wire”, images and photos seen through CCTV cameras are employed to introduce the viewer to the inner-city area, especially to the drug trade in the so-called Low Rises. Initially used by the Major Crimes Unit to get an overview over the workings of the drug networks in this area, the degree of abstraction offered by the maps and photographs is confronted with the community interactions portrayed in the remainder of the series. In this particular scene from “Show Me a Hero” the aspect of surveillance also seems at stake, if only in a private framework of being able to watch the children play on the lawn, to see who passes by etc. Would you say that this dyad between looking in/looking out is also thematized in “Show Me a Hero”?

Its an interesting question, Christopher. For Newman, certainly, being able to look out of one's window was central to the notion of defensible space, and I believe that he frames this in terms of a kind of natural territoriality. The public housing tenants that move into these houses are monitored not only by their angry white neighbors, but also by state, in the form of various officials from the housing authority (some who become friends with the tenants) as well as the police. These scenes recall the demands and restrictions placed on those who receive public assistance, many of which are extremely normative besides being abstruse. For example, apparently smoking is prohibited in many public housing sites today! The forms of social welfare offered in America are frequently paired with the disposession of privacy. By relaying this, interior space takes on a different quality in the show - the dignity of the home is clearly conveyed but so too the porousness of the walls and doors.

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