The writer’s next show, Show Me a Hero, is the true story of a battle over public housing that convulsed New York in the 80s. Here, on location in Manhattan, he talks about how money corrupts US politics, the erosion of the working class, why it’s a crime to be poor in America – and why he likes to argue
At the end of a long day scouting locations for his new TV miniseries, David Simon is sitting in his Upper West Side office in New York describing the type of person who needn’t bother tuning in to his new show. He’s speaking as a TV writer but also as a citizen angered by a political system that he thinks fails many of his fellow countrymen.
“People who think we’re being well governed at the moment… well, there’s no reason for them to watch. People who look at the inertia of Washington, at the partisanship, at the divisive and polarised discourse… people who think that’s the way to build a just society, well, don’t watch the show, because I got nothin’ for you.”
If, on the other hand, “You’re starting to believe that even the vernacular we’re using to argue about solutions to problems is dysfunctional, watch this show because I think it’s a perfect metaphor for what the American government is no longer capable of doing – addressing problems in a utilitarian fashion for the good of most people. American politics has left the room when it comes to finding solutions for our problems.”
Show Me a Hero, which will appear on screens late next year or in spring 2016, is based on a non-fiction book of the same name by former New York Times writer Lisa Belkin. It marks the time, says Simon, when American politics left the room.
The 1999 book’s subtitle, “a tale of murder, suicide, race and redemption” hints at the drama involved. Belkin documents the story through a series of interviews with many of the principals involved. It’s a tale of political and personal destruction that convulsed Yonkers, a city of 200,000 people just 40 minutes’ drive north of Manhattan. At its heart was a row about public housing for low-income residents being built in a part of Yonkers almost exclusively reserved for the wealthy.
Show Me a Hero shows how the fallout engulfed the New York body politic and ultimately brought unwanted national attention to Yonkers. When the dispute was finally settled the New York Times noted how the bitter row “had opened an ugly chapter in the city’s history, tearing apart neighbourhoods, building and destroying political careers and unleashing a heated court battle that nearly drove Yonkers to bankruptcy”.
On a bright, sunny morning last week the Schlobohm housing project, in west Yonkers, the largest low-income public housing site in the city and one of the principal locations for Show Me a Hero, is quiet. Except, that is, for Simon, his director Paul Haggis and other crew members who are here to scrutinise backgrounds, visualise scenes and figure out what angle offers the best view of the Hudson river in the near distance. Schlobohm is one of half a dozen stops they will make as they crisscross the city to finalise locations before four months of filming, which starts this week.
As the crew sweeps through a communal space that doubles as a car park, they pass by a mural. Painted on the side of a low wall that circles the area are five words in large, childlike lettering. They add colour to an urban landscape dominated by the red brick of the low- and high-rises. Spaced about a metre apart, they read “Unity”, “Harmony”, “Peace”, “Pride”, “Safe”.
But when the FBI’s New York field office writes about Schlobohm, it uses a different set of words. One of the most recent entries on its website is headed: “Three charged in connection with December 2013 homicide”. It lays bare the cycle of violence that is visited on places such as this when it notes that the arrest of two dozen gang members two years before had paved the way for a rival to thrive in their absence.
“In late June and early July 2012, federal authorities arrested 20 members of the Strip Boyz on charges of narcotics distribution and/or firearm offences… the arrests of the Strip Boyz left GMF [rival gang the Grimy Motherfuckers] dominant in the Schlobohm housing project.”
If the FBI’s reports were reduced to five words they might read “Narcotics”, “Gangs”, “Murder”, “Shooting”, and “Trafficking”.
The story of Schlobohm to be told by David Simonstarts in 1980, when the local Yonkers branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), backed by the US justice department, sued the city of Yonkers. The lawsuit alleged that the city’s housing and school policies had, over a period of 40 years, purposely segregated black and Hispanic residents from its more affluent white neighbours. It claimed that Yonkers deliberately placed its poorer (non-white) residents in the west of the city, while the east side remained predominantly white.
In 1985, US federal court judge Leonard Sand ruled in favour of the NAACP and instructed Yonkers to build 200 units of public housing on the east side. That’s when the trouble started.
The six-part miniseries will follow what happened from 1987 to 1994 as local residents and politicians defied the court order in a series of increasingly vocal and public demonstrations that brought the issues of race, housing and deprivation in Yonkers on to the national agenda.
An ABC news report broadcast at the time gives a glimpse of how divisive the dispute was. It features one of the residents at a Save Yonkers meeting (a man named Jack Tracy) making his position clear: “I lived with blacks, I delivered newspapers to blacks, but I can’t live next to what the government has in these projects. If the government wants to put criminals and dope-pushers in the projects I can’t live next to them. The federal judge can find me guilty, the supreme court can find me guilty… but if they think they’re going to integrate with Jack Tracy and his family, they’re going to have to build projects 60 miles north, 80 miles north, they can build them in Maine or wherever they want but I will not live next to a project. And if it means going to Canada, or back to Ireland that is what I will do. That ain’t why I am living in this country.”
In the fury and noise that engulfed Yonkers’s east side, what Jack Tracy and others failed to hear was that the judge’s proposal was not for old style “projects” (ie large-scale, densely populated, high-rise public housing) but for 200 two-storey houses to be distributed in small groups across the east side.
Later in the morning, after we have left Schlobohm and passed on to the noticeably more affluent (and white) east side of Yonkers, Simon and his crew stop at another location. Simon points to a small row of innocuous two-storey houses on this pleasant, leafy street. He says: “Look. That’s them, those are some of the houses. That’s what Yonkers tore itself apart over. And you wouldn’t even know they were public housing.”
What attracted Simon to this story was not the issues of housing or race or deprivation but something more fundamental – the dysfunction of the American political system. The story, Simon says, is tailor-made for showing how US politics now runs on fear and money, two forces that are slowly corroding American society.
“What intrigued me about the story was that it’s an almost perfectly allegorical argument about how our political processes are no longer equipped to recognise or solve problems. You have this mid-size American city, Yonkers, that didn’t have terrifying racial dynamics before the controversy. It had problems like any city but there was no reason that fear should be such an effective currency in the political process. And yet fear and money are the only currencies in the American political process that get their due any more. Nothing makes people more stupid and foolish than money and fear.”
The effect was to split the city in half. The east side set about protecting the value of its homes, livelihoods, children and way of life from the perceived threat from the west side. Looking now at the small clusters of neat, low-rise homes that were eventually built on the east side, its difficult to understand why the fury reached such a pitch.
For Simon, the answer is clear. “Politicians can gain so much by invoking fear and because money is at the core of that fear and the people who are the most frightened were looking towards their real-estate values, the values of their neighbourhoods and what they might personally lose if the neighbourhood went south. Money and fear paralysed Yonkers politically, and caused untold damage to the city’s reputation.”
For Simon, the story of Yonkers is telling for another reason – its timing marks the period in American history when a consensus fractured. The social compact between capital and labour was starting to break. From the 1980s onwards capital won virtually all of its battles with the labour unions in America.
This is a point forcefully made by ex-Clinton labour secretary Robert Reich in his recent film, Inequality for All. He dates the busting of the labour unions and the rupture of the social compact to Ronald Reagan’s firing of 11,000 air traffic controllers in 1981. From then on, the idea that a market-driven society would mutually benefit those who held the capital and those who provided the labour was no longer in place, he says. For Simon, this is the point at which the shared community of interests that walked side by side as the American economy surged after the second world war came apart. The collective will that bound together communities, cities and, ultimately, America started to erode.
“What was required in Yonkers was to ask: ‘Are we all in this together or are we not all in this together?’ Is there a society or is there no society, because if there is no society, well, that’s the approach that says ‘Fuck ’em, I got mine’. And Yonkers coincides with the rise of ‘Fuck ’em I got mine’ in America.
“That’s the notion that the markets will solve everything. Leave me alone. I want maximum liberty, I want maximum freedom. Those words have such power in America. On the other hand ‘responsibility’ or ‘society’ or ‘community’ are words that are increasingly held in disfavour in the United States. And that’s a recipe for cooking up a second-rate society, one that does not engage with the notion of collective responsibility. We’re only as good a society as how we treat those who are most vulnerable and nobody’s more vulnerable than our poor. To be poor is not a crime, except in America.”
These are not new themes in Simon’s work. The Wire was a grand tour of the institutions that were failing Americans, from politics to journalism, and from education to the criminal justice system. It was also an indictment of how capital had decisively won its war against American labour, with enduring consequences for America’s working class. This is the issue that most exercises Simon.
In his long and brilliant introductory essay to the 2009 book The Wire: Truth Be Told (a collection of essays by people involved in the making of the series), Simon wrote: “The Wire depicts a world in which capital has triumphed completely, labour has been marginalised and moneyed interests have purchased enough political infrastructure to prevent reform. It is a world in which the rules and values of the free market and maximised profit have been mistaken for a social framework, a world where institutions themselves are paramount and everyday human beings matter less.
“Unemployed and under-employed, idle at a west Baltimore soup kitchen or dead-ended at some strip-mall cash register – these are the excess Americans. The economy staggers along without them, and without anyone in this society truly or sincerely regarding their desperation. Ex-steelworkers and ex-longshoremen, street dealers and street addicts, and an army of young men hired to chase and jail the dealers and addicts, whores and johns and men to run the whores and coerce the johns – and all of them unnecessary and apart from the new millennium economic model that long ago declared them irrelevant.
“This is the world of The Wire, the America left behind.”
But Simon acknowledges that this wider message may have been lost on some of those who watched the highly acclaimed series, set among the politicians, police, press and drug dealers of Baltimore.
“Sure, there’s people who watch The Wire and go ‘Man I love all these fuckin’ characters but I hate it when the politics comes on… I just want to see the badasses shoot each other.’ And it’s like yeah, well, OK, I get it, you know, I get it, but I didn’t leave journalism to write fuckin’ television for you because that’s just horrific.”
He expresses relief, and some amusement, that the cable channel HBO continues to commission his work in spite of the relatively low ratings his TV work attracts (The Wire, belatedly through word of mouth, drew in a healthy audience. Subsequent series, though highly acclaimed, including Generation Kill and Treme, fared less well).
He jokes about “getting a 2% share” of audience, but appears untroubled about how long his shelf life as a TV writer might be. “You got to commit to something. If you’re a writer you got to write something. You might as well believe in it.”
HBO seems to believe in it too. That much is clear the next day when Simon and co-writer Bill Zorzi (who has been working on Show Me a Hero, on and off, for 10 years) are the star attractions at a start of production meeting in HBO’s Manhattan headquarters. There are close to 50 people here, and another 10 are looped in on a screen from LA. Haggis jokes that “he’s never seen this many people in a room before”.
Before Simon addresses the room, senior HBO executive Kary Antholis steps forward to speak. One of the executives closest to Simon’s projects, he is wholehearted in his praise. “This project is among the most meaningful that David has ever done. In its reflections on race, politics and community, I think it will be a powerful story and will make an important contribution to this country’s social dialogue. It’s one of the great legacies of HBO that we make these contributions to our social dialogue… I believe that Treme lives in that legacy, so does Generation Kill, and The Wire. I am very proud and grateful that David is doing these series for HBO.”
When Simon speaks he emphasises why Show Me a Hero is so prescient. But he goes further too, in pointing out precisely what it is that has gummed up the US political machine. “The most dysfunctional part of the government is Congress, the most loathed institution in America (with approval ratings of 7%), but they are unrepentant about that. The reason to do this project is that it speaks exactly to what is wrong with our country. It happens that this story is about 200 houses that needed to be built, but substitute any other issue… immigration, budgetary issues, almost any foreign policy or environmental issue that requires any systematic action, or thought, and you see it. This is a country that can get nothing done.”
Simon argues forcefully that it’s the US Congress which smothers the body politic and destroys its capacity for action. Money has tilted the balance of power by inserting itself into the political system and now has the power to influence Congress – and the legislation that governs how society organises itself.
“You can buy congressmen so fast. Ideas have nothing to do with it. And that’s the part that’s broken. And that was the part that was broken in Yonkers.
“It has to change. When capital also is entitled to buy the government, that same government that might in some way create the basic standards of behaviour, everything from child labour to environmental protection, to workplace safety, to minimum wages that are consistent with the cost of living… Well eventually it’s going to get to the point where it’s so fuckin’ bad that people are going to throw a brick.”
Simon, at 54, is driven. Driven to write about the issues that exercise him. And driven to engage in intellectual combat. He relishes argument, and thrives on the mental exercise that debate provides. You get a strong sense that, left to his own devices and left all alone, it wouldn’t be long before he was picking a fight with himself. It’s a thirst for intellectual friction, and appetite for a dialectic, that drives all of his work. Plots, characters and narrative are all very well, but only in that they are part of a toolkit needed to construct an argument. Simon is never going to sit down and write a TV drama about people per se: his work will always be about something more elemental, more structural.
Writing in 2009 about the impulses that drove The Wire, he said: “The Wire had ambitions elsewhere. Character is essential for all good drama, and plotting is just as fundamental. But ultimately, the storytelling that speaks to our current condition, that grapples with the basic realities and contradictions of our immediate world – these are stories that, in the end, have some chance of presenting a social, and even political, argument. And to be honest, The Wire was not merely trying to tell a good story or two. We were very much trying to pick a fight.”
Simon has been picking fights since he was a young kid growing up in Washington. He learned his way around an argument at an early age while sitting at his family dinner table. It was how you gained your spurs (your “moxie”) in the Simon family: by holding your own in intellectual fisticuffs. “I lived in a house where argument was sport. Dinner discussions were about what was going on in the world. Not everybody was expected to agree, because then you couldn’t have a good argument, but if people didn’t agree, then you could have a good argument.”
Simon remembers the day he came of age intellectually. In his telling, it sounds like a duel, a rite-of-passage moment. “I was having an argument in my uncle Hank’s house in New York, and I would stake myself out against my father and two of my uncles. I must have been 17 and I just knew they were wrong. And I held them off to a draw for about an hour and a half in my uncle’s den. And I remember my uncle Hank turning to my father and saying, “Who knew he had a brain?” It was the biggest thing for my uncle Hank; it was how you earned moxie in my house.”
The web has given Simon another place to pick fights. Having lain dormant and then only been used for professional announcements, davidsimon.com has now become a place where Simon has, over the last few years, written occasional often coruscating posts on anything from the NSA to the policing of the Ferguson riots. Given time he will engage at length with some of those who post comments. The engagement is robust. He pushes, and is willing to be pushed, if he thinks contributors (and he himself) will learn, develop and mature their argument. It’s the family dinner table again.
When he was setting out what davidsimon.com would become, he wrote, with unerring honesty: “Those who know me understand that while it’s refreshing to meet people with no opinions, I’m not that fellow – I like to argue. I don’t like to argue personally, but rather I like pursuing a good ranging argument.”
Although limited by time and a work schedule that, alongside Show Me a Hero, sees Simon wrestling with three other development projects for HBO, including one about the New York sex industry in the 70s (not to mention a theatre project involving the songs of the Pogues), he still finds time for occasional posts. What he relishes is the opportunity to write in long-form and to develop an argument, see a thought grow, mature and ripen. “I guess what you’re hoping, the equivalent of what often resulted at my family’s dinner table, was that the argument goes somewhere, that it has legs. This is why you engage with people on ideas. At its best ideas can build, arguments can develop.”
The fight that David Simon has most often picked in recent years – and one he will address when he delivers the keynote talk at the Observer Ideas festival next month – is how the power of the market has trumped all other priorities in his country, and destroyed the values that brought America together.
“My conviction is that what made us great as an economic power was transforming our working class into a middle class and making them this economic engine that not only bought all the shit that they needed, but a lot of stuff they didn’t. By the middle of the century, or a little later, the American workforce had been launched into middle-class status and had discretionary income and the ability to construct a future that allowed the next generation to maintain that upward mobility and even advance further on it. That’s a pretty good dream. That’s more than a dream. But it’s no longer true. We’ve been disassembling that middle class slowly by degrees.”
For typical middle-class Americans, the squeeze is on. The certainties they had come to expect no longer exist. Late capitalism is unable to provide the generation-on-generation wealth advances that many had come to assume was normal. The new normal is something very different.
“Now you have an existing upper middle class or upper class that is politically powerful, quite moneyed and is larger than at any time. It’s not just the 1%, it’s the 10%, the 20% that have been carried higher up on the pyramid and who are in those industries that have caught the wave of the information age and for them the American dream seems uninterrupted. What they’re not noticing is that the people who used to be able to send their kids to college and hold down a mortgage on a factory wage or on a mid-level administrative [job] or on a civil servant’s salary, that they’re being crushed.”
Simon is not an outlier in his criticism of the American body politic or in his reflections on unfettered capitalism and the rise of inequality. What is marked is how many voices have joined this debate in the US.
For the last two years the New York Times has been running a series on inequality, curated by the venerable economist Joseph Stiglitz, entitled The Great Divide. It has featured contributions from academics, business people and politicians.
Stiglitz recently wrote about the fracturing of the same postwar consensus, and how it came about. “Corporate interests argued for getting rid of regulations, even when those regulations had done so much to protect and improve our environment, our safety, our health and the economy itself.
“But this ideology was hypocritical. The bankers, among the strongest advocates of laissez-faire economics, were only too willing to accept hundreds of billions of dollars from the government in the bailouts that have been a recurring feature of the global economy since the beginning of the Thatcher-Reagan era of ‘free’ markets and deregulation.
“The American political system is overrun by money. Economic inequality translates into political inequality, and political inequality yields increasing economic inequality.”
More recently, Robert Reich contributed an essay to Salon.com entitled “American democracy is diseased – how we can wrest back power from our corporate overlords”, in which he addresses the same issue. “We entered a vicious cycle in which political power became more concentrated in moneyed interests that used the power to their advantage – getting tax cuts, expanding tax loopholes, benefiting from corporate welfare and free-trade agreements, slicing safety nets, enacting anti-union legislation, and reducing public investments. These moves further concentrated economic gains at the top, while leaving out most of the rest of America.”
Simon is not sanguine about what it will take for corporate and political America (increasingly one and the same) to recognise that if the story continues in this vein it will not end well.
“I think in some ways the cancer is going to have to go a little higher. It’s going to start crawling up above the knee and people are going to have to start looking around and thinking ‘I thought I was exempt. I didn’t know they were coming for me’.
“It’s happened to the manufacturing class, it’s happened to the poor. Now it’s happening to reporters and schoolteachers and firefighters and cops and social workers and state employees and even certain levels of academics. And that’s new. That’s not the American dream.”
Simon reserves particular contempt for the forces in America that have helped strip labour of its dignity, who refuse to see the benefits, or necessity, of people collectively organising in order to protect their interest.
“Unions are part of the equation. They’re not the whole equation – the unions needed to lose as many battles as they won, but they needed to win some. And the demonisation of them has been an astonishing achievement of political disrepute in the west, and particularly in my country.”
Back in his Upper West Side office, Simon is now starting to seem fatigued by a long day of scouting locations, of being photographed, of being interviewed and, frankly, of being angry. It’s time to bring a close to the interview. But Simon’s sense of humour and self-deprecation is still very much intact.
When, at the very close of the conversation, he is asked how, or when, this TV career ends, he replies: “Well, I have enough to keep writing these miniseries nobody will watch for as long as HBO will allow nobody to watch them.” When it’s put to him that the story in development about New York’s sex industry is a sure winner, he retorts: “Just watch that one not get made either.”
In his 2009 introduction to The Wire: Truth Be Told, Simon concluded his essay by referring to The Wire as “an angry show, but that anger comes honestly”.
It’s difficult to think of a more fitting way to describe David Simon.