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Did the Famous Desegregation of Yonkers Actually Work?

Fans craving more of the HBO miniseries “Show Me a Hero” are in luck. While the David Simon-produced show about the contentious effort to desegregate Yonkers, N.Y. in the 1980s and ‘90s recently aired its final episode, the series is based on a book by former New York Times correspondent Lisa Belkin. That 1999 book, “Show Me a Hero: A Tale of Murder, Suicide, Race and Redemption,” was re-released last week with a new epilogue by the author.

Belkin, now the senior national correspondent for Yahoo News, joins ProPublica senior reporter Ginger Thompson on our podcast to revisit the real-life civil rights battle waged in Yonkers 25 years ago. Belkin’s reporting illuminates what happened when a federal judge – upon finding that the city had intentionally segregated its residents by consigning all public housing to one square mile – ordered the construction of public housing throughout the middle-class, mostly white part of town. Here she weighs in on whether the desegregation of Yonkers was successful, who the story’s “hero” is, and why she thinks the book is more resonant today than when she wrote it.

Photo: Lisa Belkin at HBO's "Show Me A Hero" after party. (Clint Spaulding/

Highlights from the conversation:

  • You can’t integrate a city with just 200 units of housing. The point was never to fully change the makeup of Yonkers, but to disrupt the pattern of concentrating public housing into one area of the city. Integration, Belkin said, is more complicated. “But crime did not go up; property values did not plummet,” she said. “All the things that were feared didn’t happen.” (2:18)
  • Changing where you live doesn’t solve all problems. Relaying the fates of African-American and Latino residents portrayed in the story, Belkin said Carmen Reyes, a single mother central to the book and TV series, today has two adult children who are thriving professionally – but her youngest son has struggled with drugs and incarceration. “For Carmen it was a very mixed bag,” said Belkin. “But it was certainly a fresh start for everyone, and it was extraordinarily successful for mostly everyone.” (4:41)
  • The racial tensions of 1980s’ Yonkers were echoed throughout the making of the show. The TV series was filmed during the fallout from Ferguson and edited during the Baltimore protests, intersections not lost on the cast and crew. “The book is exactly the same, but time has given it a different meaning,” said Belkin. “In a way, the story’s been rediscovered because unfortunately so little has changed, and [Yonkers] looks like so many other places.” (16:29)

Listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For more reporting on housing segregation and federal policy, read Living Apart: How the Government Betrayed a Landmark Civil Rights Law.

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