What HBO’s “Show Me a Hero” Got Wrong About Public Housing

Specifically, the legacy of architect Oscar Newman.

Pruitt-Igoe demolition

The 1972 demolition of Pruitt-Igoe building in St. Louis (Photo by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Policy Development and Research)

This is your first of three free stories this month. Become a free or sustaining member to read unlimited articles, webinars and ebooks.

Become A Member

In the closing minutes of HBO’s “Show Me a Hero” on Sunday, a simple white-on-black title card revealed the fates of each person portrayed in the miniseries. After three nights, the miniseries — based on Lisa Belin’s book of the same name about the real-life 1980s battle over public housing in the predominantly white east side of Yonkers — had concluded with 200 units of scattered site housing built across the area.

In those silent coda moments, the camera cut to the striking Amish-bearded visage of architect Oscar Newman (played by Animal House alum Peter Riegert), and viewers were told that “the public housing theories of Oscar Newman are now widely accepted.”

Not quite.

In fact, many of Newman’s theories have been undermined by more recent scholarship, and his legacy is more contested than “Show Me a Hero” suggested. While most experts now agree that concentrating very poor residents into one area is a recipe for disaster, hardly an observation unique to Newman, his precise theories about fatally flawed high rises and the importance of minimizing public space have been greatly complicated—if not invalidated.

Newman became famous, in certain circles, for 1972’s Defensible Space. This relatively slim and accessible book argued that high rise buildings, the so-called “tower in a park” model, were the cause of rising crime in public housing: “It is the apartment tower itself, which is the real and final villain,” Newman concluded.

Published the year the first of the Pruitt-Igoe housing in St. Louis was demolished, Defensible Space eventually became the bestselling architecture book of the 1970s. Later editions even sported the iconic photo of the first superblock being blasted to rubble. (Newman joked that the front cover was why his services were retained by the City of Yonkers: The anti-housing politicians didn’t read the book, but saw a photo of public housing being demolished and assumed he would be on their side.)

But Newman’s theories completely ignored the vanishing industrial jobs base, the changing tenant demographics of public housing, and the neglectful management of some patronage-staffed housing authorities. Even in New York City, which enjoyed a competent bureaucracy, the housing authority was under pressure in the 1970s and 1980s to shift their tenant policies and almost exclusively serve the poorest tenants.

Most experts now conclude that the context public housing exists within was far more relevant than the design of the buildings. But in Newman’s writings he aggressively argued that high-rise modernist architecture itself was to blame for the deterioration of public housing, largely because it didn’t foster private spaces that residents would take responsibility for and be protective of.

“Visually, ‘Show Me a Hero’ provides a host of clues that whisper Newman’s simplistic environmental determinism,” says Greg “Fritz” Umbach, associate history professor at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “He argued both that public housing was failing and that high-rise was the cause because it failed to nourish individuals ‘natural’ inclinations toward territoriality. I’m not sure that urbanists or architectural historians have absorbed how empirically weak Newman’s theories were and the extent to which many—but certainly not all—have been discredited since.”

In Defensible Space, Newman studies the low-rise Brownsville Houses and the high-rise Van Dyke Houses, both in Brooklyn, and concludes that there is higher crime in the latter because of the towering buildings, abundant public space and other “design flaws.” But as Umbach and his co-author Alexander Gerould argue in Public Housing Myths, Newman entirely ignores the fact that Van Dyke had much higher youth-to-adult ratios than Brownsville, one of the most important factors in determining the crime rates within public housing. As D. Bradford Hunt argues in 2009’s Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing and in later works, public housing complexes across the nation experienced absurdly high youth-to-adult ratios. When there is a balance of youths and adults, the latter tend to monitor and regulate the former thus keeping petty crime and vandalism in check. But in Chicago’s notorious Robert Taylor Homes, for example, there were 20,000 teenagers and children to 7,000 adults. Other public housing complexes weren’t that extreme, but still far higher than anything found even in the Baby Boom suburbs.

Newman’s Defensible Space paid no attention to tenant selection policies that concentrated so many unsupervised teenagers in one space. And the architect seemingly ignored the fact that crime rates in New York’s public housing were actually lower than in the neighborhoods that surrounded them. Most New York public housing complexes were high rises because of the limited space, but few others had youth-to-adult ratios like the Van Dyke homes. (Even the crime rates in Pruitt-Igoe were lower than those in the surrounding neighborhoods until the housing authority began to leave huge swathes of the buildings empty — allowing gangs to colonize the then-blighted spaces.)

Newman’s single-minded focus on design as the villain culminated with him suing Social Science Quarterly, which published a survey of expensive security systems influenced by his work in the Bronxdale houses (this story comes from Umbach’s The Last Neighborhood Cops). The journal reported that the security measures ended in total failure and were canceled, partly because an “abnormally high number of bored youngsters” repeatedly vandalized the expensive equipment. Newman claimed the analysis was “dishonest” and financially damaging to his consulting firm. The authors and the journal stood by their findings, and Newman eventually withdrew the $500,000 suit.

Nevertheless, the Bill Clinton administration leaned heavily on Newman and his theories to justify the controversial HOPE VI program, which saw the demolition of many high-rise towers and the redevelopment of mixed-income communities with far fewer public housing units (at least 50,000 units were never replaced). By the time “Show Me a Hero” was published in 1999, his theories were accepted as general fact. “There will be no more monolithic housing projects, not because a judge has ordered it, but because such projects do not work,” concludes Belkin.

Newman himself, however, later came to believe that tenant policies mattered more than architecture and design. Later in his career when he worked with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), he studied the numbers again and determined that the percent of tenants on welfare had a much greater correlation to crime rates than anything else. A 1999 study of NYCHA data by Tamara Dumanovsky also found that poverty rates in a complex were the primary predictor of crime.

“He’s acting during this period of vandalism and then the crack epidemic,” says Joseph Shuldiner, the executive director of the Yonkers Municipal Housing Authority and former general manager of NYCHA. “Newman was a product of his time and just trying to respond to a very real concern. But it’s more a problem of concentrations of poverty [not architecture] and less of a problem if you really do have a very integrated economic [tenant] base.”

Like what you’re reading? Get a browser notification whenever we post a new story. You’re signed-up for browser notifications of new stories. No longer want to be notified? Unsubscribe.

Jake Blumgart is a senior staff writer at Governing.

Follow Jake

Tags: urban designarchitecturepublic housingtelevision

Next City App Never Miss A StoryDownload our app ×

You've reached your monthly limit of three free stories.

This is not a paywall. Become a free or sustaining member to continue reading.

  • Read unlimited stories each month
  • Our email newsletter
  • Webinars and ebooks in one click
  • Our Solutions of the Year magazine
  • Support solutions journalism and preserve access to all readers who work to liberate cities

Join 1103 other sustainers such as:

  • Marceline at $5/Month
  • Anonymous at $5/Year
  • Brian at $60/Year

Already a member? Log in here. U.S. donations are tax-deductible minus the value of thank-you gifts. Questions? Learn more about our membership options.

or pay by credit card:

All members are automatically signed-up to our email newsletter. You can unsubscribe with one-click at any time.

  • Donate $20 or $5/Month

    20th Anniversary Solutions of the Year magazine

has donated ! Thank you 🎉