The Wire and Baltimore

11 Nov
November 11, 2014

It seems that despite the most temperate reply possible, I’ve been drawn into another absurdist debate about whether The Wire, or Homicide, or perhaps even The Corner is good or bad for Baltimore.  This time, the righteous indignation about the tarnish applied to my city’s reputation is from a gentleman named Mike Rowe.  A Baltimore native, he is employed elsewhere in this great diaspora of television and he has now assumed the mantle of defender of my city’s reputation.

Mr. Rowe marks his displeasure with our work by reductively describing it as a depiction of “drug dealers” and “pimps” that is sufficient to convince anyone that Baltimore is a mere cesspool, certain and fixed.  In this simplicity, he joins, by late count, a few business leaders, several political aspirants and at least two police commissioners in decrying narratives that don’t provide the imagery with which Baltimore wishes to adorn itself.

Having been specifically directed to Mr. Rowe’s remarks and asked for comment by the Baltimore City Paper, here is the sum of my entire response.  It is distinct from the writing of any City Paper essayist and it alone represents my position.   The City Paper‘s arguments necessarily remain its own; they do not coincide with mine at points.  I wrote:

“Speaking for the collective that worked on the narratives in question, we undertook to tell those stories as best we could in the hope that they would be honest and relevant to the whole of our city, to our divided American society and to the fundamental necessity that is our shared future. We even operated with some hope that such storytelling might help lead to redress and reconsideration of certain policies and priorities.

“On a personal level, that’s simply my job. It was my job as a reporter and as an author. It is my job still and I take it seriously.

“Certainly, there are other meaningful uses for narrative and imagery, and civic boosterism is one such laudable purpose. That is the job of others and I understand that they, too, take their labors seriously.

“As a Baltimorean fully vested in the city’s future, I can respect and support such efforts and purposes, even should others demonstrate less understanding and respect for the role of storytelling as a means of offering dissent and opening civic and societal debate.” 

Exactly what did I claim here?

1)  That our narratives were undertaken in earnest and to an ethical and professional purpose, and that my colleagues and I believe the narratives address fundamental issues and concerns that ought to be addressed.  And, oh yeah, we take our role as storytellers seriously.

2)  That these are not the only narratives and images that can represent the city, and that civic boosterism or promotion is also a laudable goal undertaken by equally serious and committed people.

3)  That as we are Baltimoreans, living here and vested in our collective future, we support efforts to improve the city’s image.  Rather than critique Mr. Rowe’s fledgling endeavors in any way — and certainly with less reductive cynicism than his depiction of our own efforts — we find it easy to support and encourage him.

And for this, there are now people with their asses in the air, including Mr. Rowe who has already fired off more verbiage?  Really?  Is there a cognitive problem here?

Mr. Rowe got a careful, polite reply because he managed to critique our storytelling without, say, the bombast of a city council president who actually used her post to attempt to pass official proclamations against The Wire (What business does any government have sanctioning or opposing narrative?), or a police commissioner who demanded apologies for the narrative  (Not enough for him to dislike or critique a story, he instead demands that those who would tell a tale not to his liking actually apologize for doing so?), or a mayor who wanted to be governor and actually attempted to use his administrative authority to alter or prohibit the narrative itself. (Will you change the story or quit the story, or do I keep holding up your film permits?)

Over the years, telling these tales in which we believed proved, at points, a source of direct conflict with city officials who were willing to do far more than merely vent their personal displeasure as critique.   In those instances, yes, I felt obliged to defend with some vigor the legitimate right to tell a story that serves interests other than the glorification of Baltimore and its present administrations.

Here, though, I read carefully and understood what Mr. Rowe did and did not argue.  And my comments were proportioned to make clear that there was plenty of room for his good efforts on behalf of the city, that such efforts easily obtain my support, and that those efforts did not, in my mind, necessarily conflict with the concurrent responsibility by others to use narrative and imagery to tell hard truths about our city, our nation, and our national priorities and policies.  That’s the sum of what went back over the transom.

Too much?  If Mr. Rowe can dish out his caricatures about who populates The Wire and Homicide — pimps and dealers and junkies, oh my! — yet finds himself unable to endure the brutalities of the above reply, he boasts a sensitivity that I fear cannot long endure in the town of his birth.   After all, the only phrase I offered in critique of Mr. Rowe’s performance, rather than in direct support of his effort on behalf of Baltimore, was to note his apparent lack of understanding for the role of storytelling that doesn’t affirm what those in power wish to have said about just how swell they’ve administered things.  For that, you can’t rely on political leaders, or celebrity promotional campaigns, or any deep reservoir of empathy from many of those whose lives are arrayed on the right and profitable side of a status quo.  For that, some measure of dissent is required.

Any insult from Mr. Rowe’s remarks may well have been unintended; however, the pimps and dealers and drug addicts that this gentleman so easily and hastily conjured to lament our narratives are, of course, a minority of the characters actually depicted in those stories.  But in focusing on those few stereotypes, Mr. Rowe was clearly raising an argument that I find familiar and disturbing:  That an undeserving portion of Baltimore has been chronicled at the expense of a Baltimore more deserving of attention, and that the America left behind by deindustrialization, poverty and the depredations of the drug war should just quiet the fuck down while we sell more of the America that has not been so marginalized.

Mr. Rowe, there are literally hundreds of television narratives — sitcoms and reality shows and comic-book dramas and cops-and-robbers affirmations of law and order out there, shows about the America in which human beings are still valued and in which capital still operates to the advantage of the many.  By contrast, there was, for a brief time, one little-watched drama on one pay channel that tried to tell a story in that part of the nation where those things are no longer close to fucking true.  That story happened to be set in the city of Baltimore;  Mr. Rowe now asserts that as far as he is concerned it was one story too many.

I do indeed find that stance offensive, parochial and myopic.  Telling only the pretty, affirming stories has a cost, too.  Telling tales in which the poor and marginalized  — including those who live and work amid an underground economy that is, in fact, the largest employer in Baltimore city — are rendered as human rather than as merely the chow for avenging cops has, at least, some small chance of perhaps slowing the war on the underclass now ongoing in this country.  If it is tough work that Mr. Rowe chronicles — and I understand it’s his stock in trade — then the ease with which he throws judgment across the chasm between the two Baltimores has perhaps denied him some fresh material, and some real insight into one of the hardest, most destructive and self-destructive occupations in one of America’s largest growth industries.  The drug war doesn’t endure as it has for 60-odd years without people being fed a media diet of contempt for dealers and pimps and addicts in the precise terms that Mr. Rowe feels so comfortable venting.  We don’t become the most incarcerative society in the history of mankind without so easily dehumanizing  those who are consigned to the parts of our city that Mr. Rowe, the Greater Baltimore Committee and aspiring politicians might struggle to sell as authentic or charming.

Moreover, I hold the audience for our harsher narratives — and indeed for other, warmer storytelling about Baltimore — in much higher regard than Mr. Rowe, apparently.  I think viewers are smart enough to understand that these stories represent certain quadrants of my city, but not all of Baltimore, and even more certainly not the whole of the  metropolitan area.  They are stories about one America, long and purposely ignored and isolated, and while set in Baltimore, they are applicable to East St. Louis or South Chicago or North Philadelphia.  Anyone who thinks The Wire is all of Baltimore is as much a fool as anyone who can be shown a crabcake and convinced that the Inner Harbor is all of the city.  Pretending otherwise — from either end — is a mug’s game.

My question  — and given how regularly I have to deal with this dynamic, I think it a fair one — is simply this:  Is it possible for someone to assert on behalf of Baltimore’s charm and worth, while at the same time being grown-up enough to understand that other stories have an altogether different but essential purpose?  Is it conceiveable that someone seeking higher office, or credit for civic improvement, or even a paid promoter’s fee might simply do the straight business of asserting for the best of Baltimore, without going to the trouble to pretend that there are not significant problems in this city and every American city that require redress?  Is the universe sufficiently vast to contain both the empirical fact that a Faidley’s backfin crabcake is the world’s best and that Baltimore is the fifth most dangerous city in America?   Can it be that Brooks Robinson is indeed the superior third baseman to Mike Schmidt, while at the same time credible that as many as half the African-American males under the age of forty in my city are unable to find or are no longer even seeking legitimate, full-time work?  Does a walk around the harbor’s growing promenade suggest hope in the city’s planning and execution in a way that the failure to educate most public school graduates to participate in city’s legitimate economy does not?  Is it possible to speak well of Baltimore, sincerely, while allowing certain truths to stand?

Not yet, apparently.  And for some folks, maybe never.

 

135 replies
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  1. Robin Riebe says:

    I’m a johnny-come-lately fan of the Wire (just having finished season 3) and chanced upon this article while wondering: how closely does the shows depiction of Baltimore match the reality? Thank-you for your thoughts and more than anything the show itself. I’m a midwesterner but was stationed on a Coast Guard harbor tug in Curtis Bay back in 72-73. The things I remember about the city are mostly positive: the waterfront, Sabatino’s, the art museum to name just a few. But there were times when as an out-of-towner driving ignorantly around the city I would end up in neighborhoods (not unlike some of those seen on the show) where I tell you I feared for my safety. But even so, I have a soft spot in my heart for the city and probably always will (except for the Ravens, one my best friends is from Cleveland and when the Browns . . . well you get the picture).

    Reply
  2. Colin says:

    Great post. I’d like to hear more from Mike Rowe on the subject because he seems like a really grounded person despite his cable tv quasi-celebrity. If I had to guess, people get so defensive about the depiction of Baltimore in The Wire because unlike other cities such as New York, this is the portrayal in popular media people most associate with the city. There isn’t a vast public outcry when Law & Order depicts extreme violence and sex crime because it’s just one fictional New York among thousands that contains such deviants.

    Baltimore doesn’t have many stories about it that have become as popular as The Wire, so this one that is based more in reality than most television programs draws a lot of heat from people who either have a stake in keeping the image of the city untarnished or don’t encounter or don’t believe that the inner city is like this.

    Also, it’s just a tragedy that many don’t accept The Wire as an allegory to the USA as a whole. It’s right there in the first scene of the first episode. C’mon, people.

    Reply
  3. Dino says:

    It seems to me that cities, like people, have their own personalities, pasts and even motivations. I think its fair to look at people from all sides, so why not a city? JFK was a good man, yet a womanizer. Elvis was a tremendous stage artist, yet drug addicted. Gandhi had impeccable humanist views, yet disowned his own son for wanting to be married. Maybe I’m an iconoclast but I think people can be as flawed as they are virtuous. Within this prism, cities carry that same connotation.

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  4. Lakshman says:

    I’ve been following this thread but took some time to think of something half way intelligent to say. I haven’t read Mr.Rowe’s original piece that prompted this reply from Mr. Simon but reading through some of the comments, especially from the lady that met Europeans grossed out about Baltimore because of The Wire I couldn’t help but think of how some of my Indian friends and colleagues react to news stories that portray (in their opinion) India in somewhat poor light. I first started observing this a few years ago when Slumdog Millionaire was winning Academy Awards by the handful. The main lament from many of my Indian friends and relatives was how Hollywood was at it again showing how wretched India is. More recently with all the rape stories being reported out of India I see a the same trend. There they are, the media in the West portraying India in a poor light.

    Never mind the fact that yes, even though not all Indian kids are swimming around in pools of shit (as shown in one of the scenes), the reality for far too many of them is pretty close. So it is with the rape stories grabbing the world’s attention. Yes, not all Indian men are rapists but as a society we have turned a blind eye to the problem of sexual harassment and sexual assault in India for far too long. I understand the urge to defend something that you are close to or belong to, the urge to show all that is good about it instead of the bad. I work hard to fight stereotypes every day and I am hurt when a woman American colleague, in a meeting refuses to go to India because of what she perceives could happen to her in India. The reality of it is that it happens, and if me having to constantly fight such stereotypes at work or otherwise and having to try to educate people that India is not only about slums and women getting raped, then it is a small price to pay for the awareness as a result.

    I guess all this is a long winded way of saying that the perceived “negative publicity” that Baltimore receives as a result of The Wire is a small price to pay for portraying the realities of life for those that don’t have a voice, and to go back to the comment about Europeans or others being grossed out, yes I knew how awesome Johns Hopkins was before I saw The Wire but I didn’t know a whole lot about life for so many in the inner city. Heck, I’m probably not even as smart as say a Mr. Rowe or some of the other commenters here but I can’t quite understand how someone can watch The Wire and not come out with greater empathy and understanding for those that are less fortunate than us, let alone reductively categorizing the show as about “pimps, whores and drug dealers” or whatnot.

    Reply
  5. Roger says:

    I would hazard a guess that the majority of Dirty Jobs fans are glass-half-full types, whereas The Wire aficionados might prefer to say the-water-line-is-clearly-in-the-middle.

    Reply
  6. David says:

    I wonder what the mayor of Victorian London thought of “Oliver Twist”?

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      Heh.

      Reply
      • Nick Moroney says:

        So again, can we cut to the quick here? Fanboy this says that; fangirl that says this; how about solid suggestions re. justice and equity in Baltimore? (From a juvenile justice activist)).

        Reply
        • David Simon says:

          What have I spent the last quarter century reporting on or dramatizing? Or are you disinclined to acquire the actual narratives and their underlying arguments and instead asking me to reduce them for you, personally, into a blogpost?

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        • kt says:

          Hey man, your boots are on the ground. Why don’t you tell us?

          One practical thing I would like to see is an increase in budget for the summer youth jobs program in Baltimore, and a restoration of the rec centers that have been closed in recent years. That’s just one example of something that I think could and should be done. I mean, any additional investment in job creation or education would probably be good.

          Reply
          • Nick says:

            Agreed. The recreation centers could be expanded to include counselors knowledgeable about local resources to connect kids and young adults with jobs and training opportunities. City and state government could also prioritize investment in communities and cut spending on warehouse-type facilities housing kids and adults facing challenges.

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            • David Simon says:

              Funny we landed here. Cast and crew of The Wire and The Corner and HBO left behind a fund of $1.25 million with the Parks & People Foundation for the maintenance of rec programming in inner-city Baltimore. Money donated or raised by the productions themselves over six years of production and after.

              Reply
  7. Tony Amos says:

    Very well spoken, with just enough passion to not irk Rowe, but maybe to open some underused synapses. I’m watching Season 3 of The Wire as I type this, having read it while viewing the end of Season 2. One might applaud your body of within The Corner and The Wire as if we landed satellite upon a moving comet for the first time. Thank you for shining a spotlight and it’s unforgiving truth upon America the forgotten.

    Reply
  8. TF says:

    Mr. Simon: I’m late to the dance having just watched all five seasons in the last 2 weeks. A friend directed me to the show during it’s run but it was too close to my own work and hence not very relaxing or entertaining at the time. I know some the families of whom you wrote, thought I have never met them.
    Thankfully, I returned to my friend’s recommendation. From season 1 – 4 I was glued to the series, some of the best cinema (small screen or big) that I have ever watched. Admittedly, Season 5 left me wanting. I thought you and your various storytellers and directors were capable of so much more. But I digress, while I live in Chicago, I see and have seen lives not unlike those you depicted. Having worked in government, I have witnessed the games as you described. Even this morning, I watched a video clip of the Superintendent of police, diminish the claims of a murder victim despite evidence in the form of a request for an order of protection…”she was not afraid” he claimed. His credibility tainted even further by the fact that the shooter, who killed himself, was the son of two Chicago Police officer. I could see Burrell or Rawls delivering the same message, a uniformed deputy standing stoically by with those scrambled eggs on the brim of his perfect adorned hat.

    Finally, your small anecdotes about the city council president, the governor and others trying to influence your story do more to affirm that you’re stories may be fictional, but they are more grounded in truth that some can bare.

    Thanks for the Wire….great stories, acting, editing, cinema. Regards, TF

    Reply
    • kt says:

      Said it before, and I’ll say it again — I think just about any season of any show would suffer in comparison to season 4 of THE WIRE (who can resist those kids?) but I also think season 5 benefits from a re-watch, after you’ve already re-watched the other seasons, of course. I noticed a lot more of the callbacks and references to other seasons that enriched season 5 for me, upon a rewatch, and I better understood the newspaper storyline. I recommend it.

      Reply
      • derek seymour nz says:

        Season 5 stands up. Just don’t watch it straight after season 4…It’s a hard act to follow. Season 5 has some of my favourite moments of the wire (that’s some spider-man shit, and mcnulty’s phone conversation “you little twist…”)

        Reply
    • 1st Lt L Diablo says:

      All the pieces matters…

      To dismiss season 5 is like saying you prefer Melville’s heart to his brain. It’s the gestalt organism that impresses. I’ll never understand anyone who chooses one season over another. All the pieces matter. It’s the most ambitious narrative ever attempted on TV. And it was accomplished because each episode in each season nailed it. Boom.

      Reply
  9. Donna says:

    Mr. Simon:

    The Wire is the best series that has ever been on television. Baltimore is exhilarating and sad, like most of our cities and being able to understand and be moved by the issues you presented so beautifully and tragically is receiving a gift. You changed how I think. Thank you.

    Reply
  10. Lakshman says:

    Mr. Simon,
    I have refreshed this page about two dozen times today to see what you have to say on last night’s non-indictment….Please.

    Reply
  11. AJ says:

    Mr. Simon,

    You prefer the backfin at Faidley’s to the jumbo lump? I can vividly remember my first jumbo lump – equal parts ecstasy (obviously) and dismay that no other crab cake could ever measure up, and I had only one place in the world I could get a good crabcake.

    I certainly like the backfin, but I don’t find them all that much different than crabcakes elsewhere.

    Reply
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