Baltimore More than 10 Years After 'The Wire'

My first encounter with the city of Baltimore was through David Simon’s HBO series, The Wire. I knew nothing about the city until the series aired in 2002, but its opening scene set the tone for five seasons of grappling with the hard truths in a struggling great American city. Detective Jimmy McNulty arrives at the location of a dice game turned homicide. Interviewing a witness, he learns that the victim, Omar Isaiah “Snot Boogie” Betts, habitually participated in — then robbed — the weekly dice game. McNulty wonders why, if everyone knew he would rob the game, they let him play at all. The witness responds, “Got to. This America, man.”

The lesson was simple: America is a land of contradictions, not opportunities. If I hadn’t grown up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, itself a hotbed of drug dealing and danger in the 1980s and 1990s, I might have been drawn in by the show’s lower-hanging voyeuristic fruit — the guns, drugs, death, and corruption. But these were not new to me so I was able to see the things I think David Simon wanted viewers to see — the complex relationship between hope and despair in a city fighting for a future defined by something other than guns, drugs, and death. The last episode of The Wire aired on March 9, 2008. Since Simon produced some of the most important television in American pop culture history, Baltimore has moved to define itself as more than 'That Place' in a landmark cable television show. It has attracted major corporate tenants, like Under Armour, to bolster the presence of the city’s biggest employer (and mine)--Johns Hopkins University. And it has also been home in recent years to militant civic action — or as some prefer to call them "riots" — as well as police corruption.

I always watched The Wire as a dramatized documentary that sought to map the pitfalls on Baltimore’s path to revitalization. As a person who only recently took up residence in Baltimore and who deeply admired the show that introduced me to the city, I’ve been interested in reflecting on the state of the city more than 10 years after the show.

The place to begin is Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the crown jewel of the city, a gleaming spectacle meant to represent the ideal of urban renewal. There are many delights on the inner rim of the Harbor. Familiar trappings such as a Cheesecake Factory offer lovely waterfront seating for those just exiting one of the nearby water taxis serving a handful of points, such as the eclectic and grungy Fells Point neighborhood. Also nearby is the Under Armour campus, the home of a prized Baltimore tenant who has helped anchor the city’s economic future. The area signals to visitors that Baltimore should be taken as more than the sum of its more salacious headlines, including those that declare the city’s homicide rate as higher than Chicago’s. It is certainly seductive — the area was one of my first encounters with the city and it wears its promise well.

I then remembered the show’s fifth episode, “The Pager.” D’Angelo Barksdale, nephew to drug lord Avon Barksdale, takes his love interest to an upscale restaurant in the Harbor which, in the show, was just beginning its makeover. He suffers the indignity of feeling a stranger in his own city as the street rules of the drug game are superseded by upper class social mores. A visitor to Baltimore, then, would receive a more relevant education by instead driving north on Reistertown Road from the Harbor and towards Baltimore County. One leaves the city’s jewel and crosses into a more expansive territory marked by the extreme opposite qualities of the harbor — blight, deterioration, and visual hopelessness. One’s view shifts from high-rises to row houses. You could not be blamed for concluding that some of these were abandoned and uninhabitable, that is until you watch a creaky front door open as an elderly man comes out to chat with a group of folks on the sidewalk. For these Baltimore residents, the lures of the Inner Harbor do not exist as promises of a better future but rather augur a new city, one built on the misery of a population that elites would rather surveil and incarcerate.

Driving this stretch of Reistertown Road makes one wonder at the calculations of a city government striving to make Baltimore appear so much more beautiful to outside viewers while ignoring the ugly on the inside — those portions that exhibit a civic moral compass wanting correction.

The desire to gentrify and sweep Baltimore’s poor Black population under the rug shows a lack of imagination common for cities.

Very few people desire a life of crime which effectively puts a ticking clock on one’s waking moments; more often, people resort to a lifestyle that surrounding circumstances tell them are most fitting for them. Policy novelty is not coming to help these people. This was a lesson Lieutenant Bunny Colvin learned in the third season of The Wire. Exasperated by a drug and murder epidemic that would not respond to an increasingly well-funded and aggressive police force, Colvin goes rogue and designates an entire neighborhood, dubbed “Hamsterdam,” free from drug enforcement laws. The open-air drug markets go fully public, buying and selling go unimpeded by the police who, when present, are there to maintain the order of the market rather than break it. The result is fewer bodies on the streets as violent crime falls. For his effort and success in thinking of new ways to understand Baltimore’s problems, he is allowed to retire early with a demotion. And this is because the Baltimore Police Department in particular is more often seen as the enemy of Baltimore’s most vulnerable rather than its public servants.

What can one think when its most infamous public service is “The Nickel Ride” or “rough ride” — a notorious mode of transporting suspects in the back of vans without securing them in vehicle harnesses while driving through the most pock-marked streets in the city? It was exactly this kind of “service” that threw Baltimore into a state of racial unrest in 2015 after Freddie Gray was found dead with a severed spinal cord after a rough ride. Baltimore erupted in the sort of action so often described as a riot, wherein property is destroyed and the regular workings of a city are disrupted. Yet the violence casually visited on Gray was never widely described as murder by major news outlets. Thus, none of the six officers involved were brought to account for Gray’s death. The case against the officers ended with no convictions — a common conclusion in similar cases across this country, historically as well as in the present.

"If You Build It We Will Burn It" (Thomas Hawk, Flickr).

The issue with Baltimore and the police is greater than the publicized death of one citizen. Its structure is unlike any other Maryland police force in that it falls under state and not city supervision. The issue has become especially salient in light of ongoing controversies not least of which involves the systematic manipulation of crime scenes wherein Baltimore police planted guns to cover their own shootings of suspects. This has led to a battle for more local control over the police in an effort to gain proper oversight and curb corruption.

But maybe there is such a thing as too much control too close to home. Johns Hopkins’s campus has been the site of vigorous protests against the university’s plan to bring a privatized armed police force on campus. Students have led rallies and more than 100 faculty, including myself, are signatories to an open letter rejecting the plan, which has recently cleared the state legislature. Many people are thoroughly frustrated by a surveillance-first policy in a city that has such a deep and pained history with Black population control. The administration seems unmoved by urgent considerations, including the fact that the university is already struggling with single-digit racial diversity and wants to introduce an agency that statistically likely to abuse one of our students or faculty.

More perplexing is a complete lack of self-awareness that poverty breeds crime, and economic exploitation breeds poverty. Often exploitation comes in the form of gentrification, when economically powerful institutions move in on a distressed neighborhood and proceed to redevelop it in classical neoliberal style. Hopkins is no stranger to this tactic as it recently acquired 88 acres of land in east Baltimore for the purpose of expanding its technology and research capacities. The university hopes to bring an economic boon to the area even as it demolished homes that resulted in “hundreds of homeowners and tenants [being] dispossessed.” It is this sort of clumsiness and crudeness that ignores the fact that this is how resentment and disadvantage often get reproduced.

Social reproduction remains one of The Wire’s lingering echoes. Season four introduced four children into the show’s story arc — Dukie, Randy, Michael, and Namond. These four characters put the following question to Baltimore’s social and political system: are unjust societies doomed to reproduce themselves or can they evolve and progress? The answer came back to us in a predictably complex manner. Dukie, a character on the severe economic margins, is posited as the next generation drug addict, by way of parallels with the show’s junkie-gone-clean, Bubbles. Michael is positioned as a new generation of no-holds barred gangster who comes to the position that it is better to take than be taken from. Namond, son of the Barksdale crew’s head enforcer Wee Bey, seems destined for life as a gangster until Bunny Colvin visits Bey in prison, asking permission to give his son new guidance in order to avoid the fate of the streets. Namond indeed escapes the path set before him by the streets and his father.

The Wire’s final two seasons suggest that the fate of a city and its most vulnerable seems to come down to who cares and who acts on the basis of care — rather than self-interest.

In the absence of compassion, we risk reproducing the social ills that worsen our communities. Which makes one wonder about January 2018, when thousands of kids attending one of roughly 60 schools in Baltimore were saddled with failing heating systems in freezing winter weather. It is extraordinarily ignorant to ask a population to play by the rules when the institutions meant to provide even minimal standards of service can barely meet that obligation.

The show's most bracing social critique remains its rejection of marginal improvements to the status quo in favor of radical reform. On the evening of its final episode, I didn’t expect a concluding message of optimism and hope but I was nevertheless struck by Simon’s cynicism. Marlo Stanfield, major competitor and threat to the Barksdale drug empire, decides, similarly to Avon’s lieutenant, Stringer Bell, he is going legit. In the course of a brief stretch in prison, during which the case against him collapses, he sells his drug supplier connections and, through his lawyer, moves to join the circle of Baltimore’s real estate elite.

During a gala, he comes to fully understand that the real estate barons and politicians who do their bidding are no less hustlers than he — the only difference is that they operate under the guise of state legitimacy. We are meant to understand Stanfield’s recognition that if one is going to hustle, then let the rules be known and fair rather than hypocritical and selective. In one of the closing scenes, Stanfield, still in his suit, approaches a Baltimore corner where two low-level dealers are stationed. He forcibly takes the corner, implying this is how he will rebuild his criminal empire. It will begin all over again; the police tosses, the bodies, the clogged courts, the impoverished kids seduced by quick money.

The Wire raises the point that the problem of Baltimore is the problem of America. Long-standing patterns of privilege mask exploitation and wrongdoing behind more or less racial lines, which society uses to define legitimacy and deviance (even though the show does not shy away from portraying Black politicians who would rather be in on the heist). In this sense, Baltimore remains, at the time of the show and more than 10 years later, a paradigmatic example of a wider struggle to untangle our economic and social practices from the centuries-long racial struggles that systematically produce a racial underclass. Nina Simone’s classic song “Baltimore” comes to mind:

“Hard times in the city

In a hard town by the sea

Ain't nowhere to run to

There ain't nothin' here for free”

My own time in and around Baltimore has allowed me to see that the city’s hard times are real. But the city has moved to distance itself from the image of a hard town by the sea. Rather, Baltimore and its major institutions want to be seen as participants in the American dream, even if that means some experience the nightmare of a rough ride, literally and figuratively.

About the Author

Chris Lebron is the associate professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and a senior writer for The North Star. He specializes in political philosophy, social theory, the philosophy of race, and democratic ethics. His work has focused on bridging the divide between analytic liberalism and the virtue ethics tradition. He is the author of The Color of Our Shame: Race and Justice In Our Time (2013) and The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of An Idea (2017).