I have moved every few years since 1993. This means that I’m simultaneously really good at making myself at home in new places, and really good at not getting too attached. Because I’m so good at this moving thing, I spent the months leading up to my arrival preparing to be a Baltimorean. And that meant, among other things, getting MLB.TV to watch Orioles games, reading Antero Pietila’s “Not In My Neighborhood” to get to know the history of racial and class segregation in the city, and, yes, watching “The Wire” again.
Like most middle-class white folks my age, I’d watched “The Wire” obsessively. It really is good drama. The characters are complicated, a rare feat in a TV culture that mostly gives us farmers looking for love, henpecked husbands, and overworked doctors, detectives, and firefighters. “The Wire” is full of people whose life chances are shaped by social, political, and economic realities that far exceed their individual ambitions or choices. David Simon’s making an argument with this show, and he tells stories in ways that force the viewer—or this one, anyway—to reckon with the very different worlds people are living in, even when they are all living in Baltimore. I liked it as drama the first time around.
This second time, though, I watched it partly to see what the new city I’d be living in would look like. I’d been through Baltimore just once before, on the drive from Boise, Idaho to New York City for college, on a swing south to see my brother in Memphis. I didn’t remember much, except how our car got broken into at the Harbor when we were at the aquarium. Somebody stole all the underwear my mom had gotten me for college, plus also my signed picture of George Stephanopoulos. I got new underdoods at the White Marsh Mall, and George sent me another picture, so I considered us even. That’s pretty much all I had to go on about Baltimore, so “The Wire” was what gave me a sense of the visuals of what would be my new home. According to this show, Baltimore was pretty much row after row of vacant homes filled with bodies, corners guarded by kids who should be in school, and down at the precinct, which looked like pretty much every office I’d ever been in.
I kept this in mind as I spent a day riding my bike all over the city on a sweaty summer day last week. I started my ride in Waverly heading south and east toward Highlandtown. I take this route all the time, down Ellerslie to Gorsuch, over to Kirk Avenue, eventually a left on 25th to head south on North Wolfe Street. Does it look like “The Wire”? Well, depends what you’re looking for, I guess. Here’s what I saw: big detached homes that would be at home in Boise, rows of brick townhouses that look like they could withstand another War of 1812, a school, the edges of a vast Clifton Park, a block with all rowhouses with shiny white fenced in porches, and, once I was headed south, plenty of boarded-up vacant homes, especially when I hit the northern borders of the Hopkins development in Middle East.
I also saw plenty of people—sitting on stoops, waiting for buses, walking to school and work. I said my how-you-doin’s, they said theirs back. Highlandtown was busy already with people in Patterson Park, and the lunch spot on the corner of Eastern and Linwood was hopping. After lunch I headed west, through Perkins Homes and through what used to be Flag House Courts, the high rises the city took down, replaced with mixed-income development. On this particular day the streets were quiet, save for a school bus dropping off kids at the Jewish Museum and a few folks chatting on a corner. I stopped at the main post office before continuing my ride west. They never seemed to have to mail packages in “The Wire,” but the rest of us have to do that, and the Highlandtown post office closes 1-2:20 p.m. on weekdays because of Baltimore’s lackadaisical attitude toward public service. The place was busy with lines as per usual, plenty of chatter—lines used to move faster here, didn’t they? You staying cool out in this heat?—the talk of chance encounters with your neighbors.
The rest of my ride took me west, Lombard across MLK, through Poppleton and up to Harlem Park, back down toward Carroll Park, a quick stop to check out the abandoned train tracks and trestles of the B&O Railroad. This part of West Baltimore bears all the scars of a city abandoned by capital, purposely under- and de-developed in the rush to urban renewal, a place where life chances are so much lower than they are just two miles east. It’s “The Wire” over here—so many empty boarded-up homes, hardly any trees, the rusting remains of an industrial past serving up the perfect setting for a night of drinking between Bunk and McNulty (No Trespassing signs don’t apply to cops on TV or in real life).
I snapped a couple of pictures and turned to head back east. A guy rolled up in his car, parked, and headed into his house. We gave each other the friendly nod, he advised me to drink plenty of water, I agreed to do so in this heat, and that quick exchange reminded me of the limits of a complicated TV show. This place might look like “The Wire,” but it isn’t. “The Wire” is great drama, and it presents a more complicated vision of the structural roots of the inequalities made so vivid in an afternoon bike ride around Baltimore than we see in most television—or any public discourse, really. It can’t capture the quotidian of all of us, the ways and places we meet each other and make worlds together and apart under conditions not of our own choosing but that we agitate to change. “The Wire” is just a television show, and its complexity can make us think, erroneously, that we understand the depths of the place, and, more dangerously, the people. Baltimore and Baltimoreans exceed Simon’s narratives, and the part where his narratives are so good makes it all the more important to remind ourselves of our own excess.