Was 'The Wire' just another obstacle standing in the way of the city?

City Paper

Watching Baltimore try to brand itself over the past 20 years would be high melodrama if you didn’t actually live here. And we’re getting a reminder of that this week as HBO Home Video releases a 20-disc box set of the complete “The Wire” series on Blu-ray, exactly 13 years after the Baltimore-set show premiered June 2, 2002.

The box set was announced in December, its June release date in March, and this commercial product is hitting stores during one of the most turbulent times in recent memory: almost two months since Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, a little more than a month after confrontations between Baltimore Police and African-American citizens around the Mondawmin Mall metro stop boiled into events now called the #BaltimoreRiots (according to mainstream news network and local reactionaries) or the #BaltimoreUprising. It’s also arriving after the most violent May in terms of murders in the city since 1972, prompting City Councilman William “Pete” Welch to tell The Sun: “This is killing the city. I can’t attract a developer to come in with the amount of violence that’s going on.”

The opportunism of that statement is staggering, an echo of the arguments leveled by city officials, brand consultants, and citizens who deemed “The Wire” an exaggerated, nihilistic, and cynical pox on the city almost since its debut. At that time then-City Councilwoman Catherine Pugh argued that shows such as “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “The Corner,” and “The Wire” tarnished Baltimore’s image, and she introduced a bill to counter them. In 2005 then-Mayor Martin O’Malley’s office hired image consultants Landor Associates to help brand the city as a tourist and convention destination, and its research report claimed that shows like “The Wire” painted Baltimore as “a hopeless, depressed, unemployed, crack-addicted city.” And in 2011, three years after “The Wire” ended, then-Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III called the show a “smear on this city that will take decades to overcome,” practically repeating Landor’s words when he added that all “Baltimore gets is this reinforced notion that it’s a city full of hopelessness, despair, and dysfunction.”

After the recent unrest, it might seem baffling that “The Wire” was ever Exhibit A of what’s wrong with Baltimore, but even during its run that argument felt specious. For starters: it’s just a freaking television show, and while it adhered to the language of cinematic realism, It’s no less a speculative, representational space than “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer,” another show that academics love to mine. Plus, no matter how many critics championed “The Wire,” it drew modest viewing numbers at best. And yet, marketing research suggests “The Wire” is the only thing people who don’t live in Baltimore know about the city. The only place I was ever asked if Baltimore is really like “The Wire” was in Hampden.

The claim that a TV show defines a city’s identity, and the accompanying insistence that the opinion of outsiders is more important than the conditions in which large portions of its population live, is more cynical than any fiction. It’s the political attitude that we have to regard the city as a commodity, that it needs to be safe for tourists, conventioneers, and developers, for it to have sustainable value.

It’s not like Baltimore itself was protecting its brand during “The Wire’s” run. Look no further than two of the institutions “The Wire” explored, the police department and the school system. Four police commissioners alone ran the department from 2002-2008. Edward Norris left in 2002 to run the Maryland State Police, where he was indicted for and pleaded guilty to federal corruption and tax charges. His successor Kevin Clark sued the city after his 2004 firing by Mayor O’Malley, during a tenure in which murder rates rose, and won $75,000 in severance pay. Leonard Hamm was asked to resign in 2007, amid a rise in the murder rate, by Mayor Sheila Dixon, who herself would be indicted, be found guilty, and resign in 2010.

Over on North Avenue, things weren’t running any smoother. In 2003 then-Baltimore schools chief Carmen Russo resigned following a 2002-2003 academic year with a $31 million budget deficit that forced temporary employee layoffs midyear, when a federal judge threatened to jail the school board for inadequate management of the district’s special-education students, and when 41 schools were fined for lead-contaminated drinking water. The district’s budget deficit continued to grow—today it stands at $60 million, following rounds of layoffs, school closings, and political standoffs with the state over school oversight.

So “The Wire,” which debuted 13 years ago this week, did not define Baltimore, and can’t be held responsible for fucking it up—we did just fine with that ourselves. But it did start conversations about the systems at work, from the criminal justice and the political systems to the schools and the media. We looked back at each fictional season to see how they look now, through the lens of history.

Now, let’s make two things clear. The comments here aren’t lobbed as a defense of the show. “The Wire” has been and will continue to be celebrated and criticized as a text, which is all that it is. Nor are these words intended as a response to or engagement with “Wire” co-producer and -creator David Simon’s recent comments about Baltimore, the war on drugs, and the state of the city today. He’s more than capable of arguing and defending his ideas himself.

What’s flabbergasting, and what Welch’s comments make clear, is that what’s at stake in the eyes of local power representatives remains fairly consistent then and now: attracting developers—or tourists and conventioneers—to Baltimore. This myopic rationale is what’s targeted by those Twitter-friendly statements that broken windows matter more than broken spines, a reductive sound bite that links the oppressive law enforcement strategy that spread out from New York City in the 1990s and 2000s to Freddie Gray’s death. That hot take problematically starts the violence timeline in April 2015, not decades back with the politicians, planners, developers, business leaders, and policies that manufactured the “two Baltimores” we live in today.

But, remember, it was a TV show that made us look bad all these years. Nothing else in 2002 could have had any impact on the city’s image, right? Sure, that August the musical version of John Waters’ “Hairspray” debuted on Broadway. It only went on to win eight Tony awards and run for six years, its final performance staged nine months after “The Wire” finale aired. And, oh yeah: Around 2:20 a.m. on Oct. 16, 2002, 21-year-old Darrell Brooks kicked in a rowhouse door in the Oliver neighborhood of East Baltimore, reportedly tossed a pickle jar full of gasoline onto the stairs, and set it on fire, killing Angela Dawson—who had repeatedly called the police to report local drug dealers—her husband Carnell, and their five children.

At that time Mayor O’Malley had followed his “The Greatest City in America” slogan with the “Believe” campaign, which he doubled down on in a 2012 Sun editorial that claimed “[a]fter years of shrugging our shoulders at the addiction and violence, our city came together in the ‘Believe’ campaign to admit we had a problem; together, we started doing something about it.” This editorial is a stunning example of condescension. In the second paragraph O’Malley cites the campaign’s TV spot, which opened with a young African-American boy saying: “My grandmother says we’re all part of one big fire. I don’t know if that’s true, but I know there’s a fire inside me.”

Time and time again Baltimore leadership resorts to messaging campaigns instead of confronting the realities facing the city—the less said about the pre-bubble, come-for-our-real-estate desperation of Get In On It in 2006, the better—and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is now following suit. In the wake of the uprising her office announced the One Baltimore campaign, billed as “an opportunity for us to focus more intensely on systemic problems that have faced our city for decades, if not generations,” though it, as of press time, hasn’t articulated any goals, plans, or programming. At least there’s the #OneBaltimore hashtag.

Like so many of the city’s branding attempts, it arrives pre-loaded with double meanings. It’s obviously a call for unity, a shout out to the ones who showed up the morning after the uprising to clean up the intersection of Pennsylvania and North avenues: the community organizers, the student activists, the clergy men and women, the nonprofit volunteers, the average citizens who since before, during, and after “The Wire” have done the small work that brings and holds people together. And then there are the ones who benefit from maintaining the economic development status quo that led us to where we are now.

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