Baltimore And ‘The Wire’: Why The City Was The Perfect Landscape For The Breakthrough TV Show
"Minorities, notably blacks, have a strained relationship with law enforcement, the housing department, and white supremacy."
The American Dream has been sold to us since the early 1900s. It has been dangled in front of our faces like a carrot, and we’re the cartoon character gullible enough to chase it. After the Civil War, blacks flocked to large northern cities in hopes of opportunity and equality. Overnight, it seemed, cities had to adjust to a new segment of their population. Cities put systems in place to control the newly free blacks. A lot of these systems are still in place like the plantation system of incarceration the country adopted. The children of those settlers are chasing a dream that may never be realized. Every city in this country has it’s own historical baggage that has been passed down generation after generation. The cycle has evolved into a way of life not to be disturbed, because it might ruin what we’ve built on the backs of unpaid labor.
Baltimore has a long history, beginning in 1729. Race relations in the city have been tense since the end of the Civil War. The Baltimore area was home to black troops assigned to protect the nation’s capital during the war. After the war, they returned to the area to live full-time and to start families. This influx of black people was met with violent resistance from white people that believed they were losing their city. “Prior to the late 1850s, ship caulking-a trade with well-paid skilled jobs performed to keep ships from leaking-had been almost exclusively an African American occupation in Baltimore … In 1858 and 1859 a series of violent attacks by members of a white working-class gang called the Tigers, allies of the municipally dominant American, or Know Nothing, Party, broke the African American monopoly on caulking.” (Towers, pg.221) Blacks armed themselves to protect themselves. During this period Baltimore, and the rest of the country, built an infrastructure to corral and control the black population. These systems are still place from the judicial system to the housing practices. The history of the city is engrained in the characters. It comes out in the words they choose and the way they view each other. A lot of television shows use the city as a backdrop, but on The Wire, it is a character.
The Wire is considered one of the best, if not the best, television shows ever created. Its writing has been compared to that of a novel. Characters feel real instead of archetypes built for the entertainment of the mainstream. At its core, this show is about crime in a big city. The first season is about a police officer obsessed with the drug trade in a small forgotten neighbors in West Baltimore. McNulty, the police officer, battles police force politics and himself as he tries to take down drug lords, Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell.
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In The Wire, the characters use the city as a place of urban warfare. Crack dealers and police are in their bunkers plotting strategies to take advantage of the other’s weaknesses. Bodies are treated as currency instead of human beings. They both have a blasé attitude towards life in general. Money is the only motivation. Money has young men sitting on abandoned couches in the middle of the projects pitching crack to addicts in their own community. It has the police withholding information from the public they were trusted to protect and serve.
Baltimore doesn’t have a skyscraper with a corny name. It doesn’t have a natural landmarks like the Grand Canyon. It is the little cousin of the tristate area. Baltimore isn’t a wealthy city. It has been ravaged by the drug trade in certain neighborhoods. The city that we see in The Wire is a network of small neighborhoods. Baltimore is segregated, sometimes by income and sometimes by race. “The Baltimore case of Thompson v. U.S. Dep't of Housing and Urban Development, 348 F. Supp. 2d 398 (D.Md. 2005), decided in January 2005, is the latest of these federal civil rights lawsuits challenging segregation in public housing. Thompson was filed in 1994 by the Maryland American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of a class of African American public housing residents.” Sometimes race and poverty intersect and create an environment where people are forced to color outside the lines in order to achieve the dream their ancestors were promised.
The first season focuses on the Westside of Baltimore. This part of the city is predominantly black with low income housing projects at the center. The characters deal drugs as a means to a means to an end. Characters like Avon and Stringer don’t spend much time in the slums. If any business needs to be discussed it would happen at the gentleman’s club they own. The dealers deal in a public space instead of someones private property because you don’t shit where you sleep. The city, more specifically, “the pit” is open 24 hours a day to all paying customers. The key to selling a low quality drug is accessibility. They don’t serve cocaine but crack instead for those who can scrounge up a few dollars for a fix. Coke dealers can hide in the shadows behind aliases and dark shades. These dealers can be found in broad daylight in the same spot. Most of The Wire takes place outside. Moments inside are short lived or happen in a police station. Police officers are the only characters shown at home within the first season. “Rarely are viewers shown the private lives of the street-level dealers and the hoppers; we're not sure where or how they live but we know it can't be the ideal setting for any 14-year-old boy.”(Guastafero). The drug dealers’ private life is inessential because home or family are inessential. The streets or the hustle become the only thing that matter. Most of the dealers’ time is spent outside which they are constantly being watched. The police aren’t the only ones watching the neighborhood drug dealers. They are being watched by people in the neighborhood. Omar and his crew scout the dealers in the pit while the police do the same. Omar is looking for a quick score and the police are looking for any leads to Avon and Stringer.
Bubbles, the neighborhood dope fiend, is an informant for Baltimore Police Department in the show. He works closely with Kima, the lone woman investigator on the Barksdale case. Bubbles had this move where he would place a bright red hat on the head of drug dealers and Kima would snap pictures from a neighboring rooftop. Surveillance is law enforcement’s best friend and an informant, like Bubbles, is a close second. These are the ways that cases are made.
If the dope dealers are being watched outside why don’t they just sell drugs inside? In the third episode McNulty visits a friend in the DEA. His friend shows him surveillance video of a crack house. Men are cooking crack in kitchen while McNulty and his friend watch a live feed. These people are always being watched within the city and it doesn’t matter if they are inside or out. The police officers in the show aren’t under surveillance, but their personal lives are being watched by the viewer.
Within the show we see a 2 a.m. shakedown gone wrong. A rookie officer strikes a teenager with the butt of his gun for the entire projects to see. A group of slightly intoxicated officers stand in the center of the projects with their weapons drawn and their eyes searching for faces to match voices. People yell threats out their windows. As viewers, we begin to hear glass crashing on to the pavement and bricks hit the squad car. These sounds scream out, ”You are not safe!” The police are now the ones being watched by those that sit in their low income high-rise. Violent reactions to oppression can be misunderstood. Sometimes its the only way to express hurt. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Baltimore reacted violently. “They lived through 1968, when rioting after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. left six people dead and 700 injured, and some 1,000 businesses were looted.” (Von Drehle, pg. 36)
The Wire was so smart that some feared that it was going to be cancelled before the series was ended by its creators. Tim Goodman wrote about it in 2004 for the SF Gate, “Ratings for both series are not good. At HBO, where ratings don't necessarily matter, 'The Wire' has yet to be extended for a fourth season. But in the universe of people who actually get HBO, 'The Wire, has not caught on.” (Goodman). He also wrote about Arrested Development, another great show. The show didn’t catch on partly because the subject matter wasn’t appealing at the time. In 2002 we were considered to be in a post racial society where race no longer mattered.
The Wire is brilliant because it doesn’t slow down for audience members who aren’t prepared to watch the show. There is historical context behind ever character the show and some people may be ignorant to the history of Baltimore. Why are off duty police officers performing shakedowns at 2 a.m.? Baltimore. Why are there half a dozen black guys in that courtroom? Baltimore. The tension between black people and the police department is very real and is historically very Baltimore. In the present, outside of the show, the Baltimore Police Department recently dealt with corruption in their department. Rachel Weiner wrote about Baltimore detectives being convicted in February. “Over two weeks in federal court, four former members of the once-lauded unit who earlier pleaded guilty took the stand in their new prison uniforms and admitted to crimes denied for years during internal investigations and lawsuits. The officers stole hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, drugs, guns and luxury accessories while pretending to be seizing the goods for legitimate enforcement objectives.” (Weiner) The police officers’ defense was based around claims that the the entire task force was corrupt. “Testimony portrayed the department as riddled with opportunists who cut corners and broke rules.” (Weiner). They were just products of their environment. It's a poor excuse for officers that victimized neighborhoods with young men and women hustling, that are truly products of their environment.
I’ve lived in major cities all my life, but I was born and raised in Chicago. Minorities, notably blacks, have a strained relationship with law enforcement, the housing department and white supremacy. Our police department has also had scandals involving corruption. People don’t talk about it, but most of us that have been here for a while know the murky past of our city. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said Chicago had one of the worst racial climates he’d ever seen. The Wire told us that those in other cities are dealing with similar things. So shoutout to our little cousin, Baltimore, it's not perfect, but you’re one of us.