Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Watching the Detectives

The third season of The Wire begins with the demolition of the high-rise housing project towers that have been sites of contention in the first two seasons. It's a signal of a shift in emphasis that I'm noticing in the first few episodes. For the first time, the mayor becomes a real character. A city councilman becomes an important figure. And cops like Burrell and Rawls have climbed their way into positions high in the law enforcement hierarchy. What we're getting now, more than ever, is a wide-angle view of how a modern (though old—it's interesting to consider that Frederick Douglass lived and worked in Baltimore as a slave) American city works.

And yet, the basic lens for this wide-angle view remains one of crime and punishment, law and order.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love the show, but I wonder if crime is ultimately the best lens with which to understand a city like Baltimore.

You always hear that Baltimore is a lot like St. Louis: same city-county divide, same heavily Catholic population, same patterns of flight from the city. The other day, I took a bike ride through the South Side—down Pestalozzi from Tower Grove Park almost to the brewery, then down Lemp, past the defunct brewery, down into the neighborhood that you can see from 55 before you reach the Broadway exit, then up to the state streets and over to Cherokee Street.

It's a landscape that's very reminiscent of the landscapes in The Wire, populated by people who could be straight out of the show. And the lens of that show kind of got into my head, I found. A woman walked slowly but purposefully between a couple two-family flats—Maybe she's going to the stash, I found myself thinking. An SUV full of young men blew through a stop sign and sped up the road. Are they going to crack some heads on a corner somewhere? A guy sat on his stoop and made a call on his cellphone. Is he calling in some muscle?

Most likely, none of these things were going on. But a show as powerful and complex as The Wire does get in your head and make you start to see things through its lens.

"The urban crime environment," the Baltimore cops call it in the show, but that's not all this environment is. It's a place where regular people, citizens, as they're called by the cops in The Wire, live. The show, because of its nature, has the lives of these people only in its peripheral vision. They're the innocent bystanders who get shot, the scared witnesses, the fathers whose sons have gotten caught up in bad shit.

At the beginning of season three, Bodie tells Poot something like, "If you just live up in them towers, you ain't shit. But if you sling in them, then you somebody." It's an accurate statement in terms of the show, at least. There are no major characters who live in the projects but aren't in "the game."

The show does make it clear, however, that virtually all of the people who live in the towers—and in most of the neighborhoods where drugs are sold on the street—are black. Why is that? What does that mean?

The show doesn't provide much to help viewers understand where those projects came from, or where the people who live in them lived before they were constructed, or why they're racially segregated, or why that matters. Is that a flaw in the show? I don't know, but I do know that, on previous bike rides through South St. Louis, I have looked at the landscape through a different lens, the lens of racial residential segregation, crafted powerfully by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton's classic book American Apartheid.

Massey and Denton's is a book of analysis and theory; The Wire is art and drama. And yet I find myself thinking that, in order to really understand The Wire, not to mention Baltimore and St. Louis, one would benefit from reading American Apartheid.

One would also benefit from seeing more of the ordinary lives that take place in the poor black neighborhoods of The Wire. Yet, because of its nature as a show about drugs and law enforcement, such stories aren't really relevant. The show does an admirable job of developing complex black characters at all levels of the police force and government. Yet these characters seem to have escaped segregation to a degree that I find questionable. At their middle-class level, blacks and whites work, socialize, and have sex with each other with utter ease. It's not even a question. In the episode I watched today, a bar full of cops, black and white, drank together and sang Irish songs in honor of a dead comrade. Race was absolutely not an issue.

Is that the way it really is for middle-class Americans, black and white? Massey and Denton suggest that it's not. Frankly, so does my own personal experience.

White people, it has been said, like The Wire. And for good reason: I suspect that it's the most nuanced, complex, realistic, and compelling television series ever created. Does it still fall short, though? Do white people still come away from it with a skewed picture of African-American life?

Zora Neale Hurston argued in her 1950 essay "What White Publishers Won't Print" that "For various reasons, the average, struggling, non-morbid Negro is the best-kept secret in America."

Now, I think The Wire does much to dramatize the lives of such characters. But I guess I also think that, like any lens, the show's focus on crime can distort our perception of reality as well as sharpen it.


Alex iron-loins Sciuto said...

Have you seen The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood also by David Simon? I think that miniseries, with its focus on a single family unit and it's daily struggle to survive shines a much brighter light on what it's like to be a "citizen" than anything in The Wire did. It's also not even close to being as exciting as The Wire is, but it does bring new meaning to the term quiet desperation.

framiko said...

Good point. I should watch that series, too. A while ago, though, I was looking at some of Simon's books on Amazon, and I was startled by this negative review of The Corner. I don't know if it's fair or not:

This portrayal of a year in drug-crazed west Baltimore will satisfy neither readers looking for a perceptive witness to the urban crisis nor those in search of social analysis. Simon (Homicide, LJ 6/1/91), a crime reporter, and Burns, a Baltimore police veteran and public school teacher, mask their presence in the scene with an omniscient style that strains credibility, and the chronological framework blunts the impact of their most compelling themes. The authors salute the courageous but futile efforts of individual parents, educators, and police officers but deny the possibility of a social solution to the devastation they acknowledge is rooted in social policy. A more compelling account is Our America: Life and Death (LJ 6/1/97) on the South Side of Chicago, based on interviews conducted by 13-year-old public housing residents LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman in 1993.