Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Baltimore on Screen

by Conroy

This week, ESPN’s self-styled “sports and pop-culture” offshoot, is hosting Smacketology [1] an interactive March-madness-style tournament where readers vote on matchups of 32 of the most memorable characters from the acclaimed HBO series The Wire. This tournament exists, I suppose, as a pop-culture anticipation of the upcoming NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament [2], but also because so many of the Grantland senior staff are semi-obsessed with the show, which to be fair, does boast an undeniably impressive roster of realistic, interesting characters. Why else invent this completely meaningless tournament based on a show that’s been off the air for several years?

Of course, just because it’s meaningless doesn’t mean people don’t have strong opinions. From who will prevail (the odds-on favorite [3] is Omar, the homosexual street vigilante), to who was “snubbed” (no Ellis Carver or Rhonda Pearlman?!), to how each character was seeded (Jimmy McNulty is just a “3” seed?). For me, this tournament is nothing more than a curiosity, but I do have one beef. It seems that the tournament committee (or whoever at Grantland put this thing together) made one massive, unforgivable omission, the biggest character of all, the show’s beating heart, the city of Baltimore.

Place as Character
And that leads me to two separate but related thoughts. First, the idea of place, of setting, as a principal character. The Baltimore shown in The Wire is as inseparable from the show as the main criminals and cops. We see the decaying underbelly of the city. The characters inhabit it; they create and are the products of its devitalized social milieu. Dirty streets, boarded-up houses, depressed stores, corners surrendered to thugs and drug dealers. We see the violence that rots the city’s poor (and largely black) neighborhoods. We see the effects of the corruption and bureaucratic malaise, the numbing inertia of large institutions that are incapable of arresting the long social and economic decline of huge parts of the city. This may all seem rather bleak, but the show is vibrant because of its universe of characters and because all those characters lived in a “real” place. A great deal of the show takes place outside, on the city streets, at the port, on rooftops, at neighborhood bars and parks. If the city plays a central role it’s because the show was almost entirely shot on location [4]. David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun writer and the show’s creator, knows Baltimore and its criminal street scene intimately. That realism is transferred to the screen. This is only one view of Baltimore, the saddest parts of the city, but what’s seen on the screen is more or less true.

Joyce immortalized in his Dublin
This reminds me of the way other places have been used to emphasize and enliven great art. A prime example is the Dublin of James Joyce’s stories and novels; Dublin is as much a character in Ulysses as Leopold Bloom or Stephan Dedalus. Joyce famously said, and I’m paraphrasing, that if Dublin were to vanish from the Earth he hoped it could be reconstructed brick-by-brick from the pages of his book. Just note the intricacy of how the Dubliners traverse and inhabit the city in the novel. Even if you’ve never seen Dublin, as I hadn’t when I first read the book, Joyce’s prose renders powerful images and especially powerful impressions in the mind; in the end, the story is inseparable from the place. Joyce’s stories and characters are universal, they convey the human condition, but they’re grounded in a time and place. They’re intertwined with the Dublin of the author’s youth. There are countless authors who, like Joyce, create character from setting, Faulkner’s Mississippi and Dickens’ London are a couple of prominent examples.

Jumping to a different medium, think of Martin Scorsese’s best films, they take place in New York, from Taxi Driver, to Raging Bull, and Goodfellas. And it’s not the glamorous high-rises of Wall Street or midtown Manhattan or the wealthy neighborhoods of the Upper West Side, but working-class sections of the Bronx and Queens; the rough, lonely night streets. His characters are New Yorkers. It’s hard to imagine Travis Bickle, the anonymous taxi driver, prowling the streets of any other city, and of any other city being as hostile and hard on him as 1970s New York. And as Henry Hill says in Goodfellas, “We grew up near the airport [5], it belonged to us.” Indeed the mid-level crimes and heists of Hill and his gangster friends never rise above or beyond the streets of their neighborhood.

Baltimore on Screen
But this leads me to my second thought. As effective as The Wire is in incorporating Baltimore into the story, it shows a pretty grim side of the city. My hometown appears simultaneously dysfunctional, dangerous, and genuinely soul-crushing. Realistic or not, it’s not really how I want the image of the city conveyed to the rest of the world. I admit to a certain possessiveness and defensiveness in how Baltimore is depicted in the media. I suspect this is true of a great many people who take pride in their cities but who live in places that are only sporadically shown in the mass media. Some cities are used so commonly as settings for shows, movies, novels, any fiction, that you can gain a fair appreciation for the nuances of the place: New York and Los Angeles most obviously. Other common settings include Chicago, Washington, Miami, Boston, and San Francisco. London and Paris are popular international locales.  But for cities like Baltimore, such exposure is intermittent and shows like The Wire cast an incomplete perspective.

A more attractive side of Baltimore
After all, the city and the wider metro area aren’t so bad. Of all the urban areas in the world, Baltimore has the 45th largest economy, bigger than places like Milan (46), Vienna (50), Vancouver (58), and Berlin (69). It’s home to a rich 300-year history. It’s natural setting on a wide estuary near the Chesapeake Bay and along the Piedmont fall line make for beautiful scenery, especially during the sunny green summer. You don’t get to see much of that in The Wire. For that matter you didn’t get to see much of it in another critically-acclaimed Baltimore-based show, Homicide, which aired on NBC and predated The Wire but covered much of the same subject matter. There are examples that show a more positive side of the city, like (picking recent examples) the movies Ladder 49 and He’s Just Not That Into You [6]. There are also the praised films like Diner and Avalon that show a Baltimore of the 1950s, the city of my parents’ youth. I just wish these depictions created as powerful an impression as The Wire.

My emotional response to how Baltimore is shown in the media may be a bit silly, but I suspect denizens of other under-used cities (e.g., and picking at random, Atlanta, San Diego, Dallas, Houston, Detroit, St. Louis, even Philadelphia) may feel the same way. Oh well, I guess that’s the way it is. Consider that when The Wire was filming, the city warmly embraced the production. Unflattering as it may have been, it was exciting to have such an impressive show set in town. Like Joyce’s early 20th century Dublin, early millennial Baltimore has been immortalized in one of the best ever television programs. That can’t be all bad.



[1] A play on the ESPN’s “Bracketology”, which is the pseudo-sport/science developed over the last decade plus to project the NCAA Basketball Tournament field. Though I don’t really understand the full etymology of “Smacketology”.

[2] Which starts next week.

[3] And President Obama’s pick, FYI.

[4] I can attest to this first hand. During Season 5 the parking garage of my office building was partially closed one day while an episode was being filmed on the top floor. Also, my girlfriend appears as an extra, a reporter at a press conference, in one Season 5 episode.

[5] Idlewild Airport, since renamed to JFK International Airport.

[6] Other examples include: Sleepless in Seattle, Enemy of the State, The Replacements, The Accidental Tourist, and The Sum of All Fears. The last probably isn’t a positive example. In it, the city is largely flattened by a terrorist’s nuclear weapon. I’ve joked that the producers chose to show Baltimore destroyed because that result would be far less upsetting to post-9/11 Americans than say, if San Francisco had been nuked.


  1. Fact is, Baltimore was presented pretty fairly on The Wire. Sure there are good parts to the city, but Mr. Simon didn't have to do too much imagining to come up with plot lines.

  2. Anonymous,

    Thanks for your comments, and you're right that Baltimore is rife with problems. I've live here my whole life and I have a love-hate relationship that comes with familiarity. Some problems seem intractable, a reality captured very well in The Wire.

    But Baltimore is a large place, and getting away from the streets of West and East Baltimore reveals a different - a better - reality.