Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Wire: A Baltimorean's Perspective

I am contributing to this blog as a white woman (girl?) who grew up near Baltimore and spent the last half-decade living in various parts of downtown. My posts will probably have more to do with real life in Baltimore than the others. I do love "The Wire," and I've seen every episode, but the reason it's so meaningful for me is because I recognize every shot, I know the slang they use, I know the arcane references to restaurants and places, but more than anything, the show piques a morbid curiosity in me. I grew up in Jay Landsman's hometown, lived on the West Side, went to school where Stringer studied economics, and worked as a bike messenger in every downtown building you see on the show.

I think that part of what makes the show palatable is the mantra of, "it's all in the game." This is reiterated in David Simon's literary works, especially "The Corner." Everyone recognizes this refrain as Omar's tagline in "The Wire." Whether a corner kid is getting shot or metal piping is being stolen from a vacant, the offenders repeat that what they're doing is all part of the game, and so are the victims. However, this is the one area in which I disagree with David Simon and his characters. The victims of the drug trade and urban poverty are everywhere. In Baltimore this is striking because of how the city has gentrified. The best example I can think of right now is Washington Village, aka Pigtown or Billytown. Pigtown is situated downtown, just west of MLK. Until recently, it was indistinguishable from everything west and north of it (the West Side, where "The Wire" is set). Empty houses, trash in the street, lots of "carry outs," etc. Developers decided that this was prime real estate, close to downtown, Lexington and Hollins Markets, museums, and the stadiums, and they would fix a up a few homes and market the crap out of the area. In truth, it is a fine location, but MLK may be an insurmountable barrier to improvement in that area. East of MLK is downtown. West of MLK is ghetto all the way to Catonsville. It's a wide road for a city, three and four lanes wide. I rarely see pedestrians crossing the street (except for the occasional med students who live in the first block west of MLK and go to school one block east of MLK). People started snapping up houses in this area at the inflated rates of the early 2000's, and now people are desperate to get out. Homes can't be completed because their parts are being stolen, people are afraid to walk their dogs at night, and cars are broken into regularly. Now there are corner people and taxpayers living in the exact same place and the corners are winning as the area empties and houses are re-abandoned. These newcomers aren't part of the game. Yet they fell victim to it and are leaving in droves.

When I first moved to the city, I moved to the 400 block of West Redwood Street, a block from University Hospital. The McDonald's at Baltimore and Paca had bars on the windows. Pawn shops and shady convenience stores were everywhere. But two blocks south stand Camden Yards and Ravens Stadium, with the convention center close by. This is another example of Baltimore's dichotomous nature. In two blocks you go from $900 a month studio apartments to stores with bars on the windows to major downtown attractions. One day, on my way back from Lexington Market, I was approached by a large black man. He started hitting on me and trying to get me to stop walking. I looked down for a second and when I looked up I saw the door of a running car on the curb open and the man lunged toward me. Was he going to push me into the car? I don't know. I ran, which caused pedestrians in the area to take notice, and the guy jumped in the car and it sped off. At that point, that was the closest I'd come to the game.

After that incident, I decided to move to Canton. Canton is on the east side along the harbor. It's one of the trendy gentrified neighborhoods downtown and arguably the safest neighborhood in the city. All was well until my bike was stolen in broad daylight at Boston and Hudson by a black guy in a raggy tank top. In tears and in the rain, I walked through the projects east of Little Italy, thinking I might see my beloved bike, my sole means of transportation. I didn't see mine, but I saw many others that were too nice to have been purchased by people on welfare in public housing, probably stolen from people in Canton. Once again I was a victim, but I'm not in the game.

After Canton I lived in Pigtown. Yes, I bought into the whole idea of the area improving because I'm an optimisitc idiot. My running shoes were stolen off my front porch. My front steps filled with trash, needles, and urine. My roommate's boyfriend, a former addict, was sucked back into the world of drugs by the carryout near the corner of Washington Boulevard and Poppleton Street. My electricity bill for a ten foot wide rowhouse was in excess of $300 a month, no doubt because during the renovations that happened just prior to my moving in, someone ran a line out, though I could never prove it. My parents' BG&E bills for a house ten times the size of that one were about $125. I'm still not in the game, and now I fucking hate it.

After Pigtown came Mount Vernon. I was working as a messenger and wanted to live close to downtown, but away from the crime. What was I thinking? It's Baltimore...crime finds you. My first night in Mount Vernon I rode my bike down to an O's game. The next morning, I discovered that overnight, someone had broken into my and my boyfriend's cars. They were both parked on the Biddle Street bridge over the JFX. What's on the other side of the JFX? Johnston Square. A public housing area that is also home to the city jail. It looks like this (this is the 1100 block of Barclay Street; one home is occupied):

That is two blocks east of this picture, taken from my front steps at Calvert and Biddle:

My boyfriend's $1200 stereo system was stolen, as was some Percoset that was in my center console (I broke my back messengering, hence the Percoset). Now, I'm pissed at the game.

Four weeks later, we rode our bikes down to Tide Point to watch the fireworks on the 4th of July. On the way back, we got caught in a huge amount of traffic downtown at Pratt and Light Streets. I got off my bike and decided to walk because there were so many pedestrians moving between the stopped cars. Before my boyfriend could unclip from his pedals (he was clipped in and stopped between two cars; he had a hand on one of them to keep him upright), someone crossing the street tripped over his rear wheel. Before I knew what was happening, three young teenaged yos were beating the shit out of my boyfriend. I screamed in the street at the top of my lungs. I couldn't reach him; both of our bikes were between us and we were wedged between cars. They punched him from behind while he was immobilized, still clipped into his bike. As soon as he could unclip, they walked off into the night. They walked. The dozens of police officers in the area stood motionless on the sidewalks. I made my way toward one. "DID YOU SEE THAT?!" I screamed. Chip followed me, bleeding from him face, his eye almost swollen shut, and an egg the size of a golf ball on his forehead. "Yeah," the cop said. "Do you want an ice pack?" "Are you going to do anything?" I screamed hysterically. "I'm just a medic," he said. At that moment, I felt more alone than anyone has ever felt while standing in a throng of thousands of people. My screams fell on deaf ears, and the police, those who should have protected us, did nothing. We walked home, silent except for our crying. Fuck the game, and fuck the ghetto eye for an eye mentality that we see in Namond, Marlo, and everyone else on the corners.

A few months later, I graduated from college and decided it was time to get the fuck out. The city was getting too dangerous. If I stayed too long, I could end up like Zach Sowers. Or worse. I moved to a town in California that hasn't seen a murder in a decade, but not before my neighbor's car was broken into less than a foot outside my bedroom window. When those yos broke Chip's nose, they broke my faith in humanity. In a month we'd had our things stolen and our physical selves violated. Moreover, the police witnessed it, and did nothing. Now I live in suburbia and am still visited with nightmares about the 4th of July. Every ten seconds or so while I'm out walking the dog, I feel compelled to stop and turn around, to make sure no one is behind me. I don't leave anything except trash out on my front porch. I think twice about where I park the car. I still get nervous leaving my bike locked up outside, even though the wheels are bolted on.

So why do I watch "The Wire?" I miss the city. I fucking miss Baltimore fucking City. I don't even want to visit because I'm afraid I won't leave. It's my fucking home, and nothing else feels like it. The first time I heard Tootsie Duvall talk about "meeyath and sahnce" ("math and science" in Bawldamorese), it brought tears to my eyes. I stop every time I hear myself say, "Bawldamore" instead of "Bal-ti-more," when I order a Jamba juice with "prayotein," and when I occasionally punctuate a sentence with "hon." People ask where I'm from and I instantly say, "Baltimore" instead of California. I crave Utz chips, Natty Boh, Nino's pizza, and Otterbein's cookies. The bloody, corrupt heap of shit that is Baltimore is part of me. I don't feel complete without it. “The Wire” shows Baltimore in all its gritty glory.

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