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September 26, 2006 4:35 AM   Subscribe

Is Baltimore really as much of a complete shithole as it's made out to be on The Wire?
posted by bingo to Society & Culture (31 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
See this recent thread about how Baltimore has change over the past 15 years.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:54 AM on September 26, 2006

No. I grew up there and would go back.

I don't know crap about "The Wire." I don't need to. Shoot your TV. TV will rot your brain.
posted by bim at 4:56 AM on September 26, 2006

Okay, let me attempt to head some nonsense off at the pass by saying that I don't have a TV, I went to film school, and am well aware of the difference between television and real life. That being said, one of the reasons that The Wire is so good is its gritty, realistic feel. I've never worked in a police department, but the exploration of the police beurocracy on that show is so detailed that you have to think the writers either really know their shit, or are getting everything wrong (and in fact, some of the writers apparently used to be Baltimore cops). So I'm curious how far that realism extends in other aspects of the show, and also whether the political events on the show mirror any in real life that I wouldn't possibly catch on to without being from Baltimore.
posted by bingo at 5:17 AM on September 26, 2006

Baltimore has change over the past 15 years.

I'm guessing that ex-cop writers don't limit themselves to recent material. 15 years ago, a night time walk from the train station to the bus station was dicier than similar walks in New York.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:24 AM on September 26, 2006

If you haven't yet, read Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon, who is also the Wire creator. (The basis for Homicide, The Best Damn Show On TV Ever Bar None Amen.) It's the best book about policing in the inner city I've ever read, and just a damn great read in general. My sense is Baltimore has rebounded dramatically from the crack wars of the 90s, but I got lost in one of the blasted neighborhoods Simon describes last year and felt I had walked right into the book.
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:53 AM on September 26, 2006

I have never lived in Baltimore, but I have a friend who does and I have visited there and read a fair amount about it, and yes, by all accounts it's in very bad shape.
posted by languagehat at 6:15 AM on September 26, 2006

Thanks for the clarification, bingo. I thought that I was going to have to defend Baltimore's honor. :) Looks like I might have to, though, with languagehat. Oy.
posted by bim at 6:17 AM on September 26, 2006

Yeah, it is as much of a shithole as The Wire makes it out to be.

The other thread is useful as an overview of what's changed and how much nicer certain areas have gotten, but Baltimore has very very high rates of poverty and drug sales and abuse. There are the concomittant health problems that go along with that--I'm sitting at work in a zip code where the HIV rate is the highest in the USA.

There are whole sections of Baltimore that continue to look and feel like bombed out areas of a war-torn country. Whole blocks are boarded up, people have no jobs and no prospects, the drug trade defines whole areas of the city. (I had a funny experience about a year ago: I was driving to work through a neighborhood that I think of as not too bad, I'd certainly walk around there during the day, which I cannot say about a lot of BMore neighborhoods. There was a group of people walking with purpose and determination around the corner. This was at ~7:30am, and I remember thinking, huh, you don't usually see that kind of wherewithal exhibited this early in the morning in this part of Baltimore. Sure enough, they were just getting in line for tasters. If there's one thing that can motivate folks from Baltimore, it's drugs, free drugs even better.)

But, seriously, the drug trade fuels a huge amount of behavior in the city, and it can be hard to understand both the depths of degredation and the heights of ingenuity evident in Baltimore without having a sense of how pervasive drugs are and what folks will do to get them. David Simon's (see CL comment above) book The Corner, which he wrote after Homicide, gives a pretty good picture of the terrain. You can also watch Charles Dutton's miniseries made from the book. He's from Baltimore and did prison time here before making it as an actor. The Wire is kind of a cross between The Corner and Homicide.

All of that said, of course the shittiness is endemic to certain neighborhoods. There are plenty of nice areas where none of that stuff really affects the picture or the outlook much. I did a post on the Baltimore City Paper Murder Ink which tracks the murders in the city week to week. It's apparent that most of the violent crime in the city is black on black crime associated with the drug trade.

I've only moved here in the past 5 years or so, and have not done any history reading about Baltimore, but my take is that Baltimore combines the worst aspects of a Rust Belt city and a port city. THere used to be good jobs here in manufacturing and steel, which disappeared during the eighties. At the same time, the city became a conduit for drugs to enter the US. I've heard estimates that 10% (!) of the US drug trade comes through Baltimore. Now, there are no jobs but drug jobs, and a lot of people who had houses lost them, etc.
posted by OmieWise at 6:21 AM on September 26, 2006 [7 favorites]

Bim, no offense, but you don't live there and OmieWise does. I'm glad you have fond memories of the place, but the poster is looking for facts, not fierce defense of a beloved hometown.
posted by languagehat at 6:35 AM on September 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

Yes and no. The action in The Wire is just set in a particularly shitty part of Baltimore, where the poverty is particularly bad.
posted by transient at 6:40 AM on September 26, 2006

I have never lived in Baltimore, but I have a friend who does and I have visited there and read a fair amount about it, and yes, by all accounts it's in very bad shape.

I have also never lived in Baltimore, but I have a friend who does. I visit her a couple of times a year, and it seems like a pretty nice city to me.

My friend works in a big tall building overlooking a water front, and can walk to a number of yummy restaurants, a museum and a mall on her lunch breaks. She used to live in a young, hip neighborhood filled with bars and college kids. Now she lives in a 120-year-old row house in a slightly older neighborhood. She walks around at night. There are restaurants, bars, stores, and a really good -- and cheap -- little bakery in walking distance of her home. She has an active social life that includes visits to friends in other parts of the city, live music, drama, art, clubbing, baseball and other fun stuff.

Every time I visit this friend in Baltimore, I leave impressed and convinced I could live there, if I could just put up with the East Coast weather.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 6:53 AM on September 26, 2006

The general unspoken rule for [white people in] Baltimore is, from the Inner Harbor and Charles Street / Mount Vernon area, just don't cross North Avenue or go further past Howard Street than Orioles Park, and you're okay.
posted by brownpau at 7:10 AM on September 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

well my experience of Baltimore is ten years old - so grain of salt and all.

There were some really cool fun places to hang out in Baltimore - tasty restaurants and cool cooperative shops. On the flip side there were some pretty shady neighborhoods where the entire store was encased behind bullet proof glass. Not just the cashier area, the entire store!

I found this shocking and I grew up in the South Bronx during the height of the crack epidemic.

I have very little info on the city now.
posted by Julnyes at 7:14 AM on September 26, 2006

Yeah, The Wire doesn't really show the "cleaned up" (aka gentrified/commercialized/white) parts of the city very much. The closest we've got have been a few city shots from Avon/Stringer's last scene together and whenever McNulty was trying to bang that political operator chick in a fancy Inner Harbor hotel.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:26 AM on September 26, 2006

My experiences in Baltimore:

Inner Harbor area is very touristy; essentially a shopping mall with restaurants next to the water. During the day, it feels quite safe to be there. There is upscale housing development going on around this area now.

North of the John's Hopkins campus you'll see stone mansions on impressively manicured lawns.

There are a few scattered areas with interesting nightlife/food/bars.

Other than that, it's a third-world shithole. Take a drive west of MLK, and you'll see what I mean.
posted by jsonic at 7:27 AM on September 26, 2006

I lived in Baltimore for 3 years, until 1.5 years ago. I lived on MLK in the downtown area (5 or so blocks west of Oriole Park), which is a little into the region where brownpau says white people "shouldn't" live. In terms of safety, for me, I had my car vandalised 4 times, and once, while it was in for repairs, the rental car I had from my insurance company was stolen (and used in a robbery -- the police picked up the car and caught the guy in 3 hours).

My good friend, a 6'2" well built athletic guy, was mugged outside my rowhouse. My neighbour was held up at gunpoint after opening the door without identifying who was at the door. I had a number of friends that lived even further west, right into west Baltimore. A couple of times when I was drinking at a neighborhood bar with them, we had to leave quickly because someone was on their way with a gun.

This was all in a region that is a "border zone" -- only 10 blocks west of the shiny new Inner Harbor.
posted by gaspode at 7:29 AM on September 26, 2006

BTW I'm a white early 30s woman and I lived alone for half the time, and with my boyfriend the rest.
posted by gaspode at 7:30 AM on September 26, 2006

Baltimore is a mix of good and bad.

I've been here since 2003; I spent a year of that working at a community center in the lower Park Heights neighborhood (which, if you believe the crazy statistic I heard, has one of the highest rates of drug use in the US). I took public transportation to get from my home in Charles Village to there. I never felt uncomfortable, even walking to the bus stop at night. However, this may not be for good reason, because the block was full of boarded up houses and drug addicts, I was hit on by drug dealers, and there have been violent incidents, like a guy getting shot and stumbling into the community center and a stabbing-shooting happening across the bus stop five minutes before I got there. But part of the reason I felt safe was because I worked at the community center, most people knew I worked there, and I tried to be friendly to everyone so they were pretty friendly back.

Anyway, yeah. So boarded-up houses and crack addicts on the street don't bother me that much, but if you define that as "shithole" then there are definitely shithole neighborhoods in Baltimore (lower Park Heights, a lot of West Baltimore, Sandtown, etc). However, they contrast with the really nice, hoighty-toighty places. There most striking thing is a lack of a gradient--you can go from "shithole" to "hipster college town" over the space of two blocks. Mount Vernon, Charles Village, and most definitely the Inner Harbor are all examples of nice places with shops and food and cool rowhouses (well, the Inner Harbor doesn't have rowhouses). Hampden is a neighborhood with a quintisentially Baltimore feel--I hear it used to be pretty bad but it's been going through a revitalization and is now quite cool and funky.

I guess what I'm trying to get at is there are a lot of shitty things in Baltimore, but there are a lot of nice things, too, that I'm guessing you don't see in the Wire. And if you're comfortable dealing with the shitty things (and it doesn't require much--you can just close your eyes and stay in the "nice" areas), then it's a city that can definitely grow on you.
posted by schroedinger at 7:31 AM on September 26, 2006

See my comment from the recent thread on Baltimore. Echoing some of the previous comments, yes, parts of Baltimore are in complete ruin. Baltimore still has intense problems with poverty, drug use, crime, and dilapidation. However, many areas (mainly touristy or mid-to-upper class such as Federal Hill, Harborplace, Mt. Vernon, etc.) have undergone revitalization and are now great areas. Baltimore is quite compartmentalized.

To answer your question, then: The Wire is fairly accurate of it's portrayal of the poverty-stricken, drug-ridden areas and the beaureacracy of the police department. However, it does not paint a balanced picture of Baltimore by omitting much of the attractions and positive areas/aspects of the city.
posted by galimatias at 7:35 AM on September 26, 2006

I think there's always a tension with questions like this, people want to defend the place they love or nuance the reality to be sure that all aspects of the situation are represented. I, too, love Baltimore. I'm not made uncomfortable often, there are tons of things I like to do here, there are many areas that I find to be really interesting and exciting. However, I also work in a free city HIV clinic, and most of my friends are in helping professions, and the overwhelming sense is that Baltimore has a lot lot lot of problems that may not be present in the tonier parts of the city, but which overwhelmingly define it. I stress that last because you can find shitty areas in any city, as well as good areas. In Baltimore the problems affect a huge proportion of the city's residents, and as such, they continue to threaten to overwhelm the city even in the face of improvment in other areas. schroedinger's comment is a great example of a description that attempts to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by suggesting that it isn't all that bad, and I have many similar conversations with friends like her who do the same kind of good work that she does. But even her description makes it clear that any objective standard would consider Baltimore to be a shit hole, subjective level of comfort and presence in the neighborhood notwithstanding.

A friend of a Baltimore friend is a music producer in LA. He was working with an African American jazz muscian, someone fairly well-known and contemporary, whose name escapes me right now, who moved away from Baltimore what Baltimore is like. The guy said: "You know, some places are love wrapped in hate, some places, like LA, hate wrapped in love. Baltimore is hate wrapped in hate." All of my friends in the city who I consider to be realists (pessimists?) know exactly what the guy was saying and think it's a perfect description. My friends who are a bit more optimistic (and also, mostly, women) protest when the first hear the description, but weakly, because Baltimore has some serious problems. The city may be on the mend, but it hasn't gone through the changes, for instance, that NYC went through under Guiliani (love him or hate him). It's much more like NYC in the 70s, or under Koch.
posted by OmieWise at 8:06 AM on September 26, 2006 [2 favorites]

My in-laws, as well as my brother-in-law, live in Baltimore, so I am somewhat familiar with the city.

It's really a mix, as others have previously stated.

Though there are really seedy, run-down areas, there are nicer (some very nice!) areas, too.

I would *definitely* not generalize the city as falling apart or crime-ridden.
posted by whitebird at 8:43 AM on September 26, 2006

bingo: OmieWise's answer sums up everything I understand about Baltimore from people who know it well.
posted by Justinian at 9:01 AM on September 26, 2006

Depends on where you are, I'd suspect. We have people that think San Francisco is the most amazing mecca on the entire planet, but it has a growing murder rate and some very high crime areas. Naturally, those are the areas that you'll hear about on the news more.
Last time I was near Baltimore, it seemed ok to me.
posted by drstein at 9:12 AM on September 26, 2006

I noticed the air quality when I was there. after a night in the hotel, my nose was extremely clogged and what came out was oddly brownish-colored. I remember that freaking me out to no end, especially since it hasn't happened since.

Shoot your TV. TV will rot your brain.
that's like saying cars will kill you or republicans eat children. besides, it's hbo.
posted by krautland at 10:48 AM on September 26, 2006

Not that this answers the question but I've lived in L.A., Seattle, Minneapolis, DC, and Baltimore. Balto has a very different feel from any of those other cities I lived in.

How it's different is hard to describe. It feels very real (no pretentions) but doesn't feel very cosmopolitan if that's important to you. In LA you could live in one part of the city and be totally isolated from the other more desirable and less desirable parts. In Baltimore, unless you live in the burbs, you are close to the "real" Baltimore wherever you live.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 12:40 PM on September 26, 2006

I lived in Baltimore for most of the years between 1986 and 2000, which is to say in the height of the Wire and Homicide years. I lived in neighborhoods that are apparently where white people aren’t supposed to live, like Waverly, and in neighborhoods that were then all white, like Highlandtown and neighborhoods that were borderline, like Mount Royal. One of my closest friends was a Baltimore city cop, west side, for 26 years and his wife was a firefighter/EMT. (He just retired & they moved to Colorado but not for any loathing or fear of Baltimore.) He lived for all those years in one of those “scary” neighborhoods; I’ve spent plenty of time hanging out on his back deck and walking around Druid Hill Park – I never even got hassled, although once a cab driver almost refused to drive me there, saying with great incredulity, “What you going there for? No white people live there!” The perception is that the city is terrifying and unsafe, but I don’t think it’s really as bad as all that. I raised my kids there. My daughter went to Baltimore public schools from 3rd through 6th grade and in middle school she even took city buses across town by herself and was fine.

For all the undoubted poverty and a really terrifying rate of heroin addiction, this hate wrapped up in hate thing doesn’t ring true for me. Yes, if you want to keep your porch furniture in Baltimore you better either bring it in at night or chain it down. Yes, I got robbed once and once on Halloween my tires got slashed, but that was it for my personal crime encounters in Baltimore. Well, there was the drive by shooting on the corner, okay, there was that. Frankly though I was more afraid on a day to day basis the two years in the middle of my Baltimore soujourn when I lived in the East Village: 1989 – 1991, the height of the crack years, when every person passing said “Smoke, smoke, smoke coke,” the kids played drug dealer on the playground, there was a tent city in Tompkins Square Park and I watched some guys casually torch a car right there on 12th Street one morning. People forget just how much everywhere has changed since then: somehow the cities came back and got yuppified and mall-ified (over mall-ified, I think, the mallification of the lower east side is tragic) and scary urban decay became less the norm. Baltimore, like New York, doesn’t seem anywhere near as bad as it used to be to me: I go back about once a year and talk regularly with friends and family who still live there.

Most neighborhoods in general seem to be a lot better than they used to be; you don’t see block after block of ruins like there were then. Some of the gentrification has bypassed Baltimore, but a lot of it hasn’t. Real estate prices have skyrocketed, which is good for some and bad for others: I sure wish I’d managed to hold on to the Highlandtown rowhouse I bought for $40,000 in 1992, because I could probably get four times that now.

The schools, though – the schools are pretty terrifying. I will say this: during the time I was involved with the city public schools on a number of levels I often felt like I was living in a post colonial African country: there’s a tremendous amount of corruption, nepotism and waste and the poverty will break your heart. There used to be elementary schools in East Baltimore where the average age of a kindergarten parent was 20. I finally did leave the city when my daughter got to high school age; there was a point where I just couldn’t do it anymore. I don’t miss it much; that is true, but there are a lot of reasons for that.
posted by mygothlaundry at 1:22 PM on September 26, 2006

Cunninglinguist: Homicide, The Best Damn Show On TV Ever Bar None Amen.

Personal preference of course, but as good as Homicide was, I think The Wire now owns that title.
posted by Neiltupper at 1:31 PM on September 26, 2006

All big cities have their problems. This has been the case ever since we saw suburban flight long ago. Baltimore's problems are not that different from a lot of other big cities IMHO.

As much I love NYC, you can pick up the newspaper on any given day and see plenty of shootings, drug related crime and homicides. NYC isn't all Manhattan.

Washington, D.C. has its problems. And so does Philadelphia. And so does every urban area.

And while I may not live there anymore, I do visit and speak to my relatives. And my brother-in-law practices criminal law in the city and none of us are suffering from any delusions about Baltimore after hearing some of his stories. So I do think that I have a little better feel for Baltimore, languagehat, than someone who's visited once or twice or heard apocryphal stories from some friend of a friend of a friend.

I appreciate Omiewise's opinion since s/he lives there and fights the good fight trying to help folks with serious problems. But I do think that if you spend all day working with folks who are among the most troubled segment of a city's population, a person may have a somewhat jaded view of things. I don't blame them.

There are plenty of folks raising their kids in Baltimore and leading a normal life -- just like anywhere else. And somebody must want to live in Baltimore given the skyrocketing prices for even the modest row homes which are prevalent in Baltimore.

But it really doesn't matter. Believe what you will. TV is no doubt the arbiter of the truth. :rolls eyes:

If you think that Baltimore is a shithole, well then there are plenty of highways that will lead you out of town. Don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out. Or don't visit. Baltimoreans won't lose any sleep over the exit of any "nattering nabobs of negativism" -- to steal a phrase from Maryland's former governor, Spiro Agnew. ;)
posted by bim at 2:30 PM on September 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

I live in Baltimore, and "The Wire" is accurate, but it's not the whole story. It couldn't be the whole story, and it's not trying to be. But it's accurate in what it's trying to portray. Which I think is what Omniewise is getting at.

The general unspoken rule for [white people in] Baltimore is, from the Inner Harbor and Charles Street / Mount Vernon area, just don't cross North Avenue or go further past Howard Street than Orioles Park, and you're okay.

Um...maybe for tourists, who might get lost and then stand up to their muggers like Robin Williams' wife on that one episode of "Homicide." But there's lots of ritzy nice apartment buildings (and Lexington Market) west of Howard. As for crossing North Ave., some of the richest neighborhoods in the city start 8 blocks across North Ave.
posted by Airhen at 6:38 PM on September 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

just don't cross North Avenue
Years ago, I wrote a (bad) poem about that.
posted by edlundart at 7:55 PM on September 26, 2006

I'm originally from a rural Michigan town, and now live in Hamtramck (a city within the city of Detroit). My sister moved to B'More a few years back, and I have spent some time there... I wouldn't say it's any worse than a lot of cities (although my wife might disagree). There are definitely some very sketchy neighborhoods, but I don't know how much worse they are than the sketchy neighborhoods in DC or San Francisco or L.A. or Chicago. And there definitely aren't any more boarded-up houses than in Detroit. Like Detroit, Baltimore does feel like a city that isn't pretentious, a very blue-collar town.

Anyway, like others have said - the Wire is specifically focusing on some of the worst neighborhoods, and the big issues - drugs, violence, awful school systems - to highlight the seriousness of these problems.
posted by sluggo at 5:32 PM on September 27, 2006

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