Monday, April 28, 2008

What city is the Economist writing about?

I was excited to see a recent article from The Economist (h/t) on Baltimore. In much of its analysis, The Economist provides a deep look at political, social, and economic forces which shape global society and newsworthy happenings. However, this article makes it seem like Baltimore is enjoying the "New Day" that The Wire joked was coming soon. For readers of Baltimore Crime, the cities streets don't look a whole lot safer (although the 28% Murder reduction is a serious success). While statistics may paint a rosier picture, they didn't dry a Baltimore Circuit Court Judge's tears:
Something is wrong... But one of my favorite movie lines is where Jack Nicholson says, "You can't handle the truth." And I just think in many ways, we are ignoring the truth that's as plain as the noses on our faces.

And so what this case represents to me was -- and I don't doubt that Nakita is an intelligent young woman -- but what it points out to me is the crying need for early intervention. I reviewed the psychological report. I reviewed the court file. I reviewed the report in her prior case. This young and gifted young lady has needed help for a long time and not gotten it.
For a Judge who has seen it all, a case of Middle Schoolers beating a fellow busrider really got to him. While many might think its ludicrous that David Simon chose middle schoolers as the age where kids might turn bad, here's a case where elementary school was the critical age. You can read more about the case from Jean Marbella.

So while the article is correct that Baltimore has improved its policing efforts, clearly many steps need to still happen. It also misrepresents The Wire as presenting a solely negative Baltimore. As anyone who watched the finale knows, Simon loves focusing on Baltimore's beautiful spaces. From the Inner Harbor to the Cylburn Arboretum, plenty of beauty can be found among the "distressed" areas.

Finally, the quote by Sheila Dixon, current mayor of Baltimore sounds ridiculous:

Ms Dixon, the mayor of Baltimore, dismisses this idea. She pins her hopes on development. The ghetto is shrinking. The city's largest private employer, the Johns Hopkins hospital and university, is expanding into the eastern district, bulldozing derelict blocks to build nice homes for biomedical researchers. It will be an economic engine for the area, Ms Dixon says.

As Robert O. Self and Tom Sugrue have written about in their studies of post-WWII deindustrialization (American Babylon and The Origins of the Urban Crisis, respectively), urban poverty cannot be solved by moving it around. The underlying factors behind the poverty- lack of jobs, de-funding of education, de-funding city services are partially a result of the movement of capital to the suburbs, the decline of heavy industrial jobs, and the rise of the service sector. Ultimately, it is not bulldozing and urban "renewal" which improves neighborhood conditions, but an investment in that communities existing structures. Whether this means FHA style loans to improve dwellings (not just for purchasing new homes in the suburbs), investing in quality education, or financing improvements to infrastructure that bring outside investment, simply bulldozing troubled areas and throwing up middle class housing for bio-tech workers will not decrease overall poverty.

I will admit that this is a step in the positive direction for increasing the City's tax base. Between JH increased revenue and middle class researchers moving into the city proper (particularly areas where many abandoned buildings once stood), the City promises to make a pretty penny. Assuming that some of the increased taxes go towards helping the poor who were just forced out of their homes, this could have a net positive effect. But to say "the ghetto is shrinking" does not communicate what is really going on here.

The Depo

First, I want to thank Jim King for pointing out that my blog does not use Bub's spelling of "Depot." It was just me being sloppy and I've duly made the change.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

New Stuff over the transom

Two new items came over the transom this week (via Play or Be Played). I normally don't just echo PoBP, but these are some really quality stories.

The First is a top 25 list of Andy Sayer's favorite character's from The Wire. He makes the good point that many shows don't have enough quality to write a Top 10 favorite characters, yet there's still quality actors left out of Sayer's article. The fact that Norman Wilson (Carcetti's Black Political Conscience) and Butchie the blind bartender don't make the list are a bit criminal, but you can't fit them all in. Also, my man Bubbles only makes no. 10 (should be in front of Kima, IMO). Despite these reservations, Sayers manages to discuss all of these characters WITHOUT SPOILERS. Quite impressive, indeed. It helps that he doesn't mention any characters in Season 5. I should probably learn a thing or two from Andy in writing without telling the whole damn show, but it just spills out.

The Second article looks at The Wire with a uniquely British sensibility. It's very analytical and lauds Simon for analyzing the postindustrial American Dream in all its failings and successes, not through a war movie or a western, but through a show about the postindustrial American Dream. I really do love its British tone, evident in quotes like this one:
This is the heart of The Wire - the memorialisation of an army of young men and women for whom death itself is a rite of passage.
Aidan Gillen leans into the voracious politician Tommy Carcetti like a mariner heading into a gale, an all-forward-movement performance, while Clarke Peters' detective Lester Freamon is a sedentary piece of winningly hambone stoicism.
But be aware. Kent Jones analyzes each of the seasons and makes no bones about throwing spoilers around. While he does a fantastic job on the first four seasons, his complaints about season 5 are typical of whats already been written (unrealistic, just Simon with a bone to pick, too compressed, etc.). Despite that, read through the end. Very well done and indicative of the show's growing global audience (this blog has received visitors from Sweden, the UK, Australia, Canada, and even Croatia). I wonder if The Wire will ever be Big in Japan?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Baltimore is a Country

This week I've had a canuck sleeping on my couch (the link goes to couch, which I highly recommend). We got to talking about the condition of African Americans in cities and I referred her to Sudhir Venkatesh's Gangleader for a Day. This blog has also featured some of Sudhir's other discussions with "real thugs" on The Wire. Needless to say, she inhaled the book. So I made her watch an episode of the show as well. This brings up another point. If you only have one episode to bring out the show, which do you choose? A highly stylized, but brilliant episode liek Season 3 episode 9? Or do you want to get the themes of the show across ala the pilot? Maybe the utter heartbreak of the show via a later episode in season 4?

Well, none of those ideas went through my mind and I randomly chose a season 3 disc. Episode six, Moral Midgetry. Which is an incredible episode in its own right. Avon and Stringer's internal conflict with who they are and who they want to be becomes external and physical. Something Avon said to String really resonated this time around. And I'm paraphrasing here: "you aren't hard enough to live in this country and maybe... maybe you aren't smart enough to live in theirs."

This resonated primarily because I just read Nikhil Pal Singh's Black is a Country. Singh argues that the "Long Civil Rights Movement" failed in part because white America did not come to terms with black America's double consciousness, that America's identity, that civilization is universal , was never extended to African Americans.

Stringer's struggle to "rise" underlies much of the first three seasons. From the use of Roberts Rules of Order to the ultimate symbol of Black mobility, a college education, Stringer "wants to run" (the opening episode quote was "Walk, Crawl, Run-Clay Davis") and wants to be a part of the mainstream America that makes millions cleanly. When Avon comes home, his new apartment ("in his name") becomes the Pivot around which String and Avon's worlds turn.

To give another example, the conversation String and Avon have in the Apartment before Stringer is killed, echoes these same themes. Stringer and Avon look out on the city and think back to their childhood together. Avon remembers them shoplifting from a mall, his own version of sticking it to the man. Stringer looks out on the city and wishes he had purchased property in the recently gentrified neighborhood. Avon responds- "you always were into that black power shit." So we come to understand that Avon wants to rise within the black community. Keep the Barksdale name and reputation strong. Stringer wants the money and power of mainstream America. He wants to be "above the bullshit" of the streets. To rise out of the projects. He is willing to do anything to get there, even to order the killing of D'Angelo and openly disobey Avon. As we come to understand, Stringer gets shot because he went back on his word to Brother Mouzone and didn't obey the "Sunday Morning Peace" with Omar (among other transgressions). But at its core his ideology renounced the Streets. Avon must give him up to keep his reputation "with New York."

So Stringer's "fatal flaw" is his desire to rise or greed if we analyze this in the Greek Tragedy sense. Yet if we look at Season Three from another view, he dies because he is "squeezed between two sides." His failure to succeed in legit America and his failure to keep his street reputation. To put it another way, the political and drug institutions crush him.

The Avon/String dichotomy in Season 3 vividly illuminates their disparate values. Part of the shows purpose, imo, is to provide a window into this world which is ignored by the mainstream America (clearly this is not a specifically white/black issue, though it basically is). When Stringer starts to become most visible to white America is when he becomes obscure to Baltimore. Though these values are not from different planets, maybe they are different countries. The Country of Baltimore?

Monday, April 7, 2008

Wire News: RIP Ashley, Savino Stabbed, the Academic Wire

Some may wonder why I continue writing about The Wire even though it ended weeks ago. Well, stuff keeps happening, and I'm pretty sure TVonDVD will extend the show's life by about a decade. Also, I have more to say. So that's that.

In the stuff keeps happening category: My deepest condolences to the family of Ashley Morris. Ashley was one of the fine writers at Got That New Package, he also started, which may have even helped convince HBO to re-up for a fourth and fifth season. His death was all too sudden and surprising, he will certainly be missed. Even David Simon surfaced to give his respects. The man left a wife, three kids, and a New Orleans community which will surely feel his absence. If you feel it's appropriate, I encourage you to donate here.

In other news, Christopher Clanton, aka "Savino", was stabbed at a Baltimore party. While he thankfully seems to be recovering, the problems of Baltimore continue. I do think that introducing so many great Baltimore actors to mainstream film is one of The Wire's more important legacies, but for every Idris Elba or Robert Chew, there is a Christopher Clanton (who did really great work). I think this aspect of the show is best illustrated in a DVD commentary by the "four kids" from Season Four. Instead of commenting on the show, they spend more time discussing "the craft" and lamenting a lack of work for black actors. It's pretty 'meta' and I encourage watching/listening to it.

Finally, Harvard is hosting a symposium on The Wire (hat tip: A Thousand Corners). I think this is just great. I kid that I will eventually write my dissertation on The Wire, but in all seriousness, I think it can support such academic rigor. Certainly in the world of Pop Culture Studies, it's high art compared to Pro Wrestling (no offense to you Hulk-a-Maniacs out there). Though Simon often joked he would end up teaching screen writing at a community college, I think it's interesting that he has ended up at Hahvaad.

Clark Johnson, director of the Wire's bookends (pilot and final episode) and the actor playing Baltimore Sun editor "Gus" has also gotten into the academic game when he appeared at the recent Organization of American Historians conference. He participated in a session entitled "Film, History, and the African American Experience." In the American History world, the OAH is a pretty big deal with thousands visiting. That a history conference featured a show that got off the air a few weeks ago is fairly unprecedented. I'm sure Johnson talked about his work outside of the Wire as well, but nonetheless, very cool.

The Wire has been fairly critical of the academic world. For example, the Season Four portrayal-
"Sociologist: Even though the program didn't make it into all of the schools, this is going to provide a really great study.
Colvin: So a bunch of other people are going to sit around and study your study? ::shakes head::
It's ironic that even the very top of America's educational food chain can't fix and doesn't even understand the bottom. Following Colvin's hamsterdam experiment in season 3, Johns Hopkins denies him a job because he is "too controversial." Simon demonstrates in season four/five that he is one of the show's greatest "teachers" (his education of Carcetti, the sociologist, the corner kids, Carver, and eventually Namond are Colvin's true legacy). Despite his skill, he can't get a job in Baltimore's most famous/best school.

Despite this (pretty well aimed) criticism of the ivory tower, many professors, grad students, and other academics (me, asywak, Ashley Morris, to name a few) have been crazy about the wire. I can think of many history professors, in particular, that really love the show (Steve Reich, Scott Nelson, Eric Rauchway). Sudhir Venkatesh is another academic whose work intersects very closely with the show. For me, this blog is an attempt to promote an academically rigorous view of the show (which, in the tradition of most academic work, reaches almost no one). In 10 years will there be a class on The Wire? I'd say, hell yes! Call it- The Wire as Literary Text. Or maybe, Baltimore's Underclass: A Subaltern Study. If you have any suggestions as to what you'd call an academic class on The Wire, comment away.