"Between Heaven and Here": Inner-City Apartheid and Socio-Spatial Marginalization in The Wire

By Ioana Literat

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Figure 1: Baltimore, as seen in The Wire

“There’s a thin line between heaven and here,” says Bubbles to McNulty as he is dropped off in West Baltimore after a rare trip to the suburbs. Except that in David Simon’s Baltimore, as depicted in The Wire, “heaven” is not really heaven, and the line separating it from the row-house-dwelling underclass is not really thin. One of the principal arguments of the critically acclaimed HBO television series The Wire (2002-2008) – created and written by David Simon – is that urban America continues to suffer from a deep segregation that renders some of its citizens more valuable than others. This social marginalization of the inner-city poor, although originating in racial residential policies, has ceased to be solely about race or ethnicity. As The Wire aptly shows, the contemporary apartheid structuring our cities is tied into urban politics, economics, as well as the ways in which capitalist America has deemed certain sectors of its populace expendable.

Over the course of five seasons, The Wire follows the impact of the drug war on urban America by presenting two contrasting perspectives: that of the inner-city Baltimore drug dealers and their crews, and that of the law enforcement authorities attempting to lock them away. A crucial pivot of the show is the interplay between citizens and institutions, which is characterized in a highly critical – some would say cynical – manner. Although there is a continuous storyline stretching throughout the length of the show, each season focuses on a particular facet of urban life: the drug war, the transformation of industrial labor, the regional political system, urban education, and the media. Together, these five foci paint a quintessentially complex picture of urban Baltimore that showcases the interconnections between social groups and institutions, between personal destinies and urban politics, and between individual choices and socioeconomic conditions.

Indeed, in view of the complexity of the narrative world depicted in the show, its creator, David Simon, has likened The Wire to a “visual novel.” 1 However, while this is a lofty comparison within the context of contemporary fictional television, it is important to understand and evaluate the show’s merits in terms of its specific formal structure as a television show. As Jason Mittell convincingly argues, “by asserting The Wire as a televised novel, Simon and critics are attempting to legitimize and validate the demeaned television medium by linking it to the highbrow cultural sphere of literature,” which, given the dichotomous characteristics of a novel and a television series, is “setting [the show] up to fail when measured by some of the aesthetic aims of the novel.”2 It is thus crucial to consider The Wire within the formal context of the televisual medium. Consequently, a substantial part of my analysis will be devoted to discussing the specific affordances of the televisual medium in depicting urban space and the socio-spatial reality of marginalization.

The greatest tragedy of 21st century America, according to The Wire, is that people are becoming less essential each day and the value of human life seems to be poignantly decreasing.3 Corner boys who expect to die before their 20th birthday, Eastern European girls who enter the Land of Promise dead in metal containers, unionized longshoremen whose jobs are now done by computers, prostitutes being beaten up by johns in hotel rooms, inner-city kids whose education nobody really cares about – they have all become forlorn and forgotten. “The American economy doesn't need them,” explained David Simon in an interview with Bill Moyers. “So, as long as they stay in their ghettos, and they only kill each other, we're willing to pay a police presence to keep them out of our America. And to let them fight over scraps, which is what the drug war, effectively, is.”4 The direct connection between the American economic agenda and the expendability of its citizens is perhaps clearest in Season Two, which focuses specifically on the post-industrial transformation of the Baltimorean labor force. With the mechanization of port labor, the longshoremen who dedicated their entire lives to working on the docks are not only obsolete, but are also unable to fashion a new identity for themselves in the absence of this defining employment.

Further, when the inner workings of the urban political system are revealed in Season Three, the citizenry becomes categorized into those who matter and those who don’t: the “voters” – as mayoral candidates Carcetti and Royce repeatedly call them – and the rest. The explicit and repeated depiction of the stratified nature of urban Baltimore and the abandonment of the inner-city poor suggests a key thematic link between material worth and human value. What is even more tragic is that this social marginalization leads to self-reinforcing patterns of social immobility and socioeconomic entrapment. “If animal trapped, call 410-844-6286,” reads the epigraph to the final episode of Season Four. The America in The Wire is not the land of opportunity where anyone can make it if they try hard enough; rather, people are locked into a form of social determinism that favors some and dooms others. This system ties the lower class inner-city populace to a social status that is not easily alterable, with few options and even fewer opportunities to escape this environment. Furthermore, according to the show, these forsaken citizens internalize their marginalization and are habituated in their belief that this situation is inescapable. The loss of ambition that characterizes so many of the protagonists, especially the young corner boys like Michael or Dukie, is a poignant indication of this internal acknowledgement.

Figure 2: Marginalized youth—the “corner boys” at play

More generally, the show’s plot argues that this geographical and social urban segregation also results in the poor inner-city dwellers’ inability to function anywhere else. Just like the young drug dealer, Wallace, who can sleep through gunshots but not through the sound of crickets, their identities and lifestyles are inextricably linked to their environment. Ghetto-raised thug D’Angelo feels out of place going on a date at a high-end restaurant. Marlo, the up-and-coming top trafficker on the block, sneaks out of a cocktail event with city developers because the corner is calling him back. Even the charismatic gang kingpin, Stringer Bell, is ultimately doomed by his attempt to transcend his “place” – the streets that made him who he is – into a new and socially superior class of construction developers and macroeconomics course instructors at the local university.

As The Wire argues throughout its five seasons, marginalization is never only self-induced or a self-contained phenomenon, but it also results from the failure of public policy to attend to the needs of inner-city neighborhoods. Indeed, the geographic segregation of this population segment is convenient for the public planners in The Wire, as it keeps real social problems out of the sight of “respectable” America. For instance, in Season Three, a major event concerns Major Colvin’s initiative to legalize a specific enclosed urban space for drug dealing. Thus, instead of continuing to wage what seems to be an unwinnable war on drug trafficking, Colvin hopes to push it out of the streets where “decent Americans” live and into a designated space welcoming dealers and addicts. This space comes to be known as Hamsterdam, in reference to the Dutch city with liberal drug laws. In spite of the progressive nature of this policy, it also embodies a clear social and class hierarchy. As a conversation between the police chiefs reveals, Hamsterdam is a social experiment motivated by a desire to spare “decent” citizens of the adverse consequences of the drug war, at the expense of abandoning the “problem” citizens to vice and self-destruction. When explaining this initiative to his subordinates, Major Colvin memorably calls Hamsterdam a “brown paper bag” for the drug trade, a comparison to the legal subterfuge that allows one to consume alcohol in public places. On the other hand, Hamsterdam is a “brown paper bag” not only for the drug trade, but also for an entire social class.

Therefore, in line with its focus on the interplay between citizens and institutions, the show has scaffolded its discourse of social marginalization by examining not only the victims of this segregation, but also the public institutions that allow and encourage this to happen. In Season Four, the faulty urban school system is not invested in the education and the future of its youth. Rather, the schools aim to attract truant inner-city kids back into the classroom only so that they can mark off their “October day” and “November day,” which ensures the continuation of federal funding for the school. In Season Five, journalists – instead of being genuinely concerned with critical social issues – show concern regarding homelessness only when there is a serial killer on the loose, or when it is a promising step towards a Pulitzer. By personifying these public institutions through the behavior of numerous characters, the show suggests a direct parallel between personal and institutional failure.5

A particular advantage of using serial television to advance a social agenda is the fact that its narrative and aesthetic affordances make it possible to paint a macroscopic urban portrait, offering a tremendously complex and inclusive portrayal of a socio-cultural environment. The Wire, throughout its six seasons and 66 hours of content, has been able to craft a complex and far-reaching depiction of an entire city by investigating the interactions between a wide array of institutions, classes, races and lifestyles. Furthermore, since The Wire expresses a particular perspective on segregation and social marginalization, the ability of the television medium to visually depict the urban geography is a key rhetorical advantage. Through the use of visual cues that depict subtle changes in the location and urban aesthetics symbolic of particular social settings, The Wire is highly effective in conveying the social geography of the inner-city environment. The “projects,” the row-houses, the back alleys, the deserted playground have not only become true emblems of social segregation through the profile of their inhabitants, but also through their distinctive look and mood, created an ambiance that is often difficult to capture in the pages of a book.

Figure 3: The couch outside the projects—an iconic symbol in the show

The visual medium of serial television, as well as the show’s extensive run and humanized characterization, makes The Wire well equipped to stimulate the viewers’ emotional connection to the show’s social themes. However, because the social content decoded from the show seems highly contingent on the precise emotional involvement that The Wire requires of its viewers, as well as its status as fictionalized entertainment, the show may not be seen as an objective source. As Mark Bowden points out, “The essential difference between writing nonfiction and writing fiction is that the artist owns his vision, while the journalist can never really claim one, or at least not a complete one—because the real world is infinitely complex and ever changing.” Thus, while it is often comparatively easier to craft a simultaneously emotional yet well-structured argument in fictionalized TV series, some credibility is lost once this particular medium is selected and the author “stops reporting and starts inventing.”6 In addition, fictional TV series attempting to present critical social messages suffer from the general stigma attached to televised entertainment as an escapist and largely commercial medium.

However, if one considers the series within the larger realm of fictional television series, the shows’ presentation appears “objectively” realistic by comparison. This is further enhanced by the details concerning the show’s production process. Filmed on location in Baltimore, The Wire boasts a writing team that is well-versed in the realities of urban crime. Indeed, the show’s co-creator, Ed Burns, is a former detective with the Baltimore police force, while many of the guest writers – George Pelecanos, Richard Price, Dennis Lehane – are renowned crime fiction writers.7 Even the casting choices seem to underscore a strive for psychological realism. Many of the supporting actors are non-professionals, and some of them, such as the young woman who plays Marlo’s soldier “Snoop,” have a personal history of imprisonment and criminal activity. Most notably, the character of the church deacon in later seasons is played by Melvin D. Williams – also known as “Little Melvin” – who is an infamous former drug trafficker in Baltimore. While serving a 22-years sentence for organized crime and heroin dealing, Williams was interviewed repeatedly by David Simon prior to the debut of the show, and these interviews proved to be valuable research in crafting the plot and characters of The Wire.

Further, because the narrative is not told in the first person and that no character is allowed to have an exclusive point-of-view account of the story, the show’s narrative voice contributes to the sense of impartiality and objectivity. In addition, the perceived objectivity stems from the complexity with which social issues and situations are treated. For instance, the depiction of de facto drug legalization in Hamsterdam is so complexly presented that no moral stance seems to be taken on the effectiveness of this social policy. Instead, the show took its time to depict in great detail both the advantages of such a measure (e.g. the fall in crime rates, the satisfaction of the citizens who sent in letters) as well as its unintended adverse consequences (e.g. the area’s spiraling into a gruesome hub of vice and depravation). Thus, rather than being persuaded in favor of a specific stance, viewers are encouraged to personally consider the intricacies of each social issue and pubic policy.

On the other hand, there is a particular disadvantage to the show’s subtle illustration of social interconnectedness that stems from its narrative format. If a long-running serial television drama like The Wire has more freedom to explore a wide scope of social topics and milieus, extended commitment from the viewer is necessary for these narrative interconnections to be forged. Furthermore, as Mittell has previously argued in relation to soap operas, the lengthy format of serial television narratives poses important challenges to the adequate comprehension of cause and effect, or action and consequence. This is especially problematic in the case of casual viewers or listeners, but even the most regular fans might miss the causal foundations of the social messages embedded in the plot if the causes and effects are separated by a considerable amount of time between broadcasts.8

In contemporary televisual culture, where class-conscious shows like Taxi and Roseanne are increasingly being replaced by the glitzy worlds of Desperate Housewives or Gossip Girl, it is more important than ever that our cultural representations refrain from marginalizing the “other,” as well as largely invisible places in America. While a few recent shows – most notably Showtime’s Shameless – have attempted to shed a light on urban poverty and marginalization, it is vital for such fictional narratives to fully engage in stimulating social awareness by crafting characters and plots without losing sight of the contemporary social issues at stake. Indeed, the televisual medium serves compellingly as a forum for the inner city to voice its realities in such a way that stimulates proactive reform. The urban segregation and social marginalization of this segment of the citizenry is so acute, yet so absent from cultural discourse that it takes all five seasons of The Wire to realize the irony of its first two minutes: in America, contrary to the statement of Snot Boogie’s friend, not everybody is allowed to “play.”

NOTES

  1. Mittell, Jason. “All in the Game: The Wire, Serial Storytelling and Procedural Logic.” Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives.Pat Harrington and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, eds. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009. Also available online at http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/firstperson/serial.
  2. Ibid.
  3. O’Rourke, Megan. “Behind The Wire.” Slate Magazine. December 1, 2006, http://www.slate.com/id/2154694/.
  4. Simon, David. The Bill Moyers Journal (Transcript), http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal04172009/
    transcript1.html
    .
  5. Mittell. 2008.
  6. Bowden, Mark. “The Angriest Man on Television.” The Atlantic. January/February 2008, http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200801/bowden-wire.
  7. Mittell. 2008.
  8. Mittell, Jason. Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture. New York: Routledge, 2004. 161.

Author bio:

Ioana Literat is a Ph.D. student at the Annenberg School of Communication, University of Southern California. She graduated summa cum laude from Middlebury College, where she studied film and media culture, with an emphasis on television and prosocial media, under Prof. Jason Mittell. Prior to starting her doctoral studies, she worked in international education, implementing digital storytelling programs for underprivileged children in India, Romania, Uruguay, and the Dominican Republic. At USC, beyond her work with the New Media Literacies Project under the supervision of Henry Jenkins, Ioana is also exploring the feasibility of visual methodologies in research with children and youth, as well as pursuing a recent interest in the practice of online crowdsourced art.