HBO Drama Portrays the 'Other' Baltimore

Television can sometimes provide a window into a world its viewers might not otherwise see. But writer Pamela Haag explains what happens when that "other" world, portrayed in HBO's The Wire, is the city she calls home.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And as we've discussed, the violence on shows like "The Wire" reflects daily life in many neighborhoods in American cities. But often, people living just blocks away from these danger zones have little experience of the crime and fear there.

That's true of commentator Pamela Haag. She's not just a fan of "The Wire," she depends on the program to learn what's happening in her own hometown.

Ms. PAMELA HAAG (Writer): I grew up in Baltimore, and I live in Baltimore. But I encounter my own city and most vividly on HBO. Sunday nights at 10 o'clock, I sit in my living room and watch "The Wire," David Simon's dazzling, critically acclaimed drama of Baltimore's violent streets.

Watching "The Wire" in Baltimore City must be different than watching it in Des Moines, but not necessarily. Without consciously avoiding any area of my city, I still have to confess. I don't have a real friend in a "Wire" neighborhood.

Strangely, my husband and I have a private habit of using the slang we pick up from "The Wire." We say true that, instead of agreed, and mos def instead of yes. That may be as close as I get to the show's reality, because I watch "The Wire" in a green zone of urban prosperity, surrounded by urban problems.

I was chatting with my neighbor about "The Wire." She loves the show as much as I do. Baltimore isn't really a violent city, she said at the end of our conversation. This is familiar short hand among urbanites for you, a middle class professional, do not need to worry about violence because that happens to young men in the drug trade, and you will not see that unless you have HBO.

That feeling of urban estrangement is hardly new. American cities are almost always cleaved by race, class, law and custom. Still, today it feels as if balkanization has changed from a problem to a prescription. It's fashionable to talk about certain neighborhoods of Baltimore as commodities to be promoted. Attract the niche market, young professionals of the creative class, for example. Sequester that niche from serious urban problems. This sells people on city life and reassures them with boundaries rather than the thrill of uncertain, sometimes dangerous intersections.

Each time a new "Wire" episode begins, I think again, can a city have such divergent plots and still be called one city? When does Baltimore just become an artifact of naps, the jury pool and the tax code? I'd like to think that this explains some of my annoying habit of pilfering street lingo from the show. There may be a redeeming impulse behind it to gather threads and wisps of the city, make them my own, and weave two estranged worlds into one united and continuous Baltimore as best as I can.

That is the quintessential urban instinct, to find purpose in chance encounters and affinity across vast boundaries. Otherwise, it may be that the only word we have firmly in my minds together across the Baltimore fault line comes from a slogan. It was created to lift the city's spirits some years ago. It shouts from black and white bumper stickers and banners draped over a public buildings that say only this: believe.

MARTIN: Writer Pamela Haag lives and watches television in Baltimore.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.