Facing up to Baltimore's gritty reality – on HBO

HBO's "The Wire" portrays the drug-saturated streets of West Baltimore, a part of town most residents of the city's more affluent quarters never see. But cloistered away in their safe neighborhoods, they may be missing the real heart of the city.

I grew up in Baltimore, and I live in Baltimore, yet I encounter my city most vividly on HBO. Sunday nights at 10 o'clock I sit in my living room, eat popcorn, and watch David Simon's critically exalted drama, "The Wire." Like other fans, I can't wait for the fifth season to begin – hopefully this fall.

Watching "The Wire" in Baltimore is surely different from watching it in Des Moines, Iowa, but not because its world feels like home. The violent, drug-saturated streets of West Baltimore that the series dissects with unsparing brilliance are about three miles from my house, but they might as well be 3,000.

I catch myself feeling relieved that I do not live there – although, of course, I do. Without consciously avoiding any area of my city, I still find that I do not have a real friend in a Wire neighborhood, and I cannot locate most Wire streets. Cast and crew must have the same problem, because when a new season of "The Wire" is being filmed I see orange directional "WIRE" signs attached to lampposts – left like bread crumbs for people to navigate a path from one Baltimore to the other.

The city becomes the set, and the set becomes the city. Sometimes Baltimoreans get confused about whether our actual mayor said something, or "The Wires" Mayor Carcetti. Some prefer Carcetti.

My husband and I privately indulge in the show's unvarnished street talk. In the grip of reverse pretentiousness, we say "true THAT," instead of "agreed," and drop the "lr" from "alright." In some ways, this is as close as we get to Wire-Baltimore.

The "green zone" isn't just for Baghdad anymore. I watch "The Wire" hunkered in a pocket of urban prosperity surrounded by urban misery, barricaded behind Baltimore's newfound real estate wealth and factory warehouses that have been artfully converted into tapas bars. 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 though green-zone Balkanization has changed from a problem to a prescription.

It is fashionable to talk about Baltimore as a commodity: Attract a niche market (young professionals of the "creative class") and sequester it from intrusive urban malignancies. This sells people (taxpayers, that is) on city life, and seduces them with the promise of comforting boundaries rather than the thrill of uncertain, sometimes dangerous, intersections.

I was chatting with my neighbor, who loves "The Wire" as much as I do. "But, Baltimore isn't really a violent city," she qualified at the end of our conversation. This is familiar shorthand among urbanites for, "you, a middle-class professional, do not need to worry about our homicide rate, because that happens to young black men in the drug trade and you will never need to see them" – unless you have HBO.

Other neighbors dislike "The Wire" because it is poor salesmanship likely to scare off the real estate exiles from Washington whom the city hopes to lure with affordable, lush housing, especially along the waterfront. ("Live like a diplomat in Baltimore!" one marketing campaign boasted.)

I admire this P.T. Barnum pluck, but it troubles me. An organic, socially spontaneous quality has been lost in Baltimore, and I feel its absence most keenly while watching "The Wire."

Plutarch said that, "A city, like a living thing, is a united and continuous whole." Jane Addams – a creative class type – founded her Chicago settlement in 1889 to bring the classes into "constant juxtaposition," since urban problems could not be "confined to any one portion of the city."

The call to urban life requires more than carefully channeled charitable donations or glancing familiarity with the city's woes. To live in the city means seeking contact.

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 cartography, the jury pool, and the tax code?

I like to think that this explains some of my 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 I can.

That is a quintessential urban instinct – to find purpose in chance encounters, inspiration in unlikely juxtaposition, and affinity across vast divergence.

Otherwise, it may be that the only word we have firmly in our minds, together, across the Baltimore fault line, comes from the bumper stickers and banners draped over many of our public buildings. These are the product of a years-long public relations campaign to buoy the city's spirits, and they say only this: BELIEVE.

Pamela Haag is the author of two books.

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