Like Cars In Reverse Ya’all Better Back Up
In the hallway of the school where much of this season’s action takes place, there is a large mural celebrating the namesake of the school. In an interview on the HBO website Vincent Peranio describes its significance thusly:
“Edward J. Tilghman was the Baltimore police chief who let David Simon hang out, which led to the book Homicide, which started this whole thing. The original of this mural was about Booker T. Washington; we got a photo of the real Tilghman from his widow and painted him in.”
The past is prologue, as my high school history teacher used to drill into our heads. So much of what happens on The Wire, from major plotlines to background details like that mural of Tilghman, comes from a vision of Baltimore that is far deeper than what the drug game looks like now. It is a vision forged over the past thirty years, which provides an intriguing confluence of reporting on the tragedy of the inner city of today with a history of the inner city for the past thirty years. What I’m getting at, then, is the ways in which The Wire handles time, both in terms of its own five-season arc and in terms of the connections between its stories and the real histories behind them.
There is plenty to know in terms of links between the show and it’s real-life inspirations, from Ed Burns’ time innovating wiretaps with the Baltimore Police Department in the mid-’80s to his primary quarry, “Little” Melvin Williams, a legendary drug kingpin who provided plenty of material and personality to be spread among Stringer, Avon, Prop Joe and others throughout the series. Even Bubbles comes from a real police informant, and the list goes on and on.
This will all certainly find its way into books, and much of the information already resides in Rafael Alvarez’s The Wire: Truth Be Told. What interests me more here is the concept that the stories and techniques covered by the series may be in some ways historical, which is to say in some form outdated, and how that turns around and informs its critique on the current state of Baltimore, the drug world, and the underclass in America. This is not to take anything away from the massive amounts of research, neighborhood outreach, and intelligent updating of certain narratives that goes on for the series. Yet I think that at its heart the show is telling vintage tales dressed up in the clothing of today, and that this provides some excellent information on the motivations to tell these stories in the first place.
In this way, though The Wire presents a collapsed vision of Baltimore’s recent history, it speaks to the realities of today with that perspective in hand. These things happened, and that is how we got to where we are. But also, these things happened, and they keep happening over and over again, and will continue to do so until something radically shifts in the way things are run in this country.
To give just one concrete (forgive the pun) example: the towers. When shooting scenes for the first season that took place in the towers, the show’s producers had to make due with retirement homes outside downtown Baltimore, because even before the series began shooting, as David Simon pointed out in a Q&A on the HBO site, the “Lexington Terrace, Murphy Homes, Lafayette Courts and Flag House high-rises were leveled.” In this way the show provides a kind of cultural archaeology, sifting through the rubble that all too quickly gets buried, built upon and forgotten as the city moves forward. Yet in that rubble are the seeds for what will come next, and the lessons that have yet to be fully learned.
More fascinating tidbits from set designer Vincent Peranio here.
UPDATE: Was directed by H&H-ers ChristyCash and WilliamDonaldRipken to a fascinating piece in the New York Times concerning race in city politics. Newark and Baltimore aren’t so different really.