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that the stories and techniques covered by the series may be in some ways historical, which is to say in some form outdated, and how that turns around and informs its critique on the current state of Baltimore, the drug world, and the underclass in America.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.

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14 Comments on “Like Cars In Reverse Ya’all Better Back Up”

  1. CJS Says:

    These are splendid, insightful comments and very persuasive; they help me articulate my own sense of TW’s value and insight. And this is coming from a professional historian. Well done!

  2. christycash Says:

    I couldn’t agree more, jetset this is one of the best posts we’ve had on the blog… Also raises all kinds of interesting questions about the possibility of fiction to comment on the present — necessarily all fictional representations are going to be more about the past than the present, aren’t they, because the present keeps happening. And in what ways do we think we “know” the Baltimore of today through The Wire when in fact what we may know is the Baltimore of 5 or 10 years ago. So interesting.

  3. Shoals Says:

    there’s also that small matter of the show’s influence on the present. it’s like a more complicated version of the “rappers reflect the streets/the streets reflect rappers” debate that once wasn’t totally useless. people in the present take cues from the show; is this learning from fiction, or learning from a fiction that learns from the past, or just a really indirect way of repeating the past as they might’ve ended up doing anyway?

    i wasted a lot of time trying to turn this into a paper and kind of drove myself crazy trying to figure out which way was up. it ended up being the worst thing i’ve ever written and pretty much signalled the end of my brief sojourn in academia.

  4. gotcha Says:

    Praise the edit button…I was going to point you guys to today’s NYT article on Booker and inner-city politics, but lo and behold y’all are on top of that. Though to keep more on topic, the influence of media on culture and vice versa, I believe, is more of a feeback loop than anything else. At this point the antecedents, behaviors, and consequences have all conglomerated into one mechanism that constantly spins on its head.

  5. Shoals Says:

    my comment was a lot shorter when i just called it a feedback loop. but i had to try one more time to figure the damn thing out. . .

  6. Just wondering about the NYT article: If you had a 1 in 800 chance of being shot — in other words, if you were a regular resident of Newark — would that be sufficient to make you want to leave? Although that number seems pretty high, I wonder if it’s actually higher than in other areas of the United States. I’m wondering about small towns in rural America in particular, like in Eastern Kentucky, where the populations are small but the crime rate, though low on its face, would seem quite high in proportion to the size of the population. Clearly, moving out of Newark depends on more than one’s cost-benefit analysis of likelihood of gunshot wounds. But, as a purely economic analysis, free of other externalities, is a 1 in 800 chance of being shot as horrible as it really sounds? Is that lower odds than, say, getting hit by a car? Then again, even if the odds are lower of getting shot than being hit by a car, it seems as if you’d have a hard time justifying that being in the presence of guns provides the same benefits as having access to cars (regardless of the other costs — insurance, increased injuries, etc. — that driving creates).

    Great post, by the way, jetset. Apologies for this uninformed law & economics tangent. Just something I was thinking about.

  7. Actually, on further thought, 1 in 800 is obviously horrible. If you are a family of four, that means there is a 1 in 200 chance that one of your family members will be shot. I think a .05% chance of having an immediate family member wounded has to be beyond the pale of reasonableness. So, please excuse the previous post.

  8. gotcha Says:

    From my understanding of criminology/sociology, those stats come from the porportion of crimes directly related to the amount of people living within that city. Regardless, rural areas tend to have relatively low major crime rates, even poor rural areas, because the population are more spread out, rather then so concentrated like the inner-cities. Less contact with less people = less problems.
    Also, on an economical level, where are these people going to move to when they do not have a base of capital with which to make that move (e.g. the whole Katrina evacuation fiasco).

  9. I guess I was imagining an example where in a town of 1600 people there were two victims of gunshots — say, in the same robbery attempt — so the numbers were exactly the same as in Newark. You’re right, Gotcha, that the number of incidents of majors crimes will be higher in a city. But even if the incidents are higher in a city, if that city’s population is high enough, the likelihood of being subject to a major crime would be exactly the same in the small, rural county as in the urban area.

    And, I guess I was trying to frame the question solely in terms of the odds, excluding all other externalities and transaction costs, like an inability to pay th necessary costs required to move. Good point, however, about the moving costs. My post was supposed to be more of a thought experiment than an empirical point., but you’re 100% right, Gotcha.

  10. youthenrage Says:

    I see where you’re coming from william donald ripken, but I think you’re over estimating the level of violence in small communities. I’m from a town of about 10,000, not really country country, but a town made of up of neighborhoods, that just had its first murder in something like 30 years a couple of weeks ago. This town is 20 miles from the heroin capitol of new england. Incidentally, the murder was drug related and committed by a member of my brother’s high school class. In the when I was a senior in high school there wasn’t really anything but weed, alcohol, and maybe ecstasy for people to buy, but by the time my brother was graduating (4 years later) coke, crack and heroin were tearing a hole through the school.

  11. Chemist Says:

    Can some people deal with alcohol and other drugs better than others? WBR LeoP

  12. Retro Says:

    Who doesn’t love classic cars? Seems everybody does and hollywood has jumped on the bandwagon too. You see them in just about every movie and TV show now.

  13. Retro Says:

    I just love a cool classic car like a convertible Cutlass. I see them all the time in movies and TV now.

  14. Retro clothing is the bomb! My favorite place to find it is Goodwill or any thrift store. Ebay is also a great place to find what you are looking for.

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