A Baltimore photographer considers the HBO drama’s impact on the city where he was raised, 20 years after the show’s debut.
Photographs and Text by Gioncarlo Valentine
I was born and raised in Baltimore. I was in middle school when “The Wire” was made — it filmed near McCulloh Homes and also sometimes near Harlem Park, where my school was located. Back then everybody thought, wow, this is Baltimore’s moment. It was a very exciting experience for the city.
I was too young to watch “The Wire” in middle school. When I saw it in college, I thought the acting was really wonderful. Wendell Pierce, who played Bunk Moreland, is one of my favorite actors, and as a queer person, I thought Michael K. Williams’s Omar was really beautiful — how gentle he was with his partner in contrast to how ferocious he seemed in the world. That kind of stuff was stellar.
But there was very little about the interior life of Baltimore, and little celebration of any aspect of the city. It showed only this flattened idea of Baltimore as: drugs, poverty, criminality, corruption, violence. When you’re watching television, as a Black person, you want to see Blackness rendered with humanity, rendered as you know it in the world. I don’t believe that the show succeeded in showing that.
But I was curious about how the community felt. Who liked it, and why? What has it been like for you 20 years after the show was filmed in your neighborhood? What did “The Wire” do — or not do — for Baltimore?
I know what I think, but I wanted to know what other people thought.
Michael Turner Jr., an adult day care worker who grew up in West Baltimore: I definitely feel like it was being honest about Baltimore. We have a ratchet, raw-ass city, and they gave ratchet and raw in “The Wire.”
Terry Elliot Lamont, a hair stylist who grew up and lives in Baltimore: It’s the same hood, the same location, still giving the same thing from “The Wire,” 20 years later.
Carnell Burrow, the owner of Everything Auto Repair, in West Baltimore: “The Wire,” it brought back memories of the early ’80s. The East Side and the West Side, the reality of people being killed and putting them in the vacant buildings. The truth is the truth — “The Wire” didn’t do it. I think it made a lot of other cities kind of look up to Baltimore.
Gilda Bain-Pew, a resident of the Reservoir Hill neighborhood of West Baltimore: I definitely see out on Pennsylvania, people sell drugs. The cops sit on the corner in a car, like it’s perfectly OK. I don’t understand that. You know the repercussions of what drugs do to the community, and you sit there and allow it to happen? I don’t get it. I don’t get it.
I think if you grow up and you watch “The Wire,” you’re like: “My city got it going on. They did a whole show about us.” So you figure, OK, those people showed you people who were famous within their communities because of the drug dealers that they were. So if you can’t get fame doing something else, and that’s how you are big-time in your community, that’s what you do.
Peggye Butler, a retired elementary schoolteacher who taught for 18 years for Baltimore City Public Schools: The positiveness of the show, for me, was that there was life after all of the drug addiction, after all of the deaths. And if people could have just grabbed hold of that — that there was life after that. But nobody could grab hold of that.
Selena Noble, who lives near the locations used as “Hamsterdam” in the show: I thought it was great that they were doing something. I mean, I didn’t like the way people were going to portray Baltimore. But it was nice that the people decided to do it here and, you know, make something for our town.
Wendell Blaylock, who is from Northeast Baltimore: It’s positive in the sense that this city brought to the forefront one of the greatest scripted television shows ever, in my opinion. The bad side is a lot of people see that as a depiction not only of Baltimore, but urban America overall. Like that’s all we do. And it’s not the case.
Leslie Davis, who didn’t watch “The Wire” until recently: I didn’t want to watch “The Wire” because I’m from here. Everything that they portraying on TV, I literally see every day. So I just didn’t want to see it portrayed to the masses the way that they did.
Jacob Marley, who was in elementary school when the show came out: It created a template for media to come.
I feel like there’s almost like a popularity contest with, like, the most violent and dangerous cities in America. We definitely have a little bit of an edge on us that kind of overshadows everything else going on because of shows like this, and because of the things that the show’s based on.
Cheyanne Zadia on the character Snoop, played by Felicia Pearson: I can’t name too many shows that, from a real relatable Baltimore perspective, showed a lesbian in that way on television during that time.
James Scott Sr., a West Baltimore resident who watched “The Wire” when it aired: It was the best thing that ever happened to this city. Because people could relate to the different characters: the tough guys, the weak guys, the down-low guys, all of that. I just had to see it every week, and I wasn’t really a TV man. But when that came, I loved it.
Benjamin Warner, a writer and lecturer at Towson University who has volunteered in Baltimore schools: It remains a kind of voyeuristic place of danger to people outside the city. Particularly for educated, middle-class white people, it’s a strange point of pride — sort of in a negative way. It’s a way to say that you come from a place that is sort of “tough” or “dangerous” without actually having to engage with that community.
Having worked in a couple city schools now, one of the things “The Wire” did was humanize students or young people who are in public schools in West Baltimore.
Some of those characters have stuck with me for 20 years, particularly the kids.
Maurice Braxton, who lives in West Baltimore: A lot of people spend time in Chicago and know that Chicago is not what you see in, say, “Chicago P.D.” “The Wire” has been different for us. Because no matter where I’ve gone, when I tell people I’m from Baltimore, they immediately think of “The Wire.”
The fact that there is the legacy — that’s the unfortunate thing. It should have just been a TV show, and people say it was a great show and moved on. But they conflated “The Wire” with reality. It’s not Baltimore’s reality.
Tamira Hall, who lives in West Baltimore: The game hasn’t changed; the players have changed.
Rob Ferrell, who moved to Baltimore for art school around the time “The Wire” debuted: It feels almost predatory. Yeah. Because crime exists all over the country. Selling drugs exists all over the country. Corruption exists all over the country. Corrupt policing exists all over the country. Why is this the dominant narrative of this city, and of Black life in this city? This doesn’t happen to Seattle, right? Or to more majority white cities. This is the majority Black city. It just doesn’t sit right on my spirit.
It was great TV. But it can’t be divorced from the fact that it’s painting a picture of a city and real life for real people. That’s the rub for me, the tension that I struggle with. The impact is regrettable.
Tiffany Fuller, a mental health counselor in Columbia, Md., outside Baltimore: It was exciting. Because initially when it started, it was telling the story of the inner city. And of course, there were horrendous acts that occurred within it. But it was telling the story. It was a hard truth, but it needed to be told.
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