20 years later, ‘The Wire’ still has fans buzzing about Baltimore

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

In the summer of 2004, actor Jamie Hector was filming an episode from the third season of “The Wire” late at night on a rundown street in East Baltimore when shots rang out. He knew instantly that these were real bullets coming from a real gun, not the blank-firing pistols used on set.

“A guy sitting on his stoop at the other end of the block had been watching us film the scene,” said Hector, 46, “and someone drove by and shot him.”

The actor realized the shooting might been carried out by someone not unlike his character on “The Wire,” the ruthless, young drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield.

“On the set, we were somewhat protected and isolated,” Hector said, “but this still happened. I thought: ‘This is the show we were putting together to try to address those ills.’”

Twenty years ago today when “The Wire” debuted on HBO, few people outside of Baltimore noticed. Though critics applauded, “The Wire” struggled initially to find its audience and narrowly avoided cancellation.

But over the years, the show gained traction. Now, “The Wire” is a cultural phenomenon. It routinely makes lists of the greatest TV shows of all time.

“The Wire” became those things in large part because creators David Simon, a former police reporter for The Baltimore Sun, and Ed Burns, a former Baltimore homicide detective and middle school teacher, aimed to do more than just tell a riveting human story.

The unforgettable characters they created — Stringer Bell, who ran meetings of his drug cartel based on procedures set forth in Robert’s Rules of Order; Omar Little, the stickup man with a strict moral code; Bubbles, the heartbreakingly gentle heroin addict — were the conduit for a larger message.

Burns summarized it like this: “The war on drugs and the disinterest in this country in people who are poor is a Holocaust in slow motion, and it burns through generation after generation.”

In the show, Baltimore functions as a microcosm of the problems afflicting urban America.

“We set the series in Baltimore because that’s what we knew,” Simon said. “But we were addressing issues that are national in nature. We could have told similar stories in Philadelphia or Chicago.”

Each season took an in-depth look at what the creators believed to be the fractures, fault lines and failures of key institutions from police policy to the schools.

“We had the sense that our institutions in many cases were measuring the wrong things and attending to problems that weren’t actual problems,” Simon said.

“When Ed was in the school system, he saw how the metrics they were using to measure progress were flawed. In the police department, the metrics of success were guns and dope on the table. If we arrest everybody, we make the city safer. That kind of logic was rewarded politically.”

Simon and Burns acknowledge that many people have disagreed — some vehemently — with their analysis of Baltimore’s social ills, including former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who also served two terms as the city’s mayor. “The Wire” is a work of fiction that represents the point of view of two white, middle-aged men.

Nonetheless, from 2002 to 2008, “The Wire” painted a portrait of Baltimore that for better or worse, stuck in a lot of people’s minds, not just in Maryland but internationally. So on the series’ anniversary, it makes sense to take a look at how the critical Baltimore institutions that the series illuminated are faring in 2022.

What has changed?

Season One (2002), The Baltimore Police Department

It’s difficult to interpret the headlines about the Baltimore Police Department during the past two decades in any way that isn’t unrelentingly grim.

In 2002, the year “The Wire’ debuted, Baltimore recorded 254 homicides. There were 338 homicides in 2021, the seventh year in a row that slayings have topped 300. And violence in the city is trending to hit that figure again this year.

During the past two decades, relations between police officers and the community hit their lowest point during the unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray in 2015.

And just two years later, federal racketeering charges were filed against members of the police department’s elite Gun Trace Task Force, who stole drugs and money while searching the homes and cars of drug dealers and innocent civilians. Numerous officers either were convicted or pleaded guilty to crimes. The case gave rise to another HBO series, “We Own This City,” which debuted in April.

University of Baltimore President Kurt Schmoke said these issues have the same root cause: treating drug addiction as a crime instead of a public health crisis. As Baltimore’s mayor from 1987 to 1999, Schmoke was vilified when he urged Congress to decriminalize drugs. Now, he believes the national conversation is starting to change.

“More people are starting to talk about taking a public health approach to drugs,’” he said. “Because of opioids, they know individuals like themselves who have become addicted. Their response is ‘Don’t lock up my neighbor. He or she has a medical problem.’ I believe that ultimately is going to lead to significant changes.”

Season Two (2003), The decline of the working class

The series explored the hardships endured by blue-collar workers in Rust Belt cities like Baltimore as manufacturing declined. As their paychecks shrink, the dockworkers in “The Wire” turn to dealing drugs.

“In the late 60s, early 70s, when the industries that were the backbone of a city like Baltimore got up and left, the solutions offered by the government were unemployment insurance and welfare,” Burns said. “That’s when drugs began spreading out of the ghettos.”

Last November, President Joe Biden toured the Port of Baltimore to tout the passage of his $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. Maryland expects to see an influx of funds over the next five years for projects ranging from bridge replacement to public transit improvements. Biden predicted that would result in the creation of well-paying union jobs.

Joshua Harris, vice president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, would like to see some of the federal funds dedicated to improving the city’s water and sewer lines and housing stock.

“We could create apprenticeships and work to renovate and rehab our housing stock,” said Harris, a former Green Party candidate for mayor in 2016 and for the state legislature in 2018. “This is an opportunity to create jobs and to put a city of blue-collar employees back to work.”

Season Three (2004), City Hall

During the past two decades, one scandal after another has roiled Baltimore City Hall. In this season, “The Wire” followed the career trajectory of a young politician who sacrificed his ideals to his ambitions as he became Baltimore’s mayor and, later, governor of Maryland.

Since 2004, two former Baltimore mayors — Sheila Dixon and Catherine Pugh — have been convicted of financial crimes.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott thinks that politicians will stay out of trouble if they devote their energies to their current job instead of plotting their next career move.

“That’s a lesson I preach to young elected officials across the country,” said Scott, who worked as a young legislative aide in City Hall during “The Wire’s” final season.

“I tell them, you will only get where you want to go if you focus on the job you have today. We need officials who will do the right thing, not the popular thing, even if it means that they get unelected.”

Season Four (2006), Baltimore City schools

This season — in many ways the heart of the series — reflected Burns’ experience as a teacher at Hamilton Middle School from 1994 to 2001. It follows four eighth-grade boys at the Tench Tilghman Middle School as they make decisions that will determine whether they go to college or end up dealing drugs.

“The Wire” contended that kids were being failed by federal laws that tied funding for schools to student outcomes on standardized tests. That forced educators to “teach to the test” instead of allowing them to align their approach to students needs.

Mayor Scott thinks the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, which will become law this year, has the potential to be a game-changer. The law will provide $4 billion more in education funding statewide over a decade and launch programs intended to make Maryland schools some of the best in the nation.

Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises declined an interview request. In an email, a district spokesman said he doesn’t think “The Wire’s” depiction of city schools is wholly accurate.

The television series “used drama and characters to illustrate some authentic challenges we continue to face as a school district and a community,” schools spokesman Andre Riley wrote in an email, “including the historic underfunding of education in Baltimore City, health and safety, student wellness, and equity.”

But Riley said the show did not offer a “holistic” picture of city schools, past or present.

“Despite the barriers that exist,” he wrote, “the experiences of students and families in Baltimore City are rich and robust.”

Season Five (2008), the news media

By 2008, when the fifth and final season of “The Wire” debuted and took a hard look at the news media, the loss of journalism jobs nationwide was accelerating.

Newsroom employment in the U.S. dropped by 26% between 2008 and 2020, according to a 2021 report by the Pew Research Center. That represented not just a loss of 30,000 jobs, but all the stories those reporters would have covered.

”I remember a time when Baltimore had The Sun and The Evening Sun and the Baltimore News-American,” said Peter L. Beilenson, who was Baltimore City’s Health Commissioner from 1992 to 2005 and now teaches a course on “The Wire” at Johns Hopkins University.

He thinks that decrease has had “a negative impact on Baltimore.”

”It’s like when a tree falls in a forest,” he said. “If you don’t know about it, you never know what you’re missing.”

But the biggest impact of “The Wire” might be the most difficult to measure. Across the U.S., viewers came to sympathize with and even root for characters who might terrify them in real life. That suggests that the show might have contributed, however incrementally, to the overall level of empathy in society.

“If ‘The Wire’ had a hand in that,” Simon said, “that makes me proud.”