Baltimore via Wide Angle

High up on a pole, under a police decal spelling out CITIWATCH and a flashing blue light, the security camera on Calverton Road captures something unusual on the streets of west Baltimore this bright summer morning—a man in a suit standing at a podium. It’s election time, and for Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., a candidate for mayor, this corner symbolizes the city’s biggest concern: crime. He stands in front of Club International, where five months earlier a pair of patrons who had been kicked out for urinating on the dance floor are accused of returning with a gun to murder the bouncer. Baltimore—already legendary for violent crime—has seen a 14 percent increase in homicides and a 24 percent increase in nonfatal shootings over the same period in 2006. On July 30, a man who had been shot just blocks from Mayor Sheila Dixon’s house approached her security detail for help. Four weeks later, a man shot while driving his SUV plowed through a concrete wall and met his maker at the bottom of a swimming pool in the back yard of Baltimore’s most famous defense attorney, Warren Brown.

Passing buses occasionally drown out Mitchell’s amplified words, but through the clamor his solution emerges: four hundred extra police officers and a 15 percent raise for the whole force. More murder? More cops. A simple problem. A simple solution. Yet on the corner across the street from the hubbub, where I’m standing with several residents, the situation seems more complicated than that. Everyone starts talking at once: how hard it is to pay for utilities and prescriptions on a fixed income; how few after-school programs, libraries, and summer jobs are left; how promised playgrounds and recreation centers never arrive; how the media only show the neighborhood in a negative light; how the politicians only come around when they’re trying to get elected.

The further back I step, the sadder the scene looks. Mitchell is talking to three television cameras, a handful of reporters, and another man in a suit, and from this perspective, the wider concrete and asphalt desolation just swallows them.

It could be a scene from The Wire, particularly this year. The fifth and final season of David Simon’s dramatic HBO series will focus on the newsroom of a fictional paper called, like the real one, the Sun. The Wire, although fictional, explores an increasingly brutal and coarse society through the prism of Baltimore, where postindustrial capitalism has decimated the working-class wage and sharply divided the haves and have-nots. The city’s bloated bureaucracies sustain the inequality. The absence of a decent public-school education or meaningful political reform leaves an unskilled underclass trapped between a rampant illegal drug economy and a vicious “war on drugs.” In the final season, Simon asks why we aren’t getting the message. Why can’t we achieve meaningful reform? What are we telling ourselves about ourselves? To get at these questions, he wants us to see the city from the perspective of a shrinking newsroom.

Back in 1983, Simon was thrilled to land a job at the Sun. He says he had been an ink-stained-wretch-in-waiting ever since he was twelve, when his father—a former newsman himself—took him to a production of The Front Page. Simon joined his high school paper and later became editor-in-chief of The Diamondback at the University of Maryland. While he was in college, he says, he filed so many stories as a suburban stringer for the Sun that he was forced to graduate more than a year late. Then suddenly there he was: a full-time gig in the house of Mencken and Manchester. He had an enormous respect for the Sun, and he pounded his beat eagerly.

The job lasted twelve years, and Simon became increasingly disillusioned toward the end. In 1995, he angrily ditched the Sun and went to television, where he dedicated himself to telling the world how screwed up it was, layer by layer. And now he turns his eye back to journalism, giving us something to ponder: Why is a newspaperman-at-heart devoting the final ten hours of one of the most acclaimed television dramas in history to the role of journalism in the decline of the American empire?

A Story Without a Villain

The offices of Simon’s Blown Deadline Productions sit on an isolated waterfront street in Canton, a historically working-class Baltimore neighborhood. Canton’s brick factories now house retail stores and condos, but Simon’s office is in the one section where there is still active industry. Across the harbor, the Port of Baltimore’s epic blue cranes gleam in the sun.

Lawrence Lanahan is formerly an analyst with American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C. He lived in Baltimore for five years and is now a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn. The fifth season of The Wire premiered January 6, 2008 on HBO.