The outline of Baltimore’s decline can be seen in the numbers. Over the last thirty years or so, the city lost 28 percent of its population, and manufacturing jobs declined from 20 percent of available work to 8 percent. In 2006, 19.5 percent of Baltimoreans lived in poverty, and, as of 2000, 43.4 of blacks were absent from the labor force (the city is 64.4 percent black). Poverty is a fact of life for 22.9 percent of blacks, 30.6 percent of black children, and almost half of all female-headed black households with children five years old and younger. Only 35 percent of Baltimore students graduate high school within four years. It has the nation’s second highest increase in new aids cases. A massive drug economy serves an estimated 50,000 addicts, and there are roughly that number of vacant housing units. And Baltimore’s 2006 homicide rate of 43.3 per 100,000 residents was one of the highest in the country, behind only five cities, including New Orleans and Detroit.

The difference between, say, west Baltimore’s Boyd-Booth neighborhood and Roland Park in leafy north Baltimore is shocking. According to the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, the juvenile arrest rate in Boyd-Booth’s census statistical area is 206 per 1,000 residents. In Roland Park, it’s 1.6. All the comparisons are staggering. Median household income: $23,070 to $64,571. Percent of employed working-age adults: 46.1 to 76.1. Domestic violence rate per 1,000: 68 to 1.9. Median home sale price: $33,750 to $235,000. Percent of residential properties that are vacant: 19.9 to 0.1. Absentee rate in tenth grade: 81.5 percent to 16.7 percent. Teen birth rate per 1,000: 117 to 0.

Baltimore cannot be replicated: the liberating weirdness, the lunch-pail ethic of the Colts and Cal Ripken, the peculiar conversations of hundreds of barfly-savants, the seafood, the accents….It’s a lovable city. It really is. Nonetheless, it is two cities. More than one former Sun reporter gave me the same spiel: You can live in Roland Park, drive down St. Paul Street to your office at Legg Mason or T. Rowe Price, and life is sweet. But go several blocks to the east or west, and the “Land of Pleasant Living” quickly becomes “Bodymore, Murdaland.”

It’s not quite fair, however, to lump all of blighted east and west Baltimore together. It is still a city of neighborhoods, and there are nuances. Many people still love the place. The corner of Baltimore and Calverton, for instance, where mayoral candidate Keiffer Mitchell spoke of decay, was recently a symbol of renewal. The neighborhood, Boyd-Booth, was typical of Baltimore’s early 1990s heroin-and-murder-driven nadir. But using a new law against “nuisance properties” and a plan implemented by a coalition of police and community groups, this neighborhood achieved a 52 percent reduction in violent crime and an 80 percent decrease in drug arrests from 1993 to 1995.

The complex Baltimore of Boyd-Booth is the Baltimore that Simon has chosen to document, and his reporting on the streets revealed to him the “wire” that eventually informed The Wire: it threads through both “our” lives and “their” lives. Simon believes that we’ve agreed as a country that our economy can thrive without 8 to 10 percent of the population. Thus, in his view, those without the education and skills to get by are inevitably going to turn to the only viable economy in their neighborhoods—the drug trade. To contain that problem and its attendant violence, he believes, the war on drugs has morphed into a war on the underclass. In both the viable and unviable America, Simon argues, capital is more valued than human lives, whether you’re an expendable tout in a drug organization, a cop trying to put good police work over statistics, a stevedore trying to pull in a full week of union wages, a teacher trying to educate rather than teach to the test, or, as the new season of The Wire argues, a reporter trying to capture the complexity of urban life rather than haul in sound bites.

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.