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Fictional Baltimores are often apocalyptic. What happens when the real one is, too?

The Wire is deeply felt, beautifully reported fiction. But it's still fiction.
The Wire is deeply felt, beautifully reported fiction. But it's still fiction.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

We attach meaning to places through pop culture. We transform them from the living, breathing cities we are part of into their platonic ideals. New York is for big dreamers. Los Angeles is where stars are born. Seattle is a land of gloomy 20-somethings searching for connection (or coffee).

These are all variations on the actual places, which are more varied and fluid than their pop cultural counterparts. The fakes have taken hold, because they're close enough to reality to satisfy. You really do go to Los Angeles if you want to become a star; you just maybe don't think about all the people there who didn't manage that trick.

We think we know these real places through their fictional alter egos. Even if we live in one of them, the idea of a place is sometimes so potent that we can forget the place itself, allowing ourselves to get lost in the idealized ghost projecting from what is.

But our fictional Baltimore is an apocalypse waiting to happen.

Sure, we have Hairspray's Tracy Turnblad singing "Good Morning, Baltimore," and many of the joys John Waters has given us. Less-grim tales of Baltimore do exist, like Barry Levinson's Diner (though even that has a kitchen-sink realism it's hard to imagine flying in, say, Washington, DC).

But then we have a long series of works that suggest the place is either a blue-collar city in decline or one that's rotting from the inside out. Somehow Baltimore has become the symbol of the death of the American city, and it was trending that way even before David Simon started chronicling it. (If you don't believe me, check out Lanford Wilson's play The Hot l Baltimore, and the subsequent sitcom made of it.)

Even Detroit has Motown and the faded glories of the auto industry. Baltimore has become a synonym for decay in our pop cultural language. Is it any wonder that an explosion of protests there against police brutality, followed by riots Monday night, led to so many lazy Twitter jokes about The Wire?

Simon's pessimism has already made things seem hopeless

I count myself among those who only know the fictional Baltimore, as opposed to the real one. Like any good American TV critic, I genuflect toward the altar of Simon's work. I loved Homicide: Life on the Street (which was created by others from a book he wrote). The Corner is tremendous. The Wire is one of the great TV series. And his non-Baltimore-centric work is fantastic, too.

David Simon

David Simon, creator of The Wire. (Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival)

Simon's TV Baltimores aren't just fictionally precise — they feel reported. That's in large part because they are. They're based on the stories and conversations Simon observed during his many years as a newspaper reporter in the city, before writing the book that became Homicide and propelled him toward his TV career.

But as the Washington Post's Alyssa Rosenberg points out, Simon's chronicle of black Baltimore is laced with a pessimism that lets his largely white, largely upper-class audience off the hook:

Part of Simon’s appeal is that he’s a gifted diagnostician, a dark and funny analyst of how failed sets of public policies lock together and create greater human misery together than they ever could separately. But as a physician, his prognoses are almost unfailingly terminal, and his prescriptions are palliative rather than curative. People like former convict Cutty Wise (Chad L. Coleman), who manages to found a modest boxing gym, may carve out small accomplishments in Baltimore. But their efforts are small pockets of healthy flesh in a necrotic body.

It might be heresy for a critic to say this, but as Baltimore tries to recover from Monday’s convulsions, I wonder if the fundamental fatalism of "The Wire" might be part of its appeal to some part of Simon’s audience.

Rosenberg is right about this. What makes The Wire so successful as a polemic and as entertainment is what keeps it from succeeding as a statement on behalf of the real Baltimore, the bleeding Baltimore, the fading Baltimore.

While The Wire certainly channeled to audiences that West Baltimore — the neighborhood where Freddie Gray, whose April 19 death in police custody sparked the recent protests, lived — is a place of deep poverty and suffering, the negative outlook of Simon's work suggests that little can be done. It is vital, necessary, deeply felt art, but it's also tourism, in a sense, dipping viewers' toes into a world they likely wouldn't want to live in.

None of that stops The Wire from being one of the best shows ever made. But it has recast Baltimore, at least in the imagination of some of us who have only seen the city's impoverished neighborhoods on TV, as a great open wound that will never be cauterized.

Since the series left the air, through absolutely no fault of Simon's own, it has stopped being a work of fictional journalism and become distilled to its most purely entertaining elements. We hold competitions to determine the best character. We debate which season ranks the highest. We say, "Omar comin'!" or "Five-oh!" like we grew up in Baltimore, because we have the distance to turn Simon's well-observed patter into catchphrases.

This is what happens to fiction, of course. It ceases to belong to its creators, and it soon belongs to its audience, which does whatever it wants with it. And as The Wire recedes further into memory, it becomes easier to do this, to shake off whatever realities inspired it, in pursuit of less-harsh truths.

How Simon's fictional Baltimore plays off the real one

This, I think, is why I was so surprised to see Simon's statement on Monday's events. After saying the protests surrounding Gray's death could prove transformational if handled properly, Simon pivots to talking to the rioters, specifically:

But now — in this moment — the anger and the selfishness and the brutality of those claiming the right to violence in Freddie Gray’s name needs to cease. There was real power and potential in the peaceful protests that spoke in Mr. Gray’s name initially, and there was real unity at his homegoing today. But this, now, in the streets, is an affront to that man’s memory and a diminution of the absolute moral lesson that underlies his unnecessary death.

If you can’t seek redress and demand reform without a brick in your hand, you risk losing this moment for all of us in Baltimore. Turn around. Go home. Please.

It's not that I was surprised to hear him call for a peaceful, nonviolent protests; it is the man's city, after all, and no one wants to watch their city collapse. And his hope in the protests sparking change is also rooted in Simon's old-school liberalism.

But what struck me most was the way the statement could not help but play Simon's realistic yet ultimately fictional Baltimore off the very real one on TV news channels. Though he did not intend this, the statement almost seemed to be letting fans of his writing and his programs off the hook for having enjoyed them so much. The Baltimore of The Wire would surely have descended into further chaos in a similar situation; the real one could be saved, maybe, by peaceful protest.

For those of us who consume entertainment and cultural news endlessly, Simon is probably the most prominent Baltimorean of the moment. There's a reason so many of my colleagues, both at Vox and at other publications, wondered what he would have to say about the recent events in Baltimore. Simon's not just the most prominent Baltimorean; he's someone who, through his work, gives the impression of knowing the city better than just about anybody, a kind of TV poet laureate of Maryland.

But Simon's work insists Baltimore is doomed, over and over again. If there's hope, it's only here and there. So what happens when Baltimore actually seems doomed, if only for a few hours? Do we praise Simon for his prescience? Or do we wonder, for a split second, if he gave us a way to wash our hands of the whole thing, to act like we cared without caring, to stop by for a visit without investing anything greater than that?

The Baltimore of The Wire (and The Corner and Homicide and many pre-Simon works) is mostly entertaining if it stays safely in that "other" world, the one to which we consign all those phantom versions of our great cities. To see a man die in police custody, to see violence erupt, to see a city burn — those are all things that might, even for a brief moment, make us wonder just what we were watching and enjoying all those years.

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