Disclaimer: I’m no expert on American history, not at all. I’m keen that any theory I want to study be portable though, so I’m attempting here to look at a TV series I’ve been re-visiting through a particular lens. No Black Country history here either, we’re in half-baked theory territory. Spoilers ahoy as well, if you haven’t watched The Wire.
Six years ago, in May 2009, I was cycling home from my job at the LSE. Flying at speed down Blackstock Hill towards Finsbury Park, a kindly van driver turned without indicating causing me to swerve, fly over my handlebars, and sheer my hip right through. One metal plate and Dynamic Hip Screw later, my lovely colleagues sent me a DVD of series one of The Wire to wile away my recovery time. Eight weeks and five series later I was back at work, my inner monologue a slightly 18-rated Baltimorese.
I’ve no hesitation in claiming The Wire as one of the great TV shows. To my mind it argues much the same as Natalie Zemon Davis: although it’s strictly fiction, it doesn’t prevent it from being true. It gets therefore at the heart of debates about just what constitutes true, as with morality, goodness or evil. It’s not a show in which space and place are characters of their own – as in, say, Wim Wenders’ Berlin, Cormac McCarthy’s Texas, or Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh. Nor is history a subject broached in any formal way – the housing projects just are, the docks just are. But I’d argue that in the Baltimore of The Wire, the concepts of time and place still lead inexorably to a space that is produced like any other.
According to Lefebvre, you may recall, space is more than just an abstract set of coordinates, but the result of spatial practices, representations of space and representational space. Spatial practice is the use of the space guided by that which is perceived. In The Wire, the key spaces are the housing projects of West Baltimore, the sites of lives, drug deals and policing. As in this country, American housing projects were an ambitious attempt to solve problems of overcrowding and slum clearance through publicly-built housing. The well-documented problems of large estates in the UK were exacerbated in many US cities by the conflation in American society of poverty and race – the projects became overwhelmingly black, poor and separate from society.
The drug dealers of The Wire experience this acutely. Those with financial security live outside in nice apartments, with nice clothes, eating at nice restaurants (even if the more sensitive of them, like D’Angelo, feel the divide more than others). For the hoppers on the ground, the projects and the derelict row houses of West Baltimore are all there is to life. Wallace struggles with semi-rural life and returns to the ‘courts’ even when in danger; the West side is him, he asserts. Even the more savvy Bodie gets confused when the radio reception in his van gets lost leaving Baltimore. The corollary of this is a knowledge of the district unsurpassed and unmatchable by the police – something Greggs finds to her cost when the hoppers turn the signs on one particular set-up. Her shooters disappear into alleys, cross train tracks and wasteland, and its only a wiretap and DNA evidence that make the case.
The distinctive row houses of Baltimore, built in greater quantity here than anywhere else in the early twentieth century, provide the only juxtaposition to the panel-built high-rises of Franklin Terraces or the low-rise courts. They are mostly abandoned and sealed, hiding places for drugs and bodies, and resting places for wandering fiends. They also provide the grid pattern that so confused Greggs, and the corners that become the salesrooms of the drug trade. The “corner boy” is a uniquely American invention, and corners become real estate to be traded and fought over. The informal map of dealing territory is an overlay of the more formal map of the city; property rights and parallel property rights. These are two ways of conceiving the space of the city, from two different viewpoints.
Further differences in conception can be found in the downtown real estate that the police begin to map out to show Avon Barksdale’s holdings. What appears as a random cluster overlays tentative plans for downtown regeneration, which leads to political back-and-forth and potential financial return. See also series three’s “Hamsterdam”, a space of amnesty where dealers can deal and users can use, so long as they keep other spaces clear. Perhaps this is the perfect capitalist marketplace in action – product, prices and salesmanship must win the day. For users, a space of convenience and safety, with needle exchanges on hand. For dealers, more convenience and fewer externalities in the form of police harassment. For the police, a space of containment and one which has positive impacts elsewhere. For the politicians though, a space of potential electoral outrage. Corner boy or police, estate agent or state senator, everyone has conceptions of every space, conscious or not.
Lefebvre’s last, but crucial, element of space is representational space – not just what is perceived or conceived, but that which is lived. Herein are all the memories and meanings that a space holds – the hardest to pin down, but the most important for the historian, because an individual’s lived experience of a space takes in all that space has meant to them and to their society over time. In the first series of The Wire, Baltimore is pretty much taken for granted. There’s occasional reference to family connections and dodgy policing back in the day, but that’s about it. Yet the history and make-up of the projects are completely real for Wallace, Bodie, Bubbles the addict and others who can’t seem to make head or tail of the outside world. Even D’Angelo, feeling all awkward in the fancy restaurant sees his place as being in the courts.
The second series hints more strongly at Baltimore’s beleaguered history. “They used to make steel there, no?” asks Spyros to Sobotka, the leader of an ailing stevedore union manning the declining Baltimore docks. The decline of heavy industry with its unions, and the rise of an insecure service sector, is a theme very familiar to social historians of the twentieth century. It has an unsettling effect on our lived spaces – for those in former mining or industrial communities, the world has completely changed in the last fifty years, and what meant so much to us then has gone, or means something else. Others’ conceptions of our space has changed it and us, our perceptions have shifted, our resistance to the strategies of the conceivers has changed the environment again. In Baltimore, the decline of the low-skill sector is one fundamental cause of many for the condemnation of swathes of urban space to the ghetto, and one explanation for the sheer volume of drugs and bodies that continue to define Baltimore in many minds.
I kind of think Henri Lefebvre would have loved The Wire. The banality and thoughtless violence of everyday life under late capitalism would have matched his expectations completely. His own thesis, this three-part analysis of space, was born out of exceptional circumstances – the 1968 Paris riots – but its applicability is wide. It suits my own approach, to gather evidence widely and build it up, seeing how everything contributes to a space and its time. Official conceptions sure, but also personal perceptions of space, memories and meaning. As Lester Freeman says: “all the pieces matter.”