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By Lenny Quart

Lenny has lived in New York for most of
his life, and here he presents a varied selection
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unique take on city life.
Lenny QuartAmerican Studies Today Online

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An Elite Liberal University
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2013

Glistening
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An East River Island
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The City in Flux

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Brooklyn Writers
Whatever Happened to America's White Working Class?
Once More about Obama
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An ennui-free city
Comfort Food for the Literate
A Unique Street
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An Economically Beleaguered City
Oscar Tedium
Prose and poetry
A Painful Conclusion to 2008
A Celebration of Two Writers
The Political Process
Growing Up in New York
Oscars 2008
Celebrating the Forward
A Bohemian Oasis
Cafeterias
Back-to-the-Land
A Word from a Convention Demonstrator
Election Post Mortem
Sidney Lumet: New York Director
The New York Subway
Times Square: Past and Present
New York on the eve of 2005
A Cheer for Self-Doubt
The Working Poor
A Vale of Tears
Spike Lee's New Orleans
Hasidim in Brooklyn
Slavery in NYC
A Cornucopia of Stories
A Painter in the City
Altman's Oscar Night
Bob Dylan: American Icon
Brooklyn Changing
Diane Arbus
Political Theatre
The New York Post
Public Life
Surviving the Inner-City
Transit Strike
Three Political Takes
The Sixties Redux
Memorials and Oscars

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A Vale of Tears

Posted 23rd January 2007

Baltimore, an 18th century port city of over 600,000 people  (65% black), ranks second only to Detroit among the most dangerous American cities over 500,000 in population. The murder rate in Baltimore is nearly seven times the national rate, six times the rate of New York, and drug dealing permeates a number of its neighborhoods. And a great many of Baltimore’s politicians and police officers have been convicted of corruption. It is also a city that continues to lose population, with public schools that have an extremely high dropout rate, and a low level of student achievement.

It’s that crisis-riddled Baltimore (not the city’s touted, chic, tourist-oriented harbor development) which is at the center of the narrative in HBO’s Peabody-award winning The Wire. It’s a series conceived by Baltimore natives-its creator and writer/producer David Simon (Homicide, The Corner) and co-writer Ed Burns— that provides a realistic portrait of inner city America based on their own experiences. Simon was once a Baltimore crime reporter, while Burns was both a cop and public school teacher. This is The Wire’s 4th season, and it’s as authentic and moving a depiction of the despair, violence, and sense of entrapment that dominates American inner city life as I’ve ever seen.   

The Wire also has the social complexity of great American urban novels like Richard Wright’s Native Son, John Dos Passos’ The Big Money, and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. And like the novels the series has a profound sense of the way many urban institutions work. In the series, the cynical and corrupt operations of the police, stevedore’s union, and city government are dissected, but none of the institutions are monolithic. They are usually a mixed bag. So, for every cynical timeserver, incompetent, or blatantly dishonest cop or politician, there are other men and women struggling, against great odds, to do their jobs professionally, even caringly, to be of some service to people.

The Wire‘s new and fourth season focuses on education and on four African-American adolescents, who come from extremely dysfunctional and often impoverished families, and attend the same neighborhood middle school. The four boys, whose futures have not yet been foreclosed, struggle to survive on inner city streets filled with teenage and preadolescent drug dealers, burned-out and boarded up row houses, trash-laden alleys, and weed-ridden lots where corpses frequently turn up. Street smart and murderous drug gangs who kill with impunity control this everyday hell, and the police are unable to do more than place a band-aid on the interminable violence and crime. (What’s also unique about The Wire is that the series succeeds in humanizing, without ever absolving, its most demonic and amoral characters.)   

The schools, in turn, can do no more than pick up the pieces of this broken familial and communal world. A number of the kids have little impulse control and constantly act out—roaming and fighting in the halls, warring with and cursing out the teachers, and sleeping during class or sullenly refusing to do any schoolwork. For some the only schooling they receive is on the corner where they learn all the tricks of the drug trade. And in Burns’ words, when “they hit the streets, within five years, a lot of them are victims of murders or are committing them.” The Wire constructs this bleak portrait of the schools without offering a scintilla of false hope. The teachers feel constrained by a self-protective school system’s commitment to teaching for the statewide test (e.g., No Child Left Behind Act), whose results they often doctor. And the teachers have learned to keep order by having their pupils do busy work, or increasing the room temperature so the kids get drowsy and docile. One teacher imaginatively uses the students’ own experience to get them interested in math. But given the sway of a murderous street culture, what is successful for one day or a week can rarely be sustained. That culture overwhelms three of The Wire‘s four adolescent characters, who face, in this season’s final chapter, forbidding lives with little possibility of escape.

Inner city Baltimore in The Wire is one immense vale of tears, and the series illustrates with striking poignancy and power an article I read awhile back by the liberal, African-American New York Times’ columnist Bob Herbert. In the column he quotes from an interview with a more conservative African-American journalist, Juan Williams, author of Enough: “When you hear boys saying it’s a “rite of passage to go to jail…or kids telling other kids that if they’re trying to do well in school they’re ‘trying to act better than me,’ or ‘trying to act white’—all of these are indications of a culture of failure.”

Neither of the two writers denies the devastating effects of racism, (though Williams seems much too ready to dismiss the need for government programs). But both understand that white racism, poverty, and governmental neglect are no longer sufficient explanations why a self-destructive and degraded street culture remains so dominant in the black inner city. Nobody has a quick fix about how to transform that culture beyond vaguely appealing to a transformation of values and a rejection of self-defeating behavior. However, it’s necessary to recognize that for kids like those in The Wire, though our society in many ways remains inequitable, opportunities do exist. So getting off the precipice of the street milieu is an imperative—it’s the only way real change in their lives will really take place.