Monday, October 14, 2013

"The Wire" is part of the problem (Part II)

In her brilliant response to my post on "The Wire," DePaul University English professor Marcy Dinius states:
I don't think "The Wire" wants to represent either The Post-Industrial American City or Baltimore as "recovered and vibrant." (Sometimes Baltimore is the representative post-industrial American city in the show; sometimes it's specifically unique, it's own fucked up place--a specific kind of late-capitalism mid-Atlantic pride that I find both appalling and charming.)...To put it another way, I think the show leaves The City (or maybe just Baltimore) as the one institution that isn't beyond saving, but that may only persist on its own mysterious terms--much like the ecosystem of Walden that Thoreau observes working without human interference. Both get awfully close to implying a reversion to laissez-faire naturalism as the solution to all of these complex man-made problems (Thoreau outright declares this; "The Wire" I think is much more cagey, again, in irresponsible ways).
Yes, I had incorrectly generalized from the rapid, broad sweeping gentrification experienced in Washington, DC, and many other cities, such as New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and, internationally, Berlin, Budapest, Rio de Janeiro, etc. Gentrifying cities have long existed simultaneously with declining cities, most iconically Detroit, and gentrification has existed within declining cities. In "The Wire," Baltimore functions much more as a Detroit-like city, presented as stuck in cynical corrupt world of interrelated declining institutions -- city government, the media, unions, schools, and the police.

Yet, these iconic cities of American decline play an important ideological role. To set the stage, the show begins with the absolute icon of American decline: the public housing project. Why start with a public housing project? The public housing project sets into motion a narrative that somehow everyone seems to know, even if they have never seen a public housing project:  public housing has been and will always be a failure. As someone who commented on a previous post: "Public Housing in the US has largely failed because it failed to maintain housing for the middle class. Any housing (public or private) that only concentrates poverty in a single location is bound to fail. Extreme concentrations of poverty are bound to be problematic." In a just published article "Putting the 'public' back in affordable housing," my colleague Mason sociology professor Tony Samara along with his co-authors have criticized this myth of concentrated poverty, which bizarrely ascribes to the poor and the physical buildings they live in "an impressive ability to degrade entire cities." On the flip side, according to the ridiculous politics of respectability, teens can save entire cities just by pulling up their pants:

The myth of concentrated poverty and the supposed failure of public housing fit within today's conventional narrative about cities and their supposed failed pasts. "The Wire" does not present real public housing residents and their actual lives, which then reinforces these myths. As someone just wrote in the comment section:
The most legitimate criticism I have heard regard The Wire comes from [Yale University sociology professor] Elijah Anderson, who notes the lack of "regular folk" in the show. Nearly everyone in the show is a cop, drug dealer, or corrupt in some way; you very rarely see the "average" person living in the neighborhood, working, and trying to make it through. There are a few exceptions - a witness who gets murdered, the neighborhood improving when Bunny tries a drug legalization program. I suspect Simon [the show's producer] would say that's because it is, at the end of the day, a TV show, and average people aren't all that interesting. 
So, while "The Wire" is an improvement over previous tv shows and shows how problems are deeply interconnected, its focus on corruption and stereotypes reinforces today's conventional myths about cities like DC, about public housing, and about what cities went through in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

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