Insider: 8 Years After the Final Episode, The Wire Still Has Lessons for Philly
(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from a Citified insider.)
Nestled between the power corridors of D.C. and the the captains of finance in New York City, Baltimore and Philadelphia sit like urban rest stops on I-95. Former booming port cities and manufacturing hubs, both now are struggling with the challenges of a fleeing tax base, an inequitable public school system and a crumbling black middle class.
Nowhere was the story of inner city plight told better than David Simon’s TV drama, The Wire. Unapologetic and gritty, there were very few feel good moments in this “reality” TV. Eight years after the last episode aired, the series stills holds up as an accurate, if brutal, representation of urban life outside the beer gardens of greater Center City.
Take a walk with me “Down In The Hole.”
Schools: “Our last four administrations left us with an inner-city system with inner-city problems. We get involved, start talking shit, it becomes our mess. Gotta respect the depths.” – Norman Wilson
The Wire introduced Baltimore’s School System through the eyes of four middle school students. It highlighted typical inner city situations; dedicated teachers that want the best for their students but are working with limited resources; students trying to learn while coping with terrible situations at home; an extreme focus on standardized testing; an underfunded budget and the imminent threat of a state takeover. The show might have stopped airing nearly a decade ago and been set in Baltimore, but this remains the everyday reality of the School District of Philadelphia.
Politics: “You really think they’re going to vote for the white guy?” – Tommy Carcetti.
Season four of The Wire was heavy on politics. It featured a mayoral race where the candidates were Councilman Thomas Carcetti, Councilman Tony Gray and incumbent Mayor Clarence Royce. Carcetti who was white, started out as a long shot, but beat out the two other black candidates. His campaign staff theorized correctly that Carcetti needed both of his other opponents to stay in to split the black vote to give him just enough room to run up the middle. Carcetti ran an excellent campaign, stayed on track and won.
The parallels to Philly’s mayoral primary this past spring are uncanny. Granted, there were a few more candidates and no incumbent, but the conversations about racial math were relentless. And the longshot white guy won.
Jobs: “We used to build shit in this this country, make shit. Now we just put our hand in the next guy’s pocket.” – Frank Sobotka.
Baltimore and Philadelphia have both suffered deeply as the manufacturing and shipping industries collapsed.. From 1970 to 1995 Philly lost 250,000 manufacturing jobs, while Baltimore lost 100,000. Season two of The Wire was dominated by the efforts of port labor union leader Frank Sobotka to create jobs for his union. He saw a future that included fewer capital projects and fewer jobs for his members. Sobotka acted much like a modern day union Robin Hood. He involved himself in politics, campaigning, lobbying and, yes, criminal activity to strengthen his union. The parallels with Philadelphia — where blue collar unions have become huge political players — are so obvious they hardly need to be drawn.
Crime: “….you call something a war and pretty soon everybody gonna be running around acting like warriors. They gonna be running around on a damn crusade, storming corners, slapping on cuffs, racking up body counts. And when you at war, you need a fucking enemy. And pretty soon, damn near everybody on every corner is your fucking enemy. And soon the neighborhood that you’re supposed to be policing, that’s just occupied territory.” – Major Bunny Colvin
Season three of The Wire tackled the War on Drugs. The storyline centered around Major Colvin, a Baltimore police commander who’d grown weary of the futility of the drug war. He went rogue, and created a drug enforcement free area where dealers and users could buy and sell without getting arrested. His officers pushed trafficking into a controlled area which resulted in a double digit percentage drop in crime. Yes he was disciplined, demoted and then fired. But it was a new strategy born out of desperation — and it worked. Few people are talking about decriminalizing hard drugs in this city, but when it comes to marijuana, the whole of Philadelphia is something of a “Hamsterdam” now, thanks to the decriminalization bill pushed through Council by then Councilman Jim Kenney last year. In just one month, marijuana related arrests fell almost 80%. It showed that progressive strategies for how we approach crime can work.
What does all of this mean? At minimum, The Wire shows us that the problems that confront Philadelphia are not unique to Philadelphia. What can be unique is our approach to how we solve them. As we we look for solutions to the long term challenges we face with our jobs, schools, politics and crime, we’re going to need more than just the way we’ve always done it. I believe that we can use art to inspire the desire for social change. Art can inspire action, creativity and awareness. All of which can lead us to solutions for our city.
Mustafa Rashed is the President & CEO of Bellevue Strategies, a government relations, advocacy and consulting firm. He is Chairman of Friends of Doug Oliver, PAC, and he was the campaign manager of Oliver’s recent mayoral run.