The Mission of the Manhattan Institute is
to develop and disseminate new ideas that
foster greater economic choice and
individual responsibility.

The Wall Street Journal Europe.

Urban Decay
March 14, 2008

By Julia Vitullo-Martin

"I'm a big fan of 'The Wire,' " Barack Obama told US Weekly last week. "It's not a happy show, but it's addictive." His fellow liberal intellectuals apparently agree. Called "the best TV show ever broadcast in America" by Slate's editor in chief, Jacob Weisberg, and "astonishingly sophisticated" by NPR media reporter David Folkenflik, the HBO series, whose finale was shown on Saturday, is a cops-and-criminals saga that brings its genre to an entirely new level. "No other program has ever done anything remotely like what this one does, namely to portray the social, political and economic life of an American city with the scope, observational precision and moral vision of great literature," wrote Mr. Weisberg last year. Conservatives such as National Review's Jack Dunphy and The Weekly Standard's Dean Barnett laud the show too. But conservatives may see in it a lesson that liberal viewers are unlikely to take to heart.

Set, written and produced in Baltimore, "The Wire" aired 60 episodes, with each of its five seasons focused on a different subject—drug trafficking, the port, local politics, public schools and the city's newspaper. From the series' opening sequences filmed in "The Towers"—huge public housing projects whose courtyards serve as drug bazaars—through its depiction of the continuing devastation of neighborhoods by violent crime and unemployment, the Baltimore of "The Wire" becomes the poster child for six decades of failed urban policy. Its crumbling, corrupt Baltimore is in virtual free fall while the city's caretakers—including nearly all its politicians -- feed at the public trough, cavorting and partying as Baltimore burns and children die. By season five, the city's fiscal situation is so dire that budget cuts cripple the already disheartened police department even further as police cars break down for lack of service.

A look at some real-life statistics shows how accurate this picture is. Surpassed only by Detroit in CNN/Morgan Quinto's 2006 ranking of the country's most dangerous large cities, Baltimore has traded places over the past few years with Detroit and Washington as the country's urban murder capital. With 282 homicides last year and a population of about 641,000, Baltimore had a homicide rate six times that of New York and three times that of Los Angeles. While crack usage faded in resurgent cities like New York, Boston and Chicago in the 1990s, it never lost its hold in many Baltimore neighborhoods, even as heroin became the new drug of choice. Addicts just used both. By 2000, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency said, Baltimore had the highest per-capita heroin consumption in the country.

Meanwhile the public schools deteriorated, graduating less than half their students. The Baltimore Housing Authority was put on HUD's troubled authority list and in the 1990s dynamited many of its high-rise projects.

Mr. Obama, like most of his fellow liberals, believes that poverty is at the heart of urban problems and that its eradication is a federal duty. "What's most overwhelming about urban poverty is that it's so difficult to escape—it's isolating and it's everywhere," he commented as he released his plans last July to reinvest in impoverished neighborhoods. By this he means giving more public funding to after-school and job training programs, parental counseling, extended day care, and public-private business incubators. What Lyndon Johnson called "model cities" programs Mr. Obama refers to as "promise neighborhoods." The idea is that, freed from poverty, people who are now dealing drugs would be living productive lives. But Mr. Obama's favorite show puts forth a very different message: It is the crime that causes the poverty, not the other way around.

Just watch a few episodes and it becomes clear that brazen drug trafficking degrades everything it touches, seducing children with its lure of money and murderously punishing anyone who defies it. When the city blows up the federally funded housing projects whose density helped make drugs so profitable, trafficking becomes even more vicious as dealers war over the smaller territory that's left. Many favorite characters are murdered or set themselves on a clear path to death and disaster. Apparently no one is immune: Even "citizens"—the cops' term for normal, law-abiding people—are gunned down.

Crime prevents what little legal economic activity that exists from flourishing. The often overlooked second season of the show covers the port, its decline and deep corruption. One union boss who oversees the loading and unloading of cargo ships accepts bribes from corrupt importers to rename or "lose" containers in order to evade customs. He fools himself that by lining the pockets of his union brothers with this money he is protecting the mainly underemployed stevedores and their families. But as the port's decline worsens, the bribes are paid for increasingly brutal purposes—such as human trafficking.

"The Wire" shows that there are other factors besides crime at the heart of Baltimore's problems (both real and fictional). The breakdown of the family and the horrendous urban schools are more significant than poverty itself as the source of urban decay. You would never know it, though, to hear all of the Democrats' talk of the income-inequality gap.

In one scene in "The Wire," a frail boy who was badly beaten in a street fight comes to Cutty, a former criminal, for boxing lessons and is pummeled in the ring by a smaller boy. When he cries bitterly that he's a failure "on the street," Cutty tries to comfort him, saying that the rules of the street aren't the same as those in the rest of the world. "But how do I get from here to the rest of the world?" asks the boy—who has a missing father, a drug-using mother who ignores him, and a school that teaches him nothing.

Getting from teeming urban streets to the rest of the world has been the objective of generations of city dwellers—and of urban policy. Yet the West Baltimore of "The Wire" may be more desperate, perilous and "isolating," to use Mr. Obama's word, than the worst of 19th-century slums. Those slum dwellers saw a way up and out. Characters on "The Wire" do not. Many are not even sure where "out" is, having never been beyond West Baltimore.

Even the show's longshoremen are unsure of how to get from here to the rest of the world. The days of well-paying industrial jobs are over, probably forever, the men's skills are limited, their futures dim. Their unions protected a few jobs at the cost of the overall economic health of the port, just as the public-school unions have favored teachers, including incompetent ones, over students.

The real lesson of "The Wire" is what New York's Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton understood from day one: To restore a city and its neighborhoods, fight crime successfully and everything else will start to fall into place (though New York's public schools remain deplorable). And don't wait around for federal support. Take whatever money you can find.

Instead of advocating old-time Model Cities-type programs, Mr. Obama should propose The Wire Urban Agenda: Fight crime Bratton-style and resist the unions that stand in the way of prosperity. Now that would be true audacity of hope.

Julia Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

©2008 The Wall Street Journal


Home | About MI | Scholars | Publications | Books | Links | Contact MI
City Journal | CAU | CCI | CEPE | CLP | CMP | CRD | ECNY
Thank you for visiting us.
To receive a General Information Packet, please email
and include your name and address in your e-mail message.
Copyright © 2009 Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Inc. All rights reserved.
52 Vanderbilt Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017
phone (212) 599-7000 / fax (212) 599-3494