What We Learn from ‘The Wire’

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TV series set in Baltimore provides context for course taught by Carey faculty member

By Toby Gordon

The typical response to the question many of us in Baltimore hear from outsiders – “Is Baltimore just like The Wire?” – basically amounts to a defensive lecture on the merits of the city and the damage The Wire has done to our reputation. And yet I would argue that the television series has been more helpful than harmful, something I learned from teaching a Carey Business School class based on the show.

The Wire first aired on HBO almost 15 years ago and went off the air in 2008. It has enjoyed an afterlife and fan base far greater than during its original air time. This was indicated in part by an event this year at Columbia University in New York, where I joined a group of academics, actors, musicians, journalists, and other professionals at a conference on how The Wire has made an impact on our respective fields, on public policy, and on the national discourse about social justice.

At the show’s start in 2002, David Simon and his gifted writers, actors, and producers could not have imagined that more than 30 colleges in the United States would someday offer courses on The Wire in fields such as sociology, literature, law, criminal justice, public health, and business.

My calling to teach The Wire came naturally. I was born in Baltimore and educated in the city’s public schools. I raised my family here, studied public health, and worked at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. As a Carey faculty member, I have wanted my students to understand that they could make a difference in the life and future of the city by being better informed about it, using the skills and tools learned in business school, and then finding a way to contribute that would be meaningful and in partnership with folks in the city.

In my class, we use The Wire as a case study of the “social determinants of health” so common in our city – environmental hazards, stressful living conditions, unemployment, addiction, poor schooling. Urban life as depicted in the show makes the point better than any text – that old orange sofa in The Pit, a seeming repository of urban pollutants, a vector for causes of the high rates of asthma in our city; the significant morbidity and mortality from trauma and gun violence; the drug trade and drug use that correlate with the surge in heroin deaths and the high rates of “the bug,” HIV.

My students design innovative yet feasible solutions to these urban ills, addressing food deserts through new modes of delivery of fresh produce, tackling addiction issues by expanding distribution of naloxone for opioid overdoses, designing safe injection sites for addicts so as to prevent infection and overdosing, and offering novel job training programs and after-school initiatives that include sports and college-prep activities.

We may not like the way Baltimore is depicted in the news or on fictional albeit realistic TV shows, but we should rejoice in the tremendous energy and assets in our community, especially in response to last year’s unrest. We are beginning to see how we can each play a part in shaping a new future for the city; it is not as hopeless as David Simon may have portrayed it.

My own contribution is in the classroom, where students largely from somewhere other than Charm City ache and weep over the issues and inequities found here and then aspire to make the city better, thanks to The Wire’s humanizing of the drug users, the drug dealers, the children in failing schools, and the adults in failing institutions. With humanity in mind, we are able to see that the way forward is to move past the manifestations of the social determinants of health and attack the root causes.

Toby Gordon is an associate professor at the Carey Business School, with joint faculty appointments at JHU’s Bloomberg School of Public Health and School of Medicine. This piece originally ran in a slightly different version last April on the op-ed page of The Baltimore Sun.

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