In 2002, former Baltimore Sun journalist David Simon exposed the world to the streets of Baltimore — the corners, the cops and the crooked politicians — with the critically acclaimed HBO series The Wire. Some think it stained public perception of Baltimore (several politicians publicly disowned the series), but Simon used the city as a template for a universal narrative, one that plagues inner-cities nationwide. He's also managed to infuse the local economy with around $300 million dollars with his three Baltimore-based shows, The Wire, The Corner and Homicide, and founded a non-profit program dedicated to the development of West Baltimore youth. Now, 10 years later, the MacArthur Genius splits his time between his urban muse and New Orleans (the setting for his latest HBO series Treme) but found a moment to chat with Go about the city he calls home.
You live in Baltimore and New Orleans... "My permanent life is in Baltimore. I love ordinary Baltimore stuffthat's neighborhood based — the one very strong thing about Baltimore is its local places — pedestrian things that hold the community together like corner bars and diners. It's a very livable city if you are in the America that didn't get left behind. I have great affection for the municipal markets and smaller satellite markets."
Both your cities are known for their quirks. How is Baltimore different from New Orleans? "Sometimes when I come home and go to places I haven't seen in months I remember how wonderful those places are — like Charleston's or all of Cindy's [chef Cindy Wolf] restaurants and Petit Louis and Cinghiale, a great Northern Italian place. One of the best Afghan restaurants in the country is in Baltimore and run by Harmid Karzai's brother."
But New Orlean's food is legendary. "They know how to do seafood really well in New Orleans, but they ruin the blue crabs, so Maryland's got them beat. You absolutely have to steam them. Last year, we had a crab-offon the Treme set, and you know what? The steamed crabs Baltimore-style were all gone. Devoured."
How has Baltimore changed since The Wire? "It's changed in incremental ways. Most of the areas in The Wire have been economically devalued even beyond the point of when I wrote about them. Other parts of the city are entirely viable now, like South Baltimore, North Baltimore. We built two Americas and they co-exist uncomfortably side-by-side."
You created one of the most unlikely and beloved anti-heroes in television history, one that President Obama recently claimed as his favorite character — Omar. "Omar is a romantic figure. We made him a mythical figure; he was definitely written with film iconography and story telling in mind. We were dealing with archetypes that were very powerful, but we never expected him to connect the way he did with the audience."
You paint a pretty bleak picture of Baltimore. "I'm hoping that, politically, the show proves to be hyperbolic and that the American future is different than what we're covering — I wouldn't mind being wrong. I want to see the game on Sunday too. That's part of living in Baltimore, every year it's plausible to believe in the Ravens and every year we close our eyes and hope that the Orioles have enough pitching."
But you're not the first to use Baltimore as a muse... "There's a lot of story telling in Baltimore — some of it has elements of truth and a lot of wit. Barry Levinson's Baltimore is no less real in its story telling — his movies Diner and Avalon, they are of a time, and John Waters (Hairspray) is a delight! He may be the greatest unlikely champion of Baltimore's idiosyncrasies; he captures something different about Baltimore. And if you have read anything by Ann Tyler, she's nailed the blue blooded Baltimore. These are all parts of Baltimore — The Wire was not all of Baltimore, I'd never claim it was."
You were named a MacArthur Fellow last year, why do you think they awarded it to you? "Initially, a lawyer called and left a message, so I thought I was going to be sued by someone, I expected that someone would claim I had hit a dog or I had a teenage son I didn't know about. So, I didn't call back right away. Eventually, I called and gritted my teeth and waited. When she explained what happened I thought 'this is hilarious.' I'm ashamed about the money because I'm doing well, but wanted to do something in the spirit of the gift. I realized that the MacArthur made it possible to credibly argue stories that should be on television. My audiences are marginal, but there's a little bit of gravitas that the MacArthur thing gave me."