No matter how truthful or preposterous they are, images in the media have a tendency to shape our opinions of places (see: my posts about Detroit). Think of newspaper articles, internet memes and highway ads, painting singular representations of the cities and countries around us—locations that we might never visit but which we imagine we know something about just because we’ve looked at their pictures. Moreover, when we move past still images and words to films and television shows, the imaginary depiction of a specific place can truly run wild. What does anyone know about Portland anymore, outside of the amusements put on by Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen in Portlandia? How could someone conceive of a Fargo that isn’t brimming with hot dish and exaggerated Midwestern accents as portrayed in the Coen Brother’s movie, Fargo?
I enjoy these humorous tales as much as the next person, but I’m also wary of the tale they tell, especially because they refer to cities that are off the beaten path for many Americans. These depictions are different from the myriad illustrations of London or Los Angeles, for example, because such films and TV shows might be the only thing we ever learn about these places.
The Wire is a show that falls solidly in this narrative category. For those who haven’t seen it: The Wire tells the story of cops and drug dealers in the heart of Baltimore and it is, without a doubt, one of the most brilliant shows ever created. It has had a more profound impact on me than any television series I can think of, and, as a filmmaker I take that designation very seriously. But in spite of The Wire’s masterpiece, its role as the most prominent media portrayal of Baltimore should be critically examined. I’d hazard a guess that 90% of Americans who haven’t been to Baltimore would immediately reference The Wire if you asked them to tell you about the city. They’d paint you a picture of needles littering the ground, gun shots on every corner and race relations so tense you could feel them crackle in the air. However, the mere twenty-four hours I spent there last weekend expanded my mindset well beyond these images, convincing me once and for that the world of The Wire should not be taken as a definitive portrayal of Baltimore.
Here’s what I encountered in my visit to Charm City:
- Free public buses with service to a sizeable portion of the town.
- Small pockets of shops and restaurants, which made strolling down the streets a pleasant, inviting activity.
- A bustling harbor district and a charming historic neighborhood on the waterfront.
- College campuses that melded with their surroundings, while still creating designated educational spaces.
- Colorful New England row houses.
- Boarded up buildings covered in vibrant graffiti (Yes, I know this is a cliché of economically depressed cities, but I couldn’t ignore their presence and the way they signified ownership.)
- Those famed Baltimore accents! They’re real.
- An underground music scene to which you have to know secret passwords and access points in order to discover (or so my brother told me).
- A hub of transportation for goods and people on the East Coast.
- A city with space to breathe but plenty to do.
I’m confident that if I spent more time in Baltimore, I’d discover new things every day. My brother, who attends college there, took me on a grand tour of the city in just twenty-four hours, and when I mentioned my surprise at how much there was to do, he said he felt he had a lot left to explore himself. Photographs and movies can only teach us so much before these cities demand our presence beyond a limited narrative. I believe that new worlds exist in every city beneath the layers built up by popular imagery.