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Baltimore: As bleak as it's painted?

Baltimore was immortalised – and made notorious – by The Wire. But there's more to the city than crooks and hustlers

The wind whistles down an alleyway where washing flutters, and over the low hill that sits in the centre of the grassy McCullough Homes courtyard. Low-rise brick flats surround the knoll on three sides, a tower block guards the other like a sentry. The scene is instantly recognisable. Much of the first season of the ground-breaking TV show The Wire was filmed here, in the public housing scheme dubbed "The Pit".

It's a crisp morning in Baltimore; unseasonably cold. It's quiet, too. "Everyone's either in bed or at school," says my no-nonsense guide Charley Armstrong. He smirks. "It gets livelier later." As The Wire's location manager, Armstrong knows Baltimore's tougher districts – he was the person who scouted the locations where the show was shot.

It's 10 years since production on the lauded show began. But during that decade has "Charm City" changed for better or worse? David Simon, the creator of the show, extrapolated Baltimore's myriad problems and predicted the portents for the entire country. The Wire shows civic life sliding off the edge of the cliff. In cities from Las Vegas to Detroit, especially since 2008, the fibres in America's previously cosy socio-economic scarf have been unravelling. But Baltimore was in the doldrums long before the rest of the country and perhaps now this is a city on the way back. Armstrong and I hop in a white minibus and head into some of America's poorest neighbourhoods. "They don't like these white vans here," he deadpans. "When a bunch of people jump out they yell '5-0' just like in the show." We pass Prop Joe's TV repair shop and the Barksdale drug cartel's HQ, then stop off at the skatepark that became Marlo's iconic lair – the concrete ramps where the young gangster held court. But it's the abandoned row houses across the road that really take your breath away.

The sight of whole streets of vacant properties is truly striking. There are still 16,000 empty properties in Baltimore. The city is trying to encourage people to buy them as family homes – if you promise to live there rather than renting the place out you can bag a $5,000 bargain. It's a tough sell even at this price. Depopulation, unemployment, ad hoc racial segregation, crime and corruption all sucked the life out of Baltimore. These gritty neighbourhoods still bear the scars.

The houses in the so-called "Hamsterdam" zone were torn down by the City, who said they were a danger. So Armstrong had to find another set of abandoned houses – it wasn't hard. At the second, and intact, Hamsterdam location, Charley and I ask some local men if they'd like to speak or have their photos taken for this story. They refuse. They're not in the mood to be bit-part players in an out-of-town hack's surface-scratch of their lifelong home. "It's takes time to build up that trust," he says. But some shoots have sprouted. Armstrong takes me to the Station North district, where arts organisations have been moving in – along with young people. He points at a new apartment block. "That building is on the site of some abandoned houses. Slowly but surely the city is coming back." Over coffee in Baltimore's new Hilton Hotel, Monee Cottman tells me what else the new city has to offer. "We have the Indy Car Grand Prix street circuit. That is a big deal." Cottman works for Visit Baltimore, a bit like rearranging deckchairs on The Titanic. I bring the conversation back to urban deprivation and The Wire. She rolls her eyes. "It's always the first sentence of any article," she tuts.

In partnership with the hotel, the city authorities have invited British journalists to come and see Baltimore. They want to show off their museums and gentrified waterfronts. They're jumpy about the stark images on TV putting visitors off. They're not right on that one – watching The Wire makes you feel like you're beginning to understand this fascinating city. And then you can't be afraid any longer. The Wire could equally have been set anywhere in the Rust Belt, but as David Simon was a reporter on the Baltimore Sun, he chose Baltimore.

Other TV shows are coming here now. I watch a film crew shooting scenes for HBO's Veep. The new Armando Iannucci satire, the US remake of The Thick Of It, stars Seinfeld's Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Baltimore is doubling for Washington DC, less than an hour away. "Baltimore hasn't changed,"says journalist Bruce Goldfarb, who's written for The Baltimore Sun. "It faces the same problems of all big cities – a growing divide between the haves and have-nots. Baltimore is a remarkable city – tolerant, diverse, vibrant. It's a big city with a small-town feel."

Down at the tarted-up harbour, among a mish-mash of postmodern office blocks, museums and touristy kitsch, it's obvious how loudly money talks. Baltimore had it once, then when the heavy industries and railway yards packed up, the city was out of the game. The point David Simon makes in the show is that, in the US, ultimately, you have to look after number one. American capitalism, the show says – whether it's practised by media corporations or drug dealers – is ruthless.

One final surprise lurks beside the frumpy harbourfront buildings: a small Occupy Baltimore camp. A few dozen activists are making coffee and uploading photos to their laptops. In the corner lies a pile of hand-painted signs. One reads: "Charm City aches." Like all aches it's hard to know when it will ease. But – eventually – aches go away and you get healthy again. Baltimore might just be on the slow road to recovery.