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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Sales Assistant

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This airport parking organisation are looking...

    Recruitment Genius: PCV Bus Drivers

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Do you enjoy bus driving and are looking for ...

    Day In a Page

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project