I'm standing on the corner of O'Donnell and Linwood Street in Baltimore's hip Canton area with Proposition Joe, the city's most notorious drug dealer. We've just finished lunch at Mama's on the Half Shell seafood restaurant and, as we wait for our other dining companion to finish his cigarette, a passer-by on the opposite side of the street stops in his tracks, breaks into a broad grin and shouts, "Yo! Prop Joe."
"It happens all the time," Joe tells me with a resigned shrug. So, how come a violent criminal is greeted with such warmth everywhere he goes? In reality, Joe is the actor Robert F Chew, cast member of acclaimed TV series The Wire which is partly shot on location in Baltimore. Our companion is Vince Peranio, the show's production designer.
A newly converted and dedicated fan of the show, I've come to Baltimore on a pilgrimage. You could call The Wire a police drama, but that wouldn't do justice to its epic, novel-like structure that spans the show's five seasons, or the superb writing and wonderful ensemble cast. In telling the complex story of how a wire-tapping police unit cracks a drug ring, the show uncovers the reality of modern urban American and makes a star of the city, in all its ragged glory. And that's the Baltimore that Chew and Peranio have agreed to show me.
As much of the action takes place in the city's open drug markets – run-down neighbourhoods where every other "rowhouse" (terrace) is boarded up and vacant – I had questioned the morality of making the trip. Was I just a thrill-seeking ghetto tourist enjoying a (not so cheap) holiday in other people's misery. Or would looking past the superficial gloss of the renovated Inner Harbour area, with its flashy hotels and bars, into the city's dark heart make me an inquisitive and concerned traveller?
Although the Baltimore Museum of Industry is displaying costumes and props from the show in its Featuring The Wire exhibit until the end of 2008, there is no official Wire tour or even guide map.
"I think the city is a little reserved about sending tourists into these neighbourhoods," says Peranio, who has walked the streets numerous times scouting for locations. "At night, they can be very dangerous places, but in daylight hours I've never had a problem. Just respect the community. Don't take photographs of the people and be streetwise."
As we drive along Caroline Street, the affluent Canton and Fells Point areas close to the harbour give way to Oliver in the deprived north-east of the city. We stop the car and walk over to a 1960s concrete skate park, immediately recognisable as young-gun drug dealer Marlo Stansfield's "lair" from season three. It's shabby, neglected and backs on to a row of overgrown backyards, but I couldn't be more excited if I were standing in front of the pyramids.
Peranio points up to the broken first-floor window of a house on the opposite side of the street, used as a police stake-out in the show. "That's actually plexi-glass; we had to replace the real broken window for the safety of the actors," he tells me.
The street corners are mostly quiet; the teenage dealers yelling "Pandemic" (a "brand name" narcotic), familiar from the show, are nowhere to be seen. "We're a little early for that," says Chew, who explains that the market operates roughly between 6pm and 3am. "But we just drove past a dealer. The real addicts are out 24/7 looking for drugs."
We head east for four blocks to Wolfe Street and stop opposite a makeshift car-wash and "snowball" stand that sells the sweet, shaved ice drink that's popular in the city. A group of dilapidated buildings that was the Baltimore Lighting Depot proved to be a perfect drug gang hideout for the show.
"One of the reasons this place looked so great to me, in that it was so bleak and run-down, is that this neighbourhood is going through big changes. Blocks and blocks have been torn down since our show was filmed," says Peranio.
We drive west along Eager Street; a bulldozer stands idle on a chequerboard of flattened brown dirt that marks out where the rowhouses of one of Baltimore's busiest drugs markets once stood. Peranio tells me that Johns Hopkins University is to build a new biotech lab on the land. "There are a lot of plans to rejuvenate what's left of this neighbourhood and I pray that it happens," he says.
As we continue west, Peranio tells me to look out of the nearside window. We pass by the short residential streets that spur off East Preston Street, and I see the gravestones in Greenmount Cemetery that provide the portentous backdrop for a number of memorable Wire scenes.
Carlton C Douglas Funeral Services on McCulloh Street served as the base of operations for drug dealers Avon Barksdale and Russell "Stringer" Bell, the two central figures of the show's first three seasons. My excitement at seeing such a key location soon fades when Peranio tells me that in real life, the funeral home deals with many of the youngest victims of the city's drug trade.
Our final stop, the McCulloh homes housing project on Druid Hill Avenue is where the story of The Wire begins. The "low rise" homes arranged around an unkempt central square is the Pit drug market where D'Angelo Barksdale and his drug crew hang out on the now famous (among fans at least) al fresco orange sofa.
The high-rise apartments that loom above the Pit turn out not to be the drug-infested tower block depicted in the show, but a respectable retirement home.
"Every two or three weeks for a year and half when we shot here, we had a day to dress the first four storeys with wire cages around the balconies, graffiti and trash, a day to film, then a day to clean it all up again," says Peranio.
It's the end of a fascinating tour and I'm surprised by my reaction. Expecting to feel guilty for peering into less fortunate lives for my own amusement, I'm actually elated. The unfettered, brutal reality of The Wire has got under my skin like no other show on TV and getting close to The Wire has been an experience I'll never forget.
How to get there
Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; virginatlantic.com) flies to Washington Dulles Airport from £414 return. Andy Lynes stayed at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel (001 410 547 1200; marriott.com), where a double room costs from $359 (£180) per night.
Baltimore Museum of Industry (001 410 727 4808; thebmi.org).
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