City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Journal: A simulated Baltimore

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The Believer published a fascinating interview with David Simon, creator of the magisterial TV show The Wire.

Among the many intriguing insights delivered in the interview, the following passage struck me as particularly interesting, in the context of a day job increasingly concerned with formulating simulations of cities, and particularly urban models which begin to layer in the more intangible aspects of city life, such as culture and creativity.

"The show would instead be about untethered capitalism run amok, about
how power and money actually route themselves in a postmodern American
city, and, ultimately, about why we as an urban people are no longer
able to solve our problems or heal our wounds. Early in the conception
of the drama, Ed Burns and I—as well as the late Bob Colesberry, a
consummate filmmaker who served as the directorial producer and created
the visual template for The Wire—conceived
of a show that would, with each season, slice off another piece of the
American city, so that by the end of the run, a simulated Baltimore
would stand in for urban America, and the fundamental problems of
urbanity would be fully addressed

"First season: the dysfunction of the drug war and the general
continuing theme of self-sustaining postmodern institutions devouring
the individuals they are supposed to serve or who serve them. Second
season: the death of work and the destruction of the American working
class in the postindustrial era, for which we added the port of
Baltimore. Third season: the political process and the possibility of
reform, for which we added the City Hall component. Fourth season:
equal opportunity, for which we added the public-education system. The
fifth and final season will be about the media and our capacity to
recognize and address our own realities, for which we will add the
city’s daily newspaper and television components."

"Did we mention these grandiose plans to HBO at the beginning? No, they
would have laughed us out of the pitch meeting. Instead, we spoke only
to the inversion of the cop show and a close examination of the drug
war’s dysfunction. But before shifting gears to the port in season two,
I sat down with the HBO execs and laid out the argument to begin
constructing an American city and examining the above themes through
that construction. So here we are." {David Simon, The Believer, my emphasis]

A constant theme here has been how the cultural aspects of a city inform the sense of what a city is, and can be. Hence my interest in films about cities, songs about cities, writing about cities, games about cities, music scenes in cities, and so on. These all seem to be useful – or at least evocative – in terms of understanding a city, and are usually lacking in any analytical models of cities, and certainly from most urban planning and governance processes. Something we're trying to change. But it's fascinating to hear Simon describing his particular art as "constructing an American city."

Interview with David Simon [The Believer]
[via TAFKAB]


5 responses to “Journal: A simulated Baltimore”

  1. Michael Sippey Avatar

    Holy cow, this is good. Thanks for posting the lengthy excerpt, and the link. Much appreciated.


  2. Robert Avatar

    If by recently you mean over a year ago… but it is good stuff.


  3. Dan Hill Avatar

    Good point RE “recently” Robert – I’ll fix that. I guess I’m now conflating published date with the time period that a few mates noticed it.
    Also, for those interested in the Baltimore featured in series 2, check Fred Sharman’s sketch using shipping containers to define blocks, units (download the PDF).


  4. Fred Scharmen Avatar

    Thanks for the link, Dan.
    I wanted to comment on another aspect of Simon’s simulation: he’s simulating Baltimore in Baltimore, but the places he shows aren’t quite where (and what) he implies they are.
    Many of the stories are set on the west side, but filmed on the east side. The container terminal, for one thing, is in reality all the way across the harbor from the working class neighborhood with the grain pier, where Simon’s longshoreman live.
    The empty houses and weedy alleys are mostly located in an area that’s been designated an ‘Arts District’ by the city, and increasingly occupied by the middle class.
    Another example: the bridge in that still at the top of your post is about 5 blocks from where I’m sitting at home now. There’s a really nice seafood restaurant, and a place to take out kayaks, I was thinking of riding my bike there this afternoon.
    I’m not sure what it means, or if it’s even interesting to a nonresident, but the series has a weird overlay effect when you’re on the ground here.
    It reminds me a lot of your post from a few years ago about GTA and the West Side beach neighborhoods of Los Angeles. I lived in Venice, CA for a year too, and that feeling of mediation, simulation, and dislocation is exactly the same.


  5. max Avatar

    Excellent spot. Two brief points to add to the chat … 1) This is classic Marxian analysis in the vein of Marx’s principle of ‘return to the concrete’, or more recently the work of David Harvey (another Baltimore resident, incidentally). Harvey’s intro to ‘The Urban Experience’ sets out more or less the same aim, to understand ‘the fundamental problems of urbanity’. 2) Simon et al go further than the academic here – Harvey largely contents himself with a high-level structuralist framework and a few references from Dickens and Zola, whereas the Wire actually works upwards from street level to construct a complete system for understanding everyday urban life.


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