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The Wire at Ten: Stanley Corkin, Drugs and The Ecology of the Ghetto

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s Note: Following up on Sergio Campos’s meditation on the narrative manifestations of “subordination” in HBO’s The Wire, Points today welcomes Stanley Corkin of the University of Cincinnati’s English Department.  Recipient of a PhD in American Studies from NYU in the days before that school was fashionable (full disclosure: I was an undergraduate there at the same time, but our cronyism remained nascent until just recently), Corkin is the author of Starring New York: Filming the Grime and Glamour of the Long 1970s (Oxford, 2011) and Cowboys as Cold Warriors: The Western and U.S. History (Temple,2004). His post today is drawn from his forthcoming book, The Wire: Space, Race, and the Wonders of Post-Industrial Baltimore (Texas, 2013).

How you expect to run with the wolves come night, when you spend all day sporting wit’ the puppies? — Omar, Season Four

Over its five seasons, The Wire, among other things, delineated the terms of ghetto life in Baltimore, showing us in dramatic detail a self-contained sector of West Baltimore, a world defined by the term “hyper-segregation,” which references class as well as race.


“Key Factors Effecting the Elasticity of Demand Include What?”

In such a self-contained space, overall wealth tends to be finite: if someone is getting more, then someone else is getting less. And in that world of restricted space and opportunity, the drug trade stands at the center of economic activity, since only illicit commerce can thrive in a place that is so geographically isolated. This limit of commodity and geographic market sets up a fierce and violent competition for both status and wealth.  As even Stringer Bell learns, it’s not just about product, it’s also about corners, since even a superior product cannot find its market if it has no access to those who would buy it. In such a vision of a specific and constrained environment, it is no surprise that eventually the emphasis of the show moves toward a neo-Social Darwininism through its exploration of the contours of human ecology within the spaces of West Baltimore.

This focus takes many forms. In the picturesque quote above, Omar explains how he feels about “finding” a bag of heroin when he’s out looking for Honey Nut Cheerios.  He expresses disappointment at the ease of his acquisition, elaborating further, “It’s not what you take, but who you take it from.”  As one who has dedicated his life to feeding off of those who feed off others, Omar’s assertion shows his attention to the “food chain:” he seeks to feed at its highest point.  For Omar, larceny is not necessarily about what he has gained; rather, it is also about the place of the local scale of fitness of those he has stolen from and therefore his acquisition of status through his targeted act of theft.


Haeckel: “Evolutionary Polygenism” = Scientific Racism

Ecology itself is a concept that traces back to the German zoologist/Darwinist Ernest Haeckel, who coined the term in 1866. Haeckel was referring to the relationships between animals and their world, a vision of natural systems in a defined space but one which could also include humans, since Haeckel, like his contemporary Herbert Spencer, sought to develop a unifying concept—a field theory–of the natural world.  The term also has a deep structure, via Haeckel, that leads back to late-19th century race theory, since in this vision of the fight for resources, those who “won” did so because of their more “fit” biology.  The concept of “human” ecology largely stems from the early-twentieth century sociologist Robert Park, who was not ultimately a social Darwinist , but who attempted to develop a method for systematically understanding and analyzing human social life.  The use of this trope here, a reference that occurs many times within the season, seems to offer an explicit historical connection to the late 19th century, a temporal link to shed light on the ways in which the tenets of laissez-faire and biological fitness have reemerged as guiding principles of social life.

Rather than emphasizing the artifice of the police-created Hamsterdam, as in Season Three, in Season Four the ghetto we see seems organic, though it is indeed human created. That is, the condition of segregation that has as its basis the historically based de jure and de facto separation by race which became urban practice in the twentieth century, and which became even more entrenched by the intra-racial divisions of class that were a product of the economic and social policies of the era that immediately followed 1964—deindustrialization, neoliberalism, as well as a related return to the conservative legal principles that reigned in the pre-Civil Rights era.  Indeed, a common colloquial description of the effects of the Civil Rights movement has it providing access to the freeway just when the on-ramps were closing. And in Season Four’s vision of Baltimore, the on-ramps are nowhere to be found.

The primary way in which people define their place on the food chain is through their connection to the wealth that derives from the drug trade.  As a commodity, drugs are the item that fills the place where all other types of commerce used to proliferate. When Namond and his mother are removed from the Barksdale payroll, she pushes him to the corner as a full-time drug dealer. When Michael apprentices in a career, he goes to work in the drug trade. When Sherrod disappears, Bubbles finds him on a stoop working for a drug seller. When drug dealers  from New York attempt to develop a Baltimore presence, Snoop and Chris enforce Marlo’s preeminence, as they do throughout the season, thus maintaining their boss’s control over the   local market. Drugs seem to be the only commodity that creates significant profit in the community at large, though their effect seems to redistribute wealth rather than to create it. As Bodie loses, Marlo gains. As a confirmation of his place at the top of the food chain, he offers gifts, money for kids in his orbit to buy items for returning to school–all in order that the streets make his “name ring out.”

Urban Education, as practiced in this dramatization is an important aspect of Simon’s deep ecology of the ghetto. Education might be a means to upward mobility: historically, it has enabled important elements of immigrant populations and their heirs to improve their social and economic standing. But, as practiced in the early twenty-first century, it becomes another means of reinforcing isolation. True to the ecological concept of a permeable but constrained system defined spatially,  the Baltimore city schools exemplify an institution that has become extrinsic to the space of the ghetto but which, in order to become effective, must become more intrinsic. And in becoming more intrinsic, they might become part of the problem of spatial segregation in yet a different way.  When Prez is most successful in reaching his students, he teaches them probabilities, employing craps as his teaching tool. But Randy learns not the broader lesson of probabilities, but the narrower one of how to win at dice, enhancing his wealth by winning from others in his neighborhood, leaving us to wonder if this applied instructional mode loses the forest completely as it focuses on very specific trees.

Who Moved My Cheese?

“Who Moved My Cheese?”

But more than defining this slice of the world as other than normatively middle class, Season Four defines it as a place of enhanced competition and violence. Marlo’s amoral approach to business and money makes contextual sense, since his aspirations are not a matter of expanding his market but rather in maximizing market share. He is the businessman as a literalist. The entire world he knows or needs to know is that right in front of him: when he confronts Andre in the rim shop, after Andre’s stash has been stolen by Omar, he is not interested in hearing about the analogies between West Baltimore and the post-9/11 world.  He tells Andre, in a close two shot, that he is responsible for replacing the stolen goods. Marlo’s goal is to control drug commerce in the world as he knows it. He understands violence as the ultimate guarantor of his success, so his hench-people, Chris and Snoop, kill, not out of sadism, but for the ends of commerce. Marlo is a big fish who is ever-eager to devour the smaller fish.

That Simon’s vision of the 2000s should connect with that of a late nineteenth century social Darwinist is indeed revealing. It takes little imagination to see that the contemporary rhetoric of the deserving rich and its complement of the undeserving poor are deeply embedded in US society, and Simon mobilizes that specific rhetoric throughout the five seasons. Season Four’s sprawling narrative may allow us to see how failing schools reconfirm spatial segregation and the ghetto, and that the proliferation of drugs in the same spaces has a kind of social sense.  Heroin is like other commodities, as Stringer Bell found out in his economics class; but it is also unlike shoes and phones and cars in that its effects on a community can be profound. The alternatives to the drug trade become Bubble’s shopping cart “depo,”  a level of enterprise that also harks back to the 19th century, when immigrant entrepreneurs pushed their carts through the chaotic urban streets in hopes of one day opening a store with doors and walls. But Bubbles finds only a bigger fish robbing him and beating him, and an ineffectual police presence unable to secure his place at the low-end of capitalist enterprise. Namond Brice finally does find a means of extrication from this world: in a telling recapitulation of the Horatio Alger rags-to-respectability story, he is adopted by the middle-class Colvins and is freed from his fate as a corner boy.  And if Namond’s deliverance is the very slim margin of hope, then the cultural logic of “running with the wolves” is all but confirmed.


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