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One Class, One Day: Lessons from The Wire

Students mine series for insights into cities’ social construction


Don Gillis (left) with Jamie Hector, who played Marlo Stanfield, and Gbenga Akinnagbe, who played Chris Partlow, on The Wire. Photos courtesy of Don Gillis and by Cydney Scott

As an African American from San Antonio, Tex., aspiring urban planner Lauren Williams didn’t realize how little she knew about low-income city life and the racial issues that often infuse it. Until she took a seat this semester in Don Gillis’ new course, The City in the Media: The Sociology of HBO’s The Wire.

“I believed that I was well versed in the black-white urban culture,” says Williams (MET’11). “But The Wire and Michael Patrick MacDonald’s book All Souls exposed me to a level of ‘urban’ that I never knew existed.”

Over the course of the semester, Williams and fellow students watched all 60 hourlong episodes of the critically acclaimed urban drama. They also read, among other texts, MacDonald’s 2000 memoir of growing up in a poor Irish family in the South Boston projects in the 1970s. The thinking behind the class, says Gillis (GRS’13), an adjunct faculty member in City Planning and Urban Affairs program at Metropolitan College, was to pierce the so-called BU bubble, where many students dwell while on campus. “BU students spend four years in Boston and many have very little understanding of the major issues,” he says.

The HBO series, set in Baltimore, ran for five seasons, from 2002 to 2008. Created by one-time Baltimore Sun crime reporter David Simon and former Baltimore homicide detective Ed Burns, The Wire probes inner city life from all sides, starting with the drug trade, moving on to unions and the working poor, city politics, public education, and the media. Infused with gritty dialogue, the show was lauded for its authenticity and nuanced exploration of social issues, including the inner workings of police and criminal gangs. Many of the characters are composites of real-life Baltimore figures, and the show’s cast members were largely unknowns, some with their own street-hardened backgrounds.

The Wire is a perfect text, better than any scholarly journal or book,” says Gillis, who is also executive director of the Massachusetts Workforce Board Association. “The show raised issues that if you look around are issues that we’re facing today—the change in the economy, going from manufacturing to service. We have 15 million people unemployed and the only ones making money are the corporations that aren’t putting people to work.”

After The Wire went off the air, sociology and law departments at a handful of colleges and universities, such as Johns Hopkins, Middlebury, Harvard, and Duke, began offering courses on the show. The Wire has even trickled down to high school curriculums and leapt over the pond to lecture halls in England.

At one class meeting this spring, at the Fuller Building at 808 Comm Ave, Gillis guided the students through the evolution of public housing in the United States, from its post-Depression-era roots as housing for the working class to the contemporary dwelling place of “the savage urban other.” His students had just started watching season three of The Wire, which opens with the demolition of one of the public high rises controlled by Avon Barksdale’s gang, which pushes his drug dealers onto the streets and into previously untouched areas, leading to a bloody turf war.

“What it’s signaling is the change in both the physical structure and the social structure of that community,” Gillis says, walking over to the desk holding his laptop.

He puts up on the screen a slide showing the Pruitt Igoe housing development in St. Louis, Mo., a massive collection of high rises built in the 1950s. Over the years, Gillis says, Pruitt Igoe became symbolic of everything wrong with public housing—its disconnect from the surrounding community, drugs, violence. The complex was demolished 18 years after construction, the first major destruction of a public housing development. He noted that Columbia Point, one of Boston’s first housing projects, was built on the city dump at Harbor Point.

Brian Corbett (MET’11) says public housing around the country grew into vertical warehousing for the poor, with green areas paved over for ease of maintenance and little for children to do other than play with the elevators until they broke down.

“In Chicago, it seemed like the politicians wanted to keep public housing primarily in the slum areas and out of the white neighborhoods, keep them out of sight,” he says. “It doesn’t seem like there was a lot of planning of how to accommodate for children and things like that.”

Later, Gillis asks what responsibility lies with the government in responding to social needs like housing, employment, and income support.

“Those are some of the questions that I think David Simon tries to raise in the series,” he says. “He’s saying we’re a bankrupt country because we don’t really focus on these issues. We let the housing deteriorate, we let these things go on in these communities, people shooting one another. What are we really doing about this as a country?”

The next month, some of his students got the chance to hear from Simon himself. As one of the first universities to teach The Wire, Harvard Law School hosted a panel discussion featuring the series cocreator and members of the cast, as well Donnie Andrews, the real-life inspiration for renegade gangster Omar Little, played by Michael Williams. Gillis’ class was invited. Several of the show’s actors were so affected by their experience that they launched nonprofits aimed at remedying urban poverty in Baltimore and other cities.

“In my opinion the most passionate speaker was Sonja Sohn, the actress who played Baltimore police officer Kima Greggs,” says Elise Kulik (CAS’11). “While speaking about her nonprofit, a community center in East Baltimore called the Village House, she emphasized the importance of paying attention to people because ‘that which we pay attention to grows.’”

Kulik says Sohn and the show have made a deep impact on her thinking and how she wants to spend her professional and personal life.

“I have to offer my time and talent to address these issues in whatever city I live in next,” she says. “Not necessarily out of duty, but because The Wire gave faces to the crime statistics and high school dropouts, serving as a reminder that the ramifications of poverty, segregation, brokenness, racism, and poor education happen to real people—people deserving of my attention and sacrifice.”

Gillis will teach MET UA 403: Boston Urban Seminar in fall 2011, focusing on Bostons people and neighborhoods.

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