Last summer, in the online cultural-criticism journal PopMatters, Michael Stephens examined the growing popularity of American “ghetto tourism.”
Stephens uses the term figuratively. By tourism he means the proliferation of entertainment products—gangsta rap, of course, but also video games, movies, TV—that allow middle-class consumers to traffic in the inner city without leaving the culs-de-sac.
“The demand for shows that provide a window into the ghetto—from street-real network crime shows like COPS to super-realistic cable series like The Wire—has expanded in direct proportion to the increasing safety of American middle class life,” writes Stephens in his essay, “Safe Danger and Virtual Slumming.”
“As digital media achieves more detailed simulations of reality,” he continues, “the quest for thrills mutates into a desire, not just to see bigger and better explosions, but to cross class and racial boundaries and experience other lifestyles.”
Not all ghetto tourists are satisfied with merely vicarious thrills, however realistic. International visitors to New York in the 1980s fueled a now-booming tourist industry in Harlem. In 2002, Philadelphia began offering tours of blighted inner-city neighborhoods aimed at “urban adventurers” interested in investigating cracks in the brotherly facade that run deeper than the one on the Liberty Bell. More recently, Hurricane Katrina has spawned a cottage industry of “disaster tourism” operators that take visitors on guided tours of the flood-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward, a notoriously violent, poor, and black section of New Orleans.
The disaster tours in particular have drawn complaints of exploitation and disrespect from some residents. Certainly, there is something essentially condescending about tourists gawking at the black underclass in its natural habitat, marveling at the poverty that scars cities like New Orleans, Washington, and Baltimore. But might there also be some minor virtue in the act of merely bearing personal witness to the non-natural disaster enduring in our midst?
Vince Peranio thinks there is. The art director and location scout of the Baltimore-based HBO crime series The Wire describes himself as a professional tourist of Baltimore’s most struggling neighborhoods, and says that seeing in person the show’s filming locations may offer Wire fans a perspective not available on the small screen.
“TV is really about closeups and about the actors, and so much of what I do ends up being fuzzy background,” says Peranio, who has also worked with Baltimore filmmakers John Waters and Barry Levinson. “You rarely see the big picture on TV. You never can turn around and touch anything.”
Since 1992, much of Peranio’s work has been with former Sun reporter David Simon, the man behind the television crime dramas Homicide and The Wire, and The Corner miniseries about the ravages of drug addiction among Baltimore’s poor. Though he’s been responsible for the colorful kitsch look of Waters’ movies and the gauzy nostalgia in Levinson’s Baltimoreana, Peranio jokes that he’s now “typecast as the crime art director.”
Peranio figures he’s walked every street and alley in the hardscrabble East Baltimore neighborhoods that The Wire typically uses for exteriors. (Though the show’s plots unfold mostly on the city’s west side, the production uses primarily east-side locations for street shoots, because the dearth of trees means they don’t have to schedule around seasonal changes; also, entire blocks of abandoned buildings make for a quieter set.)
Peranio agreed to design a short driving and walking tour of some of his favorite locations used in The Wire, which recently finished shooting its fourth season. The tour, which meanders through the neighborhoods of Oliver, Broadway East, and Middle East, before ending up in Greenmount West, features long stretches of barren, blighted, and crumbling rowhouses. The primary commercial activity appears to take place on street corners. It’s grim.
But for Peranio, a Baltimore native, these streets are a source of constant wonder. “It’s in the way a house looks, or the vacant lots just strewn with every type of toy and the last 50 years of effluvium,” he says. “I think you see much more of people’s lives here, exposed and raw.”
Simon says Peranio’s gift is his ability to see hope where others see despair. “In every neighborhood, Vince has been able to find elements of beauty and power with which to tell a story,” writes Simon in an e-mail. “He knows the city as someone who loves the city and he finds grandeur in unlikely places.”
Like Peranio, Simon’s words also turn lyrical when describing his affection for the neighborhoods his books and films depict. “I love the fallen grace of these places,” he writes. “While other parts of Baltimore are being reborn, the West and Eastsides are falling down beautifully.
“All that said,” Simon adds. “I’m not sure that a tour of Baltimore’s hardest-hit streets—for the sake of tourism—is a particularly healthy response to viewing The Wire. Not to come off as smug or moralistic, but if folks have that much time and loose cash on their hands, they could volunteer some of it to addressing actual inner-city problems.”
One of those inner-city problems is rampant street crime. Though Peranio says his encounters with neighborhood residents has been almost entirely pleasant—an impression confirmed during our brief ride-along with him—he strongly recommends not taking the tour alone. And don’t attempt to photograph anyone, Peranio adds. “That’s the height of rudeness.”
We don’t really anticipate the day when corner boys in East Baltimore will be selling maps to Bubbles’ garage à la Hollywood “star maps,” but neither do we see the harm in a victimless drive-by, even if the impetus is voyeurism. All looking is better than looking away.
1. Collington Square Park
(Corner of Collington Avenue and East Hoffman Street)
“This is the East Baltimore version of Federal Hill,” Peranio says. “One of my favorite views in the city.” Perched atop a hill, the large park offers sweeping vistas of the Johns Hopkins medical complex. The basketball court here was the site of the East-West game in the first season, between teams managed by east-side drug captain Proposition Joe Stewart and the west-side crew run by Avon Barksdale. The park’s grounds are also often used as locations for clandestine meetings between drug-dealer characters.
2. Behind The American Brewery Building
(1701 N. Gay St.)
Just east of Collington Square Park is the back of the old American Brewery building. Unused since 1973, the 19th-century redbrick brewery is irregularly shaped and crowned by three towers. “It’s one of the craziest pieces of architecture in Baltimore,” says Peranio, who first used the building in Homicide, as the shooting vantage of a sniper character. The overgrown lot behind the brewery has been a frequent location for Wire drug deals. “The weeds in the field look like nature taking over,” he says. “I look for that a lot when we’re picking out locations.”
3. The Rim Source
(2351 E. North Ave.)
At night, the blue neon lighting up the chrome rims in the windows of this North Avenue store make a memorable backdrop for meetings between Marlo and his colleagues in the drug trade.
4. Amsterdam (Hamsterdam)
(Behind the Great Blacks in Wax Museum at 1603 E. North Ave.)
Driving west on North Avenue, turn left onto Broadway and pull into the first alley on the right. In the third season, this site played the part of “Amsterdam,” an area where police condoned drug activity in an attempt to push dealing off the corners. Once two rows of abandoned rowhouses, it’s now a field of wild grass. “It was great because it was really scary looking and all that, but nobody was around so we really had control over it,” Peranio says. Then, with two episodes left to film, the rowhouses were torn down. Peranio had to scramble for a similar-looking location. It wasn’t too hard. “I moved down the street one block.”
5. Marlo’s Spot
(Faith Lane and Bond Street)
“This was a location that was really hard to find,” Peranio says. Indeed, Faith Lane doesn’t appear on any map we could find, though it’s clearly marked on the street. To get here from “Amsterdam,” drive south on Broadway, turn right on Gay Street, and then make a quick right again at Chase Street. Make your next right at Bond Street and park at the Faith Lane sign. On your right is a stone path leading into a creepy sunken park filled with concrete perches of various sizes, including a large bowl-shaped structure. Peranio thinks it looks like a skate park. In the new season, this is where the increasingly emboldened drug dealer Marlo holds court.
6. Drug Corners And Bulletproof Bars
(Bond Street between Biddle and Federal streets)
This tour itinerary doesn’t include stops at any particular drug-corner locations, though they are central to The Wire’s plots. That’s because they’re everywhere. “Drug corners are so easy for me to find,” Peranio says while driving back north on Bond Street. “Almost any corner in this neighborhood could be one. Every time we get a script, there’s a list of 35 places to find in five days. If it’s an alley, a bar, or a drug corner, we just say [to the crew] set up where you want, because I’ll walk up the street and find a good drug corner.” Several of the corners on this stretch of Bond were used as drug corners in the third and fourth seasons.
7. Murderland Alley
(Bethel Street between Federal and Oliver streets)
Traveling north on Bond, turn right at Federal Street and then into the first alley on the right, which is Bethel Street. About halfway down the block, on your right, is a brick wall facing a small grassy lot. Though recently painted over, this wall used to feature the graffito bodymore, murderland that appears in the show’s opening credit sequence. Known to Peranio as “Murderland Alley,” this quiet stretch has also been used by the production as a drug hangout location.
8. Bubbles’ Garage
(McAllister Street between Guilford Avenue and Hunter Street)
Once you’ve taken in scenic East Baltimore, head west on Preston Street to Greenmount Avenue, turn right, and take a left on Lanvale. (The corner of Lanvale and Barclay streets is the main drug-corner location in the fourth season.) From Barclay, make a left onto Lafayette, a right on Guilford Avenue, and then an immediate left into the unmarked alley, which is McAllister Street. The second garage on your left is the TV home of Bubbles, the lovable junkie snitch; on your right, there’s a makeshift memorial of teddy bears strung up on a chain fence. “I find [memorials] incredibly interesting,” Peranio says. “Because it’s local history. It’s people expressing their grief, you know, and I think any kind of creativity and trying to tell a story about your neighborhood is important.” He lingers over the teddy bears. “These little guys have been on this fence, behind this vacant house, for a year, and no one has touched it or messed it up.”
9. Primary School No. 32
(1634 N. Guilford Ave.)
To end your tour on a somewhat redemptive note, pause at the former Mildred Monroe Elementary School at the corner of Guilford Avenue and Federal Street in Greenmount West. The original structure, as Primary School No. 32, was built in the 1890s. Shuttered five summers ago, the vacant school served as a central exterior and interior location for The Wire this season, which focuses partly on four young children. “It was badly vandalized inside,” Peranio says, “The windows were broken, everything that was metal was torn out of it and sold for scrap. We painted it, did new murals, and set all the classrooms up and the cafeteria, and it became one of our main stages.” In the fall of 2007, the school is scheduled to reopen as a private Catholic academy for low-income students.