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

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.

caption
“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. 

Read more