Tune in to watch The Hub City Wire
For those of you who have yet to experience what Sen. Barack Obama has called "the best show on television," "The Wire" provides arguably the most realistic portrayal of urban America. It showcases the numerous actors and organizations that play a role in urban life. From longshoremen to cops, from teachers to drug dealers, from reporters to mayors, everyone affects one another in our small inter-connected world. Just a few of the organizations and institutions explored in greater depth than almost any other series include: the public school system, criminal justice system, unions, journalism and both city and state politics.
I've developed a particular affinity for the show over the past year, in case you couldn't tell. However, it was over this summer when I began working on the ward campaign with Empower Our Neighborhoods that I slowly noticed my own life becoming more and more like "The Wire" each day. "The Wire" is ultimately about failing or failed institutions that have become so bureaucratic they can no longer achieve their stated goals. Nowhere is this institutional insanity more apparent than in New Brunswick. Over the summer, we organized barbecues in housing projects and city parks, raised funds through community yard sales, made headlines, knocked on doors in every neighborhood and talked to lifelong residents of all ages. Now that school is back in session, we will be helping high school students get into college. Throughout this process, we have learned so much about the delicate inner workings of this city. I would even venture to say that this experience has been slightly more awesome than "The Wire." But, like the show, the experience has also exposed us to the more unfortunate and disappointing aspects of urban life in New Brunswick.
The realistic portrayal of the decaying urban environment, particularly in low-quality public housing projects, is properly contrasted with the often-extravagant downtown and government district settings in the HBO series. This juxtaposition is also quite apparent in New Brunswick as well. While the Lynch and Cahill administrations have poured millions of dollars into upgrading civic facilities including a new courthouse and police station, neighborhoods blocks away see little to no change for decades. Residents near the lucrative redevelopment zones can only hope that the axe of redevelopment will one day wipe their neighborhood out completely. This occurs in the season three premiere, when the Franklin Terrace Housing Projects, one of the show's primary settings, are imploded with dynamite by grinning city officials. This is not far off from the 2001 destruction of the New Brunswick Memorial Homes, high-rise housing projects notorious for violence and drugs.
Redevelopment played a role earlier in the series as a union lobbied for state aid to improve their port terminal. Their efforts went head-to-head with developers hoping to redevelop the industrial waterfront with condominiums and recreation, along the lines of the famous Inner Harbor redevelopment project in downtown Baltimore. Interestingly enough, anyone who has taken a trip to Baltimore's Inner Harbor knows what a perfect example of gentrification it is. Harborplace, designed by James Rouse, is a festival marketplace that holds the National Aquarium and dozens of shops and restaurants built on the site of a steamship terminal and docks in 1980. The multi-building mall is a phenomenal facility and lively shopping area, designed to be the centerpiece of a revived downtown for Baltimore. However, two blocks outside of the downtown district in any direction is just like anywhere else in Baltimore: cracked sidewalks, dark alleys, boarded up homes and more adult shops than you can count on one hand.
Nothing against Harborplace; it is a world-renowned project and served as a model for tourism-based revitalization in America. It just so closely resembles the type of trickle-down gentrification we've seen attempted here in New Brunswick. Perhaps that's because Rouse's American City Corporation was hired by local businesses in 1973 to assess opportunities for revitalization in New Brunswick, seven years before Harborplace was even built. The American City plan for New Brunswick included a tree-lined Albany Street, a hotel and conference center, and adjacent corporate headquarters. All of those visions became realities and over time the gentrification spread through vacant lots along the river and then across the other side of George Street. However, even today, just a block or so beyond the gentrified zone, demographics are pretty much the only thing that's changed since 1973, just like the hoods on the outskirts of downtown Baltimore. The problem with Harborplace and the New Brunswick Hyatt is actually the same at its root: the focus was placed on the individual redevelopment projects, rather than on meeting neighborhood and citywide needs.
"The Wire" also shows the uplifting and disappointing sides of American police work equally well. The Baltimore Police Department is depicted in a less than satisfactory light most of the time. Despite inefficiency and incompetence, most police are made to seem likeable at the end of the day, though the institutional structure they are a part of is thoroughly mocked. However, crooked and dishonest police are a part of the television program, and unfortunately a reality in most American police departments. William King and Antonio Murray were two former Baltimore police officers (in real life, not in the show) who were sentenced to over 315 and 139 years in prison respectively. Their crime? They robbed drug dealers and then got someone else to push the heroin on the streets for them.
A very sad story indeed, sounds more like one that you'd see on TV rather than in real life. But, hey, that's Baltimore, right? New Brunswick's much more tame, isn't it? I beg to differ: NBPD Officers John Marshall and Marco Chinchilla were indicted in 1998 for running a brothel in New Brunswick and taking bribes to look the other way on drug deals. And, to make it interesting, Mayor Cahill testified as a character witness for Officer Marshall. If that's not "The Wire," I don't know what is.
Of course, unethical behavior doesn't exist only within the police department. Our fire department, our parking authority, our housing authority and our school board are all subject to both incompetent mismanagement and selfish corruption. Of course, like in "The Wire," we in New Brunswick have seen the swift justice that state and federal officials seek when investigating local corruption. Just last year, a recently incarcerated housing inspector tried to pay a hit man to have his wife, New Brunswick's director of social services, murdered. Of course the "hit man" he was hiring was working with the FBI and wearing a wire! And that was only the sad finale to a long season of "Wire"-esque headlines regarding the overwhelmingly corrupt Neighborhood Preservation Program. All told, four city employees were convicted and one committed suicide when he learned he might be a target of the investigation.
Also like in "The Wire," we see the unjust administration of punishments in our corrections system here in New Brunswick. John Lynch, former corrupt mayor and state senator from New Brunswick, is already hoping to be released from prison early after serving just one year for federal fraud charges. Meanwhile, mandatory minimums send thousands of non-violent drug offenders to prison for decades all over Middlesex County.
But enough about the real world. One of the coolest things about "The Wire" is that each season incorporates a new cast of characters part of a completely new institution, while retaining the most exciting storylines and characters from prior seasons:
Season one is about homicide police trying to solve murders associated with the drug trade. While Baltimore may have had 276 murders in 2006, New Brunswick's seven murders that same year are nothing to sneeze at considering the Charm City has more than twelve times as many residents as our humble hometown. Either way, drug and gang violence are very real problems in New Brunswick. Over the summer, two gang-related murders took place just blocks from Douglass campus in short succession. And one only needs to take a stroll down Remsen Avenue, day or night, to begin to fathom the depth and breadth of the heroine and crack trade in New Brunswick.
Season two brings in a union composed of longshoremen who work at the docks. While New Brunswick no longer offloads any cargo at any dock, unions still play a powerful, often-unseen role in politics. Joseph Egan, our own city councilman and state assemblyman, also serves as the business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 456, one of the largest unions in New Jersey.
Season three includes for the first time the city council and associated city bureaucracy. Though it was not mentioned in the series, another interesting parallel between B-More and Brunswick is that a grassroots citizens group fought against the mayor and city council to reform council elections through a ballot initiative. "Question P" proposed a change to elect council members from fourteen individual districts, each with their own representative, in the hopes of making it easier for less-established candidates to win office. Sound familiar? That's exactly what we did this summer! And, get this: In Baltimore, the city council used what were later deemed illegal tactics to attempt to de-rail the ballot initiative with a competing question, "Question Q." Ultimately, the citizens' question was approved in 2002 by a large margin. So, I guess it looks like New Brunswick is about seven years behind Baltimore. And that's saying something. Season four shifts the focus to Baltimore's abysmal public school system. While our schools have improved here in New Brunswick, they are still amongst the worst in the state. Students whose schools should have been re-built or built long ago currently attend classes in two warehouses on Van Dyke Avenue. A concern we hear repeated over and over in our neighborhoods is that there are insufficient after school programs and activities for youth, leaving them more likely to embrace street life. This important battle over our children, fought indirectly between drug dealers, teachers and administrators is explored extensively in this season of "The Wire," which some have called the best season of television ever.
The mayoral campaign that simultaneously takes place in season four offers up the one significant difference I have found between "The Wire" and New Brunswick: On "The Wire," they actually have competitive elections that provide some sense of democracy.
Like in New Brunswick, Baltimore's Republicans rarely have a shot at winning local elections. So, the Democratic primary usually becomes a de facto general election. However, Baltimore is a large enough city that fictional Mayor Clarence Royce cannot possibly expect to go unchallenged in a primary election. So he must properly treat the various groups and neighborhoods that make up his constituency or else they
ill bail on him. On the other hand, Mayor Cahill and the New Brunswick Council have yet to face a formidable challenge since Cahill took office in 1991. With no other viable outlet for those mistreated or ignored by the current power structure, the give and take that The Wire demonstrates between candidates and the different voting blocs and citizens groups is visibly absent from local politics here in New Brunswick.
In recent memory, only Jerry Mercado, an unsuccessful candidate for city council in 2006 and 2008, has challenged the New Brunswick machine in the crucial Democratic primary, held the first week of June, right after many students move or leave town. As a result of this lack of meaningful challengers, the political machine here has been able to get away with far more than any Baltimore machine ever could. They can easily ignore neighborhoods who have had no viable candidates to throw their support behind. When voters have such limited choices, incumbents have no need to be accountable to voters and the system serves to foster democracy in name only.
Lastly, season five of The Wire incorporates the Baltimore Sun newspaper and demonstrates the often-ignored truth: what appears in the newspaper is often far from what actually happened. Hate to break it to ya, but this column's no different. I've shared what my current understanding of our city is, but I'm learning more and more everyday. If you want to experience what its like to live "The Wire," go to our website, empowernb.com, and click "Get Involved."
Charlie Kratovil is a Rutgers College senior majoring in journalism and media studies and history and political science. His column, "Charles in Charge" runs on alternate Thursdays.