May 10, 2010


Monday 29th March - Day 49

I sold the farm to take my woman where she longed to be
We left our kin and all our friends back there in Tennessee
I bought those oneway tickets she had often begged me for
And they took us to the streets of Baltimore
Her heart was filled with laughter when she saw those city lights
She said the prettiest place on earth is Baltimore at night

Hard times in the city
In a hard town by the sea
Ain't nowhere to run to
There ain't nothin' here for free
Hooker on the corner
Waitin' for a train
Drunk lyin' on the sidewalk
Sleepin' in the rain
And they hide their faces
And they hide their eyes
'Cause the city's dyin'
And they don't know why
Oh, Baltimore
Man, it's hard just to live
Oh, Baltimore
Man, it's hard just to live

Clearly a lot happened between 1966, when Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard wrote The Streets Of Baltimore, and 1977 when Randy Newman wrote his song Baltimore. In just 11 years Baltimore went from being the "prettiest place on earth" (at least in the eyes of a bar loving runaround) to a dying city. Fast forward to 2002 and the premiere of the TV series The Wire which, for the next 6 years, depicted Baltimore as a city FUBAR. Fans of the series (though apostles would be a better word than fans) think it the greatest TV show ever made. And I do consider myself to be a fan. If you haven't seen it I highly recommend you spend £60 and buy the box set. If you doubt me then click here and let Charlie Brooker convince you.

The Wire is set in the hood or the hoods of Baltimore and they look like desperate places. Empty ramshackle rows of townhouses which have clearly been abandoned by the city authorities. They look like this.

And this.

And if you get the chance to go round the back of the houses they look like this.

Total urban decay. And, sad to say, an area where nearly all the population is African American. That's no surprise is it? But how could it be? How could things be so bad for one race in a society? Especially in a society that believes all men are created equal. Because as I see it for ghetto children there is no equality in terms of opportunity and provision. Now The Wire is mostly filmed in streets just like those pictured above. If you watch it you get used to seeing locations just like those. I certainly got the impression that they did most of their filming in a very small localized area. I figured they went to the worst part of the city and filmed it there. I was wrong. They went to lots of different places and here's why... these kind of areas make up a massive chunk of the central area of the city. When we drove around it we couldn't believe how block after block was the same. Right off major roads, sometimes right on major roads. This landscape is the norm for many, many people. I don't know what proportion of the 637,000 citizens of Baltimore live in neighborhoods like this, but judging by the sheer number of bad blocks then it's a lot. Wikipedia tells me 22.9% of the population live below the poverty line. That's 150,000 people living below the poverty line in a city that's less than 40 miles from the White House. That's not right. Driving around it made me feel everything from shame to anger and on to gratitude and then right back to shame.

Then as we were driving down North Gay Street, in the midst of all this decay, we came across one of the most magnificent buildings we'd seen on our trip.

This is the American Brewery (wouldn't you know) built in 1887 by John Frederick Wiessner, a German immigrant (wouldn't you know). It looked magnificent though it had been empty and derelict for years until Humanin, a non-profit organisation, took it over in 2005 and saved it. They then set about using the building to start a regeneration project that they hope will save East Baltimore. I admire their ambition.

Baltimore depressed the hell out of us. It didn't scare us like East St Louis. There were too many folks on the street for that. Lots of folk ignoring the rain, but I guess street life is the only life they know (ahem.) The Wire taught us about the corner boys, the foot soldiers of the drug gangs who deal from street corners. They were there. Only they looked a lot older than the guys in the TV show. There were operating businesses too. A swanky looking rim shop just like in The Wire, but more typically it was corner stores and liquor stores. They looked like they were outposts in a war. It was a mess. Impossible to think how it could be restored. It took over $20 million just to restore that brewery.

Only a few days earlier Congress had passed Obama's health care bill and the day after that we'd tuned into Rush Limbaugh, the notorious right wing talk radio host, and he opened his show with the words, "America is hanging by a thread". He may well be right, but not because of the health care bill. I find it hard to imagine how a country with ghettos like these streets of Baltimore can possibly be looking ahead to better days. This country needs fixing but I don't think it'll get fixed. The will isn't there. Not yet at least. Americans who listen to Rush and Hannity and Glen Beck still think America is just great. They're in denial. They don't want to see the problems. Of course all those people who voted for Obama were voting for change so maybe I shouldn't be too pessimistic. But I fear that it won't last. In the end America can forget about change because they can just sweep their poor under the carpet and let places like Baltimore and East St Louis decay, hoping they won't fester and bring forth some kind of revolution. And sad to say I get a stronger sense of revolutionary fervor from the right wing of America. The scary future might be a lurch towards the right under the Tea Party and Sarah Palin. God help us all if that happens.


  1. Thanks for filling in the final chapters of this journey. I am dying for a blog on yer Japan experiences...

  2. Keep it comin brother! You're hitting the nail on the head and to most Americans everything is alright as long as they never travel. My father in Tennessee still thinks Massachusetts is the land of foreigners and left of left libruls. Hope you make it to Knoxville and The Great Smoky Mountains National Park (it's the only free National Park).