Last week was Light City in Baltimore, in the same city as the HBO police drama "The Wire" was set. What a contrast. What a juxtaposition of opposite dynamics. Anyone who attended the Light City Social Innovation Conference last week — and there were thousands — was enlightened, literally and figuratively, by a series of outstanding talks and panel discussions from locally, nationally and internationally recognized social innovators.
Folks from far away extolled and admired Baltimore's grit (the good kind), its educational and institutional resources, and the efforts, ideas and real progress being made to address the challenges and opportunities that change creates. The out-of-towners (not the local apologists or Wire-hand wringers) admire and respect that we are not Silicon Valley — that is, we are achieving change in a less glamorous, not-rolling-in-digital money, very real environment, the real world. How ironic that the very factors we locals bemoan are what make us interesting and authentic to others. The truth is that people who care about social innovation, public health and education want to be in Baltimore, are coming to Baltimore and embrace Baltimore.
Meanwhile, many local speakers referenced "The Wire" as a dire and scarring influence on outsiders' views of Baltimore. In fact, it has created a far greater inferiority complex among insiders. It is as if "The Wire" is a yoke from which we can't escape that will be holding Baltimore back for as long as it is available in the HBO library. We need to stop using "The Wire" as an excuse and embrace it for what it is and what it can inspire: change, innovation, ideas. (In fact, we can even revel in, and profit from, the fame of "The Wire" the way other cities have with entertainment set in their environs. The hit series "Breaking Bad" was set in Albuquerque, N.M., where they now sell Walter White T-Shirts, mugs and hats at the airport.)
The "unrest" (as it is euphemistically known) of 2015 highlighted chronic issues that all major cities face. We need to embrace our challenges and articulate what we can do and what we are doing to create change. During a Light City conference panel discussion featuring dynamic women, a question was asked about the barriers they had faced in developing their careers. Two panelists, Sonja Sohn, the acclaimed actress from "The Wire," and Brooke Hall, who, along with her husband Justin Allen founded Light City, both said they did not and would not accept barriers. They preferred to see a barrier as an opportunity or a challenge that fueled their desire to achieve their goals and dreams.
So next time someone asks you about "The Wire," thank them for being interested in Baltimore, talk about their favorite characters, and then discuss what you and the rest of our city are doing to address the issues it brought to light in every major city. Tell them that we are the social innovation capitol of the world and we welcome their support and interest. Of course, to do this will require some intentional effort on your part including a renewed belief in our city. As one of the speakers, Shawn Dove of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement said, "The Cavalry is not coming, we are the iconic leaders we have been looking for and we will be the curators of change we want to see."
"The Wire" was a remarkable television show. It was set in Baltimore. It is fiction based on reality. It is not our everlasting shame. On the contrary, it is an iconic symbol of our credibility to address the real challenges that all urban centers face. In fact, we insiders and the outsiders we have attracted are using our insight, our intelligence and our grit — the same characteristics that define the creators of "The Wire" — to make precedent-setting, enviable strides to change urban reality. Don't run from "The Wire." Embrace what it taught us and what we can make of the future with greater credibility than any other place in America.
Light City is what emerges from our experience, our credibility, our reality. How cool is that?
Jim Wheeler is chairman of the design firm Ayers Saint Gross and board chairman of the United Way of Central Maryland. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.