Hopkins students discover Baltimore through 'The Wire'

David Simon rolled up his sleeves as he prepared to hit the hall full of Johns Hopkins students with his sermon of disillusionment.

"There is nothing that makes me optimistic about the future of the country," he said, responding to one student's question about hopeful signs for her generation.

Simon's Baltimore-based crime drama, "The Wire," is now part of the curriculum at Hopkins. Students had spent three months admiring the show's painful candor as it tackled the issues facing their newly adopted city. And it seemed only fitting that the creator refused to soften his message.

"That was happy," he said at the end of his 75-minute discourse on the hypocrisy of the drug war, the soullessness of Wall Street and the demise of America's empire.

The students cracked up.

Peter Beilenson, an adjunct professor and Howard County's health officer, thought "The Wire" would be a perfect hook to get Hopkins undergraduates thinking about the complex web of problems faced by American cities.

Beilenson, who introduced the class this semester, was not the first person to think of building a college course around "The Wire." But he had one major advantage. As a longtime player in Maryland politics and health policy, he was able to line up many of the people who do the real-world jobs that the show depicted.

To talk about policing, he tapped former Baltimore commissioner Ed Norris (also, conveniently, an actor on the show). For a view of the prosecutor's office? Patricia Jessamy, the outgoing state's attorney. For the big picture on education? Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso.

And for the grand finale? Simon himself.

The class, designed for freshmen and sophomores, was an instant hit, with all 51 slots filling and some students left on a waiting list.

"I built my whole schedule around it," said Michael Nakan, a freshman from London. "To actually see the faces of these influential speakers and connect them with characters from the show is a unique experience. We can almost hold them accountable for some of the things we see on 'The Wire.' At Harvard, they don't get the actual characters from the show."

Nakan deemed Norris the most entertaining speaker but said the former police commissioner deflected his question about "juking" crime statistics as the show depicted.

The Hopkins class is just one example of how "The Wire" is flourishing in afterlife.

DVD sales have actually accelerated over the two years since the series finale. Critics routinely hail the show as an all-time great. And some of the nation's most prestigious universities — Harvard, Duke, California- Berkeley — offer courses based on the Baltimore drama.

Simon says he did not contemplate his creation's eventual popularity in academia. "We didn't even know that we would get to make all five seasons," he said.

But from the start, the former Baltimore Sun reporter said, he was striving for something more novelistic than most television, which he derides as junk food designed to sell unneeded products to viewers who think like 8-year-olds. With its dense multiseason plots, embrace of arcane vernacular and unflinching focus on failed institutions, perhaps the show was always destined for long-term dissection by the same folks who obsess about Charles Dickens and Keynesian economics.

"It's very gratifying to have 'The Wire' land in academia," Simon told the Hopkins class as he began his remarks. "At first, it didn't land anywhere. … It's nice that there's some place on earth where people are talking about the arguments behind it."

Beilenson was the city's health commissioner when "The Wire" debuted but said he never watched the show during its original run. He ordered the DVDs on Netflix last year and was so captivated that he roared through all five seasons in a few weeks. "My wife would say, 'It's 3 a.m., you need to go to bed,' " he recalled, smiling.

"The Wire" encompassed many of the issues that had fascinated him throughout his career and seemed a natural base to teach about the nature of a city. Beilenson test-drove the concept with a group of medical students in January and they loved it, producing a case study on needle exchange linked to the experiences of fictional heroin addict Bubbles. Beilenson's idea for the undergraduate course was grander.

The show's 60 episodes would be the textbook and the class sessions would feature experts explaining how they wrestle with the same issues in reality.

"The Wire" is the rare television show thoughtful enough to serve as a basis for serious discussion of urban issues, said James Goodyear, associate director of Hopkins' undergraduate public health program. Goodyear said he was excited when Beilenson pitched his idea for the class.

"I appreciate David Simon's intellectual approach," he said. "It's a very useful one for undergraduates to have before them."

Students say the best thing about the class is the way it has connected them with the city. Only four of the 51 underclassmen are from Baltimore, and some arrived with little impression of the city other than what they had seen on "The Wire." Nakan said his English friends, for example, would ask him how things were going in "Bodymore," a reference to mordant graffiti in the show's credit sequence.

But the students have now heard from a procession of public officials and nonprofit workers who deal with the city's realities.

In one early-November class, Kevin Lindamood, vice president of Health Care for the Homeless, flashed an overhead image of Ernest, a 350-pound schizophrenic who shot heroin between his fingers and often showed up at the nonprofit's offices hallucinating that blood was dripping from the walls. Workers did not have high hopes for Ernest, Lindamood said, but they found him a stable home. In response, he kicked heroin, dropped to 200 pounds on four-mile daily walks around Lake Montebello and lived eight healthy years before dying of a heart attack.

"What was the secret for Ernest?" Lindamood asked the students. "Clearly it was housing." But government doesn't spend nearly enough on housing programs to provide a safe roof for every Ernest, he told them.

The lesson was a perfect snapshot of what Beilenson hoped to provide — a real example of a complex problem, a glimpse at the solutions and a clear-eyed look at why those fixes often remain out of reach.

For their midterm assignments, the students visited and wrote about needle-exchange sites, juvenile justice centers and the KIPP Ujima Village Academy.

"I'm in a lot of intro classes and we talk about concepts, but nothing is applied," said Helen Latimer, a freshman public health major from Tampa, Fla. "But in this class, you go to a city juvenile justice system and realize that the show is pretty accurate. It's kind of scary, but everything applies to the reality of Baltimore."

For their final assignments, students will write briefing memos suggesting policy fixes on issues such as education, homelessness and health care. Beilenson plans to give the briefs to the incoming mayor after next fall's election.

One mild criticism of the class surfaced: Students did not feel all of the speakers made sufficient efforts to connect their words to sequences from the show. "It would be nice if they kind of had a background with it," Nakan said. "I would like to see more specific links to 'The Wire.' "

Beilenson said that is a tweak he has in mind for the class in future years.

For all the talk about the "The Wire's" conceptual weight, Latimer cut to a simpler reason why the class was attractive.

"It's cool," she said, "because you get to watch TV for homework."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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