'The Corner' of drugs: microcosmic Baltimore


"The Corner," by David Simon and Edward Burns. Broadway Books. 543 pages. $27.50.

In every major American city, there is a section of town, usually the most blighted and poorly maintained, where the chief industry is the bagging, marketing and retail sale of illegal narcotics. In Baltimore, this location happens to be a swath of West Baltimore along old U.S. 1 that includes the intersection of West Fayette and Monroe streets.

The open-air drug supermarket at Fayette and Monroe is the setting for David Simon's and Ed Burns' remarkable dissection of inner-city drugging, and for their portraits of people whose lives are utterly dictated by the rhythms of drug "slinging," or hawking, and drug consumption.

The authors, a former Sun reporter and a former Baltimore City cop, have managed to penetrate a closed society that is neither familiar to nor understood by mainstream America.

This book humanizes the people who make it their business to provide the cocaine and heroin so desperately craved by the legion of "fiends," or addicts, who keep the corner functioning. It also chronicles the disjointed lives of drug users as they careen from one "blast," or high, to the next. The authors do not rationalize their characters' often depraved behavior, and they certainly do not condone it or idealize it. They merely explain it, often in vivid and fascinating detail.

This is a defining work of journalism that is instructive on two levels: It explores the motivations and aspirations of those who deal and consume drugs, but it also examines the societal and racial forces that help produce the lucrative narcotic industry that thrives in the hollow cores of America's inner cities.

The book traces, for instance, the changing nature of the drug trade in the pre-crack and post-crack eras. Before crack flooded inner cities in the mid-1980s, dealing dope was a relatively structured and stable enterprise.

Territories were clearly delineated and disputes were normally settled without benefit of firearms. And heroin addicts were docile and sedated, as long as they got their dope on time. But crackheads are constantly on edge and easily aroused to violence, especially when deprived of a high. The people who began selling crack were younger and less disciplined than their elders in the heroin trade, and much more inclined -- not to mention better-armed -- to answer insult with automatic weapons fire.

The authors also drive home a demographic fact that is often ignored or glossed over in reporting about narcotics: Although the inner-city street trade is dominated almost entirely by blacks and Hispanics, at least half the drug customers in the typical ghetto drug corridor are white. And, more predictably, the book details the futility of the nation's "war on drugs," accurately pointing out that the thousands of petty corner dealers arrested are not only soon back on the street in most cases, but are easily replaced by thousands more eager for a quick buck.

The soul of this unique book is its humanity. The authors follow the lives of several characters, all tied in some way to the corner and drugs. Gaining access to such a dangerous -- not to mention illegal -- enterprise required the sort of painstaking and stubborn street reporting that has fallen out of fashion in some corners of American journalism.

Strengthened by unlimited access to inhabitants of the drug underworld, the narrative is intense and riveting. The street scenes and patois ring powerful and true. Simon and Burns have found and revealed memorable characters, and created a memorable book.

David Zucchino is the foreign editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, where as a reporter he won a Pulitzer Prize. He covered the drug beat in Philadelphia for three years and in his book, the "Myth of the Welfare Queen," wrote about the lives of women in an innercity.

Pub Date: 9/07/97

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