A glimpse over the television director's shoulder shows the next transformation involving the corner of West Fayette and Monroe. Two video screens, each the size of a compact disc box, display views from two cameras capturing a scene distilled from a book detailing a year in a West Baltimore neighborhood overrun by illegal drugs.
Actors are portraying the sadness of a real father and the alienation of a real teen-age son. In take after take the boy turns away from his father's soft-spoken plea to stay in school, stepping off the curb outside the corner bar, turning his back on his old man, dropping his dreadlocked head and walking out of the picture.
Cut. Quiet please. Action. Again and again, Gary McCullough sadly watches his son, DeAndre McCullough turn away.
These are rather strange times in the life of West Fayette and Monroe. Amid a mayoral campaign in which the corner has been transformed into political photo op and stump anthem, a production crew from Home Box Office is filming a six-hour television drama scheduled to appear in spring. Meanwhile, apparently as a result of city and community action, the Franklin Square neighborhood itself has for the time being ceased living up to its image as a place where street dealers openly hawk drugs.
That the television filming is going on across town in East Baltimore is a matter of logistical convenience for the HBO crew, which is based in Fells Point, where the writers and producers of "Homicide: Life on the Street" established an office years ago. Yet the fact that the signs for E. Oliver and Montford have been taken down and replaced with W. Fayette and Monroe underscores a bleak point of a very bleak book. "The Corner," as the 1997 book defines it, transcends any particular place, perhaps even the very notion of place.
"There's so many corners in this city. And there's so many corners in people's heads," says Joe Laney, who grew up on Monroe Street. "It ain't a physical place."
Laney, a peripheral figure in the book written by former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon and former homicide detective Edward Burns, well understands how "The Corner" penetrates a person's body and soul.
His arms and legs are scarred from years of drug use, many of which he spent telling himself he was ready to get out. When the veins in this arm give out, then. All right, when the veins in the other arm are ruined, then. Next the hands. Then the feet. Before he did stop using drugs after 22 years, he'd been shot once in the back, badly beaten up, jailed several times. The reason he finally made the break is as dramatic and as humdrum as this:
"For the last 10 years of my drug addiction I was tired," says Laney, who stopped using 12 years ago, earned a master's degree from Coppin State College and now works as a treatment counselor. "That's a miserable feeling, to keep doing something for 10 years that you don't want to do."
In the absence of readily apparent life alternatives, however, there stands "The Corner." The book -- depicting events that occurred in 1993 -- portrays damaged neighborhood as vortex, devouring human souls. It's a force of nature, a thing sprung from intolerance of vacuums. In the writers' view, "The Corner" thrives on the combined energy of economic, social and racial alienation, exerting an often irresistible force, impervious to public policy and programs.
Public officials have responded to the book with policy and programs.
Franklin Square neighborhood activists had been working on improvements before the book was completed, but publication of "The Corner" two years ago this month transformed the spot into a poster child, a media emblem of what ails the American inner city.
Three months after the book appeared, Baltimore's Department of Housing and Community Development and police swept into West Fayette and Monroe in December 1997. Two-hundred and fifty workers spent a week cleaning alleys and storm drains, arresting alleged dealers, trimming trees, confiscating handguns and suspected crack cocaine and heroin. They boarded up abandoned houses, fixed potholes. They even picked up a few stray dogs.
While acknowledging that "Operation Corner" alone would not cure the neighborhood's problems, Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III said at the time that the city would hold the territory, not "letting the corner go back to what the corner was."
Since then, politicians and news cameras have frequently returned. Several candidates in this week's city primary election have made "The Corner" a recurring theme.
Mayoral candidate Martin O'Malley, a Northeast Baltimore city councilman, calls his pursuit of the mayor's job a "corner campaign," focusing much of his appeal on plans to close open drug markets. A month before he announced for mayor, he made a public point of instructing the Department of Public Works to cut down the last of six public phones at West Fayette and Monroe that had been installed without permits. The illegal phones are often used to further drug dealing and prostitution.
One of O'Malley's chief rivals for the Democratic mayoral nomination, City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, stood at West Fayette and Monroe in July hoisting a broom, saying he'd sweep the city clean of drug-related violence and crime by coupling expanded drug treatment with a so-called "zero tolerance" approach to police work.
That "The Corner" has inspired these political responses is at least ironic, seeing as how the book says that such approaches in the past have either not worked or made matters worse. The book offers nothing easily translatable into government programs or campaign speeches, even as it allows some sympathy for public officials who go before community groups and speak in these terms.
"What is a police commander, a city councilman, even a major going to tell such people? The truth? That it can't be stopped, that the thing is beyond even the best of governments?" the book asks. "Is an elected official going to stand up and declare that all the street sweeps, the herding of the corner pigeons, the thousands upon thousands of arrests have accomplished nothing on places like Fayette Street?"
Alongside portraits of neighborhood people, the book argues that drug corner culture is a symptom of national, if not global, economic and social forces, not the least of which is 30 years of American drug policy revolving around law enforcement. The drugs, say the writers, "will not disappear in a culture where everything else -- jobs, money, hope, meaning -- has already vanished. ... The corner is rooted in human desire -- crude and certain and immediate."
No one claims this desire has significantly changed in the last two years. And yet, life on West Fayette and Monroe and surrounding blocks apparently has.
"The corner's clean, people feel safe," says George Epps, also known as "Blue," whose Fayette Street home was a shooting gallery featured in "The Corner." Drug-free since late 1996 after using for about 30 years, Epps now spends his days pursuing a very different transaction with drug addicts, working as a street recruiter for a treatment center that opened this summer on Monroe Street.
He's sitting on the stone stoop of Recovery in Community, which opened in June in the refurbished rectory of St. James Memorial Methodist Church. A year or so ago the street would have been crowded with touts shouting "product" names, as described in "The Corner": "Got the Ready Rock ... Blues. Right here for them Blue Tops." You might have seen addicts rushing to one rowhouse or another for samples of the street's latest batch of heroin.
The street drug trade has largely disappeared, at least on these blocks, says Epps, who is 49. It can't have gone very far, however.
"Let's just say the activity is no more than a hop, skip and jump away," says Epps.
"Let's be realistic," says Maj. Kenneth L. Blackwell, who heads the Police Department's Western District, "they have to go someplace, and they do."
Blackwell, who assumed this command in June 1998, says there have been no dramatic changes in the operation of the district of 185 uniformed officers. It's just little things, he says. A few officers have been moved from administrative to patrol duty; the district has been divided into three sectors with one lieutenant in charge of each; officers are working more closely and sharing more information with neighborhood people; patrols have been more persistent and more sustained than in years past.
Zaid Imani, director of Recovery in Community, says the difference in the neighborhood is "like night and day," and gives much of the credit to the police, who "have done a fantastic job of just being present."
The treatment center -- now running programs for 100 people -- came into existence as an indirect result of "The Corner." After reading the book, Abell Foundation President Robert C. Embry Jr. wondered if his organization could help. He and program officer Jane Harrison spoke with Joyce Smith, who was then president of the Franklin Square Community Association. One result was the treatment center, funded entirely by the foundation, says Harrison.
Smith gives the book credit for that, but little else. She's miffed that the writers didn't recognize her association's efforts to improve the neighborhood. Smith, now directing a community improvement project in Southwest Baltimore, says the book "told a true story, but it didn't tell the whole story. ... To me that book just heard the hopelessness. That book didn't show any pride."
What rays of light do penetrate the despair of "The Corner" emanate mostly from glimpses of people struggling to help themselves or their neighbors. Some of these stories are now being turned into television drama. Simon, who is co-writing and co-producing the six-hour HBO special, hopes this will be the most meaningful transformation of all, as the country enters a new decade of its "war" on drugs.
"What I hope will translate in the TV show is the very subversive message that Fat Curt and Gary and DeAndre and R.C. and everyone else that we encountered along Fayette Street and shared their stories with us, that they are all palpably and wonderfully human," Simon says in an interview.
"That sounds really simple, but I have come to believe it's epic. Because the first thing you do when you fight a war is you take the enemy and as a matter of propaganda you make them less than human. ... We've been able to install that image to justify all kinds of useless, wasteful policy, some of which happens to be quite brutal and self-defeating. If at any point these people raise their heads above the waves and appear as human, I think it gives the people who witness that a lot of pause. I can't feel the same way about the drug war as I did before I did this book."