HBO's 'Corner' draws mixed reaction from city residents and law enforcement


Boarded-up rowhouses line both sides of West Fayette Street near its intersection with North Monroe. Potato chip bags, broken beer bottles and chewing gum wrappers litter the area.

At the intersection -- recognized in the early 1990s as one of Baltimore's busiest drug corners -- people occasionally congregate outside New York Convenience store, oblivious to the "No Loitering" signs.

The open-air drug markets that used to frighten residents and keep police scrambling are gone. While plenty of drug deals still go down, the corner is no longer as dangerous as it was in 1993, when two men researched it for a book that became a HBO series.

The six-week series, which concludes tonight, focuses on the lives of drug addicts at the corner. It has received mixed reviews from people who live near it today, from those whose lives or family members' lives were portrayed, and from police.

"It's a two-sided story over here, but they're only showing one side," said Edna Manns, president and founder of Fayette Street Outreach Organization, formed in 1993 to try to rid the neighborhood of drugs and crime.

Manns, 50, an employee in the cancer center at Johns Hopkins Hospital, didn't watch the series because of her dislike of the book on which it's based. She said the book and series would have been more effective if community activists such as Geraldine Jones, who for decades has tried to improve life near Fayette and Monroe, had been included.

Rochell Smith, 21, who used to live on Fayette Street near the corner, agrees, adding that the series portrayed too many drug addicts. "Why don't they show the regular people coming outside?" Smith asks.

David Simon, who co-wrote "The Corner," doesn't apologize for the portrayals.

"The series is about the drug culture, and you tend to see that aspect portrayed," Simon said. "At the same time, I do think the normative society, where jobs and family and things that are functional and matter, are represented as the characters come off of the corner."

He recounts a scene in the fifth episode in which Fran Boyd, one of three main characters, is awaiting a bus ride to work. Recently over her addiction, Boyd expresses surprise over the number of people waiting to go to jobs.

The series also depicts Ella, a neighborhood activist who refused to move from Fayette Street even after the killing of her young daughter. "She represents the community to the same extent that Fat Curt [an addict] represents the corner," Simon said.

Maj. Kenneth Blackwell, commander of the Western District, which includes Fayette and Monroe, has watched a few episodes.

"From what I've seen, I find it to be startlingly realistic," Blackwell said. "The portrayals really seem to hit home in terms of their realism in how folks are being depicted in years gone by in that particular area."

David Jones, 31, a former drug dealer at the corner, said the series is a little soft on violence.

"Up here, there was a lot of shootings," Jones said. "Some of my cousins have stopped watching because it's not violent like they expected. They don't show nothing about the territory wars, turf wars. They don't even show when the police get beat up, or robberies."

George "Blue" Epps, 50, a heroin and cocaine addict who has been clean for six years and who was portrayed in the series, said it showed enough violence. He works as a street outreach coordinator for a nearby substance abuse intervention center.

"We already know that there's violence in our black communities, that there's a bunch of shootings," said Epps. "But this movie wasn't about the violence. It wasn't about the drug dealers and the police. It was about people's lives who were caught up in the grip of addiction and how, even though they were caught up, they were still human. They still had dreams and aspirations."

Because Fayette and Monroe was saturated with drug addicts seven years ago, dealers peddled their wares to virtually everyone in the vicinity, said Bridget Smith, Rochell's mother.

"This corner used to be horrible," Bridget Smith said. "Everybody would just run up in your face with drugs. I'd say, 'Do I look like I do drugs?' Then they'd say, 'Oh no, Miss. I'm sorry.' "

She has watched the series regularly, bristling during the fourth episode as Gary McCullough, another of the three primary characters, continued his downward slide into drug addiction.

"He's going to kill himself," Smith said, shaking her head in disgust as she watched the show.

McCullough, who quit Ohio State University after learning that his then-girlfriend, Boyd, was pregnant with their son, DeAndre, overdosed two years ago and died in his mother's house on Vine Street, blocks from the corner.

Before his addiction to heroin, he was a promising young entrepreneur holding down a day job as a supervisor at Bethlehem Steel and a night job as a security guard. He also had a small company that rehabbed rowhouses, and a stock portfolio that he had managed to run up to $150,000.

His brother, Jay McCullough, who works for the city of Baltimore, was so unhappy with the series he didn't watch it, relying on siblings to tell him details.

He said his family was most upset over the portrayal of his brother as a junkie so strung out that he stole and sold junk to support his habit. He acknowledges Gary McCullough's addiction but said his brother checked into several rehabilitation centers -- something the series didn't show.

Simon defends the portrayal of McCullough.

"I know the McCullough family has been unhappy since the book came out," he said. "I have no interest in making them unhappy, but I just think that's the nature of the story."

Whatever their feelings about the series, many residents say their neighborhood is much improved and credit a collaboration between police and citizens.

They acknowledge that crime persists -- police made 251 arrests in a one-block radius of the corner last year, mostly for drug offenses -- but recall when it was worse.

"It's not like it used to be," said Talmadge Pearson, 65, who lives near the corner. "In 1993, it was just like Pennsylvania Avenue used to be. You couldn't even walk on the street hardly without getting robbed or beaten up.

"I see more drunks now than I see drug addicts."

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