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JHU Course Uses “The Wire” As Lens On Urban Issues

October 7, 2010

Though it’s located in Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University’s verdant and well-manicured Homewood campus seems a world away from the gritty drug corners and public housing projects that form the backdrop for the groundbreaking, critically acclaimed five-season HBO drama “The Wire.”

But inside a classroom in Hodson Hall, a group of undergraduates is immersing itself in that other world, thanks to a new public health studies course called “Baltimore and ‘The Wire’: A Focus on Major Urban Issues.”

Created and taught by former Baltimore City Health Commissioner Peter Beilenson – currently Howard County health officer – the class uses the fictional but highly realistic world of the former TV series as a lens through which to view issues confronting not only Baltimore, but also other major American urban centers, from Detroit to Philadelphia to Los Angeles.

“The world depicted in ‘The Wire’ may seem like fiction, but in truth it is a frighteningly accurate portrait of life in some parts of Baltimore and in many other cities through the United States,” said Beilenson, who was Baltimore’s health czar for 13 years under two mayors, Kurt Schmoke and Martin O’Malley. “We’re talking about poverty; the war on drugs and the illegal drug trade; city governments and their bureaucracies and how those work, or don’t; politics; the police, the courts and criminal justice; homelessness; and education. This series tackles them all in a very thoughtful, interesting and realistic way.”

Former Baltimore City Police Commissioner Ed Norris speaks with students in Peter Beilenson’s Public Health Studies class based on the TV series ‘The Wire.’ Photo: Will Kirk/Homewoodphoto.jhu.edu

Former Baltimore City Police Commissioner Ed Norris speaks with students in Peter Beilenson’s Public Health Studies class based on the TV series ‘The Wire.’ Photo: Will Kirk/Homewoodphoto.jhu.edu

Offered through the Undergraduate Program in Public Health Studies, the three-credit course uses the landmark series as a moving-picture textbook stuffed to the brim with relevant and compelling case studies about those issues. Students are assigned to watch all five seasons of the series outside of class, so that the drama serves as a cornerstone for in-class discussions. The urban challenges are further elucidated through weekly lectures by a lineup of regional speakers that reads like a Who’s Who of urban policymakers.

That list includes David Simon, creator and writer of “The Wire,” and other cast members (slated to wrap up the class in late November); former Mayor Schmoke; Patricia Jessamy, Baltimore City State’s Attorney; Andres Alonso, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools; and Ed Norris, former Baltimore City police commissioner and current radio talk show host.

In early September, for instance, Beilenson used his own experience and expertise to introduce the class to urban drug problems and the so-called war on drugs. Later, Lamont Coger, who used to direct the Baltimore Needle Exchange Program, discussed drug harm–reduction programs, including needle exchanges.

Jessamy and Schmoke, now dean of Howard University Law School, both are on the schedule later this month. Jessamy will address the juvenile justice system and alternative approaches to juvenile detention, and Schmoke will offer a primer on how big city politics work and how things get done. Next month, Alonso will talk to the class about the challenges facing urban education and his attempts to reform Baltimore City Public School System.

Recently, Norris offered the students an entertaining and informative 75 minutes recounting his years in the New York and Baltimore police departments, fighting the kinds of crime so accurately and vividly depicted in “The Wire.”

“I was a cop for 24 years, and I will tell you that, without a doubt, ‘The Wire’ is the most realistic police drama I have ever seen,” said Norris, who joined the Screen Actors’ Guild after appearing as a detective in 22 episodes of the television series. “The stuff that [series creator David] Simon criticized through the show, well, it was all true. You will learn a lot about the good and bad of the city you are living in through watching that show.”

Norris told the students that, despite vast improvements in managing crime in Charm City, Baltimore remains “a real tale of two cities: There is affluence side by side with great poverty. That world you see in ‘The Wire’? It’s the real thing.”

It was, in fact, “The Wire’s” realism that gave Beilenson the notion to use the series as a centerpiece for a public health studies class in the first place.

“The show brings these very real and persistent urban problems to life in a compelling way that printed pages in a textbook really can’t,” explained Beilenson, an alumnus of the Bloomberg School of Public Health who also lectures there and at the School of Medicine. “My idea was that students could watch those problems played out in ‘The Wire’ and then hear them discussed and dissected by leading experts who are working to address those problems. This gives the students an opportunity not only to hear from these policymakers but also to ask them questions and engage with them. My goal is for students to realize the depth and breadth of these problems and to understand that there are no easy answers here.”


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