West of Downtown

The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood

by David Simon and Edward Burns
Broadway Books, 543 pp., $27.50

Anyone interested in seeing at first hand the contradictions of urban America today would do well to visit Baltimore. Once the prototype of an aging industrial city, Baltimore has done much to reinvent itself. During the 1960s, when I was growing up there, its only visitors seemed to be motorists making a wrong turn off I-95 on their way to New York or Washington. Now tourists make special trips to see Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, with its seafood restaurants, grand convention center, and National Aquarium, which, topped by a glass pyramid, juts dramatically into the water. The nearby Orioles Park at Camden Yards, a faux-antique brick-and-girder stadium, attracts baseball fans from around the country, and a new stadium is now going up next to it to house the Ravens (the football team named in honor of Edgar Allan Poe, who died in Baltimore). The city’s efforts to revitalize its downtown have been so successful that it now receives a steady stream of city planning experts seeking ideas for their own hometowns.

Yet anyone who walks just twenty blocks west of downtown will come upon a very different Baltimore. Here one sees block after depressing block lined with broken-down rowhouses with shattered windows and peeling paint. The only commercial establishments around are liquor stores and grimy “convenience stores.” On the street corners idle men cluster about, drinking from bottles hidden by brown paper bags. In these largely black neighborhoods, the rates for teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, truancy, and violence are all extremely high, helping to make Baltimore’s inner city one of the grimmest in the nation.

In 1992, David Simon, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, became interested in exploring this side of the city. Simon had recently published Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, in which he described the daily work of a team of Baltimore homicide detectives. (The book would become the basis for the successful television series.) For his next book, Simon wanted to get to know some of the people who actually lived on the killing streets. He chose a rough, drug-ridden neighborhood in West Baltimore called Franklin Square. As a white man, Simon had a hard time being accepted in the neighborhood; to help him he teamed up with a retired Baltimore policeman, also white, named Edward Burns.

Using a white cop to befriend inner-city blacks might seem odd, but Burns knew the neighborhood from his patrol days and had some ideas about how to get on with the people there. On hot days, the two men handed out iced tea on the street corners they frequented; to prove Simon’s bona fides as a writer, they gave out free copies of Homicide to the people they met. They played basketball with teenagers at a local recreation center. They befriended DeAndre McCullough, a sharp, confident fifteen-year-old who spent most of his time on the street. They also got to know DeAndre’s parents, Gary McCullough and Fran Boyd, as well as a dozen or so other regulars…

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