202 Miles: New York to Baltimore

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202 miles.  That’s the approximate distance between New York City and Baltimore.

The separation between the two cities may be a short bus ride away, but the cultural and economic differences between either would have you thinking that you just hopped a flight from New York to Calcutta. In Baltimore the unemployment rate hovers around 8%, according to the U.S. bureau of Labor Statistics (though anyone living in the city might challenge that percentage as being higher).  The murder rate in Baltimore is 5.48 times the national average according to Baltimore CityRating.com.  According to The Baltimore Sun, there were 238 homicides in the city for 2009.  In New York City there were 283 homicides for 2009 according to The New York Times.  However, if you take into account that there were an estimated 8.4 million living in New York City during that year, compared to Baltimore’s 637,418, you can quickly see that the problems facing Baltimore are much different from that of New York’s.

But what is it about the city of Baltimore that fascinates so many New Yorkers (and for that matter, the nation as a whole)?   At a recent Gelf Journalism event in the upscale neighborhood of Dumbo in Brooklyn, I sat in the back of a crowded room listening to attendees chatter over how Baltimore was so different than New York from a “journalistic perspective.”

Was it the hit HBO television show The Wire which has drawn so much attention to the city of Baltimore as of recent?  Perhaps.  After all, the DVD box set of The Wire has sold more than any other HBO television series, according to The Guardian.  In the United Kingdom, the series premiered nearly seven years after its U.S. debut, and attracted “600,000 viewers on its first British terrestrial airing on BBC2 “, according to Guardian reporter Jason Deans.

The show was created by former Baltimore Sun crime reporter David Simon, who filled an unusual role by embedding himself with the Baltimore Police Department.  Simon’s front row seat into how the city operates, and essentially weakens itself through systemic corruption, has propelled him into a type of television hall of fame.  Previous to The Wire, he wrote for the show Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and later for the HBO mini-series The Corner.

The Wire was also a platform for some of the best crime writers in the U.S. today, including author and screenwriter Richard Price (Clockers), and Rafael Alvarez (Life; The Black Donnellys) .   Through these amazing writers, The Wire produced some of the most compelling characters television has seen over the past 50 years. Figures like the shotgun-clad, Robin Hood of the hood – Omar.  The Adam Smith reading drug kingpin Stringer Bell.  Or, the lovable heroin addict-turned-informant Bubbles.  Most strikingly were the links between current Lt. Governor Martin O’Malley and his television replica Tommy Carcetti.

Baltimore is a city that has essentially been dying for the past twenty years due to the rapid decline of the shipping industry, amongst others.  David Simon has been out of journalism since the mid-90’s.  The series The Wire is no longer running.

So what does Baltimore have left?  Who are the ones reporting on the day-to-day realities of the city?

The Wire only scratches the surface on what investigative reporter Stephen Janis lives and deals with every single day.  Janis, a former Baltimore Examiner reporter, is currently the senior reporter and content director of the Baltimore-based news website Investigative Voice.  The news outlet was started in 2009 after Janis watched as his former newspaper shut down.  He was awarded a Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association award in 2008 for his reporting on the unsolved murders plaguing Baltimore that year.  In 2009, he won the MDDC Press Association award for a series of articles he produced on homicides within a Baltimore prostitution ring.  Aside from his reporting, he is also an instructor of journalism at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Communication in Washington, D.C., and at Towson University.

“There’s no easy way to do this job”, stated Janis during one of our in-the-field filming sessions.  “The hours you spend contacting people and developing sources is where all the good stories come from.  I’ve developed sources over years, of meeting with them, and meeting people at night and different places.  There’s no way to get good stories without putting in a lot of work.  I can say unequivocally, it won’t work.”

Investigative Voice is also home to long time reporters Alan Forman, who was previously with The Baltimore Sun, and Regina Holmes who previously worked as an assistant city editor at Newsday’s New York City edition and later with The Miami Herald.  “It’s terrible to see what has, and is, happening to the newspaper industry”, stated Holmes.  “The Wire created an image of Baltimore, much of it very true, but also something which we have to face every single day.  We can’t just turn off our TVs [like fans of the show] when we have so much work to do right here in the city.”

The Wire will remain one of the greatest series ever to air on American television, but what is even more compelling are the realities taking place within ‘Charm City’ on an everyday basis.

…This documentary team will be there to capture it…

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