When Marc Levine developed a history and urban studies course using the critically acclaimed HBO series “The Wire,” his students were not the only ones attracted.
Levine had already created a template for an innovative social sciences course based on the series in 2009, before universities across the country, including Harvard, began offering their own.
“The important contribution of ‘The Wire’ is that it explains why the structures of social inequality remain so tenaciously intact,” says Levine, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM). “It helps you understand questions like, ‘Why aren’t we solving social problems? Who benefits under the system? Who’s left out?’”
In its five seasons, “The Wire” depicted fictitious stories of urban decline that were based on real events in Baltimore. It was celebrated for its realistic portrayal, showing the intersecting forces that both enabled and hindered social change. Creator David Simon had been a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun.
Senior Antoine Mack, who took Levine’s class in 2011, says he never missed a day of class because it was so riveting. “I’ve been a big fan of the show for so long, I jumped at the chance to take it,” says Mack, a broadcast journalism major.
“We talked about the breakdown of the steel industry, the switch to a service-based economy, Reaganomics. It was so pertinent,” he says. “Now when I hear about the political or urban economies, I know about them. I can form a better opinion.”
Baltimore vs. Milwaukee
Levine also invites speakers from Milwaukee institutions so that students can see how the show’s Baltimore stacks up against the real thing here.
This semester kicked off the fourth year of Levine’s course, and marked the first time one of the show’s stars made an appearance at UWM. Sonja Sohn, who played police detective Kima Greggs, took questions from current students and course alums in April.
Sohn was so affected by her role in “The Wire,” she supported a program for at-risk youth in Baltimore after the series ended. She is currently starring as detective Samantha Baker on the ABC drama series “Body of Proof.”
Past speakers have included Bevan Baker, Milwaukee health commissioner, talking on drugs as a public health issue; Police Chief Edward Flynn on the effect of “data-driven” policing; and George Stanley, managing editor of the Journal Sentinel, on the slumping health of large city newspapers.
Another speaker was John Diedrich, a Journal Sentinel reporter who discussed his articles on the life of Milwaukee crime boss Michael Lock. As it turned out, one of the students listening had known Lock in high school as an untroubled, middle-class kid. It correlated to a strong theme in the series – how urban pressures can easily turn a “good” person down a wrong path.
Levine’s course seizes the opportunity for geographic comparison. Baltimore and Milwaukee, both cities he has lived in and researched, are similar in size and demographics, with a few notable differences (the murder rate in Baltimore is three times greater than Milwaukee’s).
Many of the same problems in both cities stem from high rates of African-American male joblessness, another subject of Levine’s research that has received national attention.
Levine’s scholarship stresses the importance of digging deeply in studying problems like poverty, crime and physical decay.
In probing the redevelopment of Baltimore’s waterfront, Levine found that, despite intense civic promotion, Baltimore hadn’t transformed itself into a “renaissance city” by creating a tourist attraction.
“My research says, ‘Not so fast.’ Redevelopment is not trickling down,” he says. “The vacant buildings and blighted neighborhoods shown in ‘The Wire’ really exist and are only a mile and a half from the success story at the waterfront.”
Levine’s writing highlighted the “two Baltimores,” even before they were so powerfully and unforgettably depicted in “The Wire.”
To the extent that his course succeeds, he says, it explains what happens when multiple systems malfunction simultaneously – “and knowledge of that takes blaming the victim out of the equation.”
A powerful mix
In addition to viewing about six episodes a week, speakers, lectures, and discussion, students are assigned reading in social science policy. The blended perspectives make the course an effective pedagogical tool.
In fact, renowned sociologist William Julius Wilson exchanged syllabi with Levine while developing Harvard’s urban affairs course based on “The Wire.” Levine’s UWM students use a text written by Wilson.
Students who have taken the course say they were not only attracted by the notoriety of the series, which has been called the best show ever to air on television.
For graduate student Rebecca Nole, the diversity of those taking the course really brought the issues to life. The semester she enrolled, the class included a city police officer, an MPS teacher, and as many adult students as 19-year-olds. The course has had a larger percentage of students of color than most classes at UWM, but also a range of academic majors and socioeconomic classes.
“We got to hear about some of those issues at play in our own urban space,” says Nole. “That took it way beyond watching the DVD in your living room.”