Urban Decay in the American city

Urban decay is a process of deterioration in cities, which is illustrated by higher levels of crime, depopulation, drug abuse, ghetto poverty, property abandonment and unemployment. Since the 1950s, many American cities have been in a persistent decline due to the intense deindustrialisation that has occurred, resulting in a suburban housing boom in which some cities lost as much as fifty percent of their population to the suburbs (Levine, 2000). This urban decline has been so large that Rusk (1996: 21) asserts that 34 American cities have reached a ‘critical point of no return’, past which they can only continue to deteriorate socially and economically. The depiction of urban decay in the cities of Baltimore and Los Angeles is the driving force behind the narrative structures of The Wire (Simon, 2002-2008 ) and The Shield (Ryan, 2002-) respectively.

urban decay in baltimore

Baltimore, pictured above, is a post-industrial city in which violent crime and drug abuse levels are among the highest in America (Levine, 2000) and The Wire charts urban decay through the failure of the cities institutions – the police, the schools, the ports, the politicians and the media. The Shield is set in the fictional Farmington district of Los Angeles, and depicts the city as a seething pit full of street gangs, drug dealers, murderers, paedophiles and rapists. I will aim to illustrate how both The Wire and The Shield engage in urban decay of their respective cities, and how both series use this urban decay of the American city as spectacle. I will also attempt to show how, through a depiction of urban decay, these shows employ notions of ‘sick’ culture. Firstly, however, a brief introduction of the two series and ideas of city space must be discussed to understand the sites of decay.

The Wire

The Wire, another in a long line of ‘edgy’ HBO dramas, chooses the city of Baltimore, Maryland as its setting. The first and second seasons, which will be the primary focus of this post, deal with the police wire tap investigations of the drug trade and the ports respectively. Narrative switches between the police and their targets, creating a complex vision of an entire society in decay.

Here are some recap clips of seasons one and two which provide adequate background to the show:

The Wire – Season One Recap

The Wire – Season Two Recap

The Shield

The Shield, in contrast, uses more traditional crime drama generic conventions, but subverts conventional cinematography techniques with its use of grainy looking 16mm film stock, lending the series a quasi-documentary aesthetic. It focuses almost solely on the struggles of the Farmington police department of Los Angeles, with a particular focus on the elite “Strike Team” unit and its leader Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) whose primary mandate is to deal with gang-related crime.

The Shield

Vic Mackey and the season 6 Strike Team

Notions of city space in The Wire

The Wire sets up Baltimore as a gritty, urban milieu – a dangerous, unforgiving landscape. The city becomes a contested site or space between those in law enforcement and those people being investigated.

Lefebvre‘s important work Writings on Cities (1996) produces analyses of the city space that are critical in terms of thinking about notions of city in The Wire. His ideas on the implosion and explosion of the city are particularly noteworthy, considering they relate directly to The Wire‘s decaying Baltimore. He asserts that the modern city is fragmented and broken up into the periphery and the centre. The city’s suburbs and ghettos place on increased emphasis on the periphery as a site for the excluded, whilst the centrality of the city is continually reinforced by being the ‘centre of decision-making, of information, of authority and knowledge’ (Lefebvre, 1996: 206).

The Wire's Low Rise Apartment complex - centre for drug trade

The Wire‘s low-rise apartment complex – centre for the drug trade in Season One

These peripheral ghettos produce a new generation of rebels and delinquents (Lefebvre, 1996) in The Wire through the drug trade of the low rise apartment area of West Baltimore in season one of the series. The police and the courts posit the city as centrality base for decision-making and authority in both seasons one and two of The Wire. The telephone wire taps that allow the police to listen to the conversations between those under investigation also establish the city as centre of information and knowledge.

Notions of city space in The Shield

The Shield‘s notions of the Los Angeles city space as likewise fragmented are seen as early as the “Pilot” episode’s final sequence (season 1: episode 1), in which Vic Mackey is positioned as guardian of social order. The montage sequence juxtaposes images Mackey’s Strike Team readying themselves to raid a drug dealer’s house, with images of other officers in the domestic space, performing domestic duties such as greeting their pets and feeding their babies. This juxtaposition, although seemingly simple in structure, serves the function of creating an opposition between the dangerous, public space and the safer, domestic space of the home. This opposition is highlighted by the character Officer Danni Sofa (Catherine Dent), who is preparing for a date. She removes a gun from her purse before leaving, but upon greeting the man at the door she reconsiders this decision and returns for the weapon, unable to leave the safe domestic sphere without sufficient protection from the outside, public space (Chopra-Gant, 2007).

Many facets of Davis‘ influential, urban sociology piece City of Quartz (1992) on the future state of Los Angeles as city can be witnessed in the politics of The Shield. Davis’ (1992: 228 ) idea of a ‘new class war…at the level of the built environment’ can be seen in The Shield, in the way that it deals with continually seeks to insulate the white middle-class from African-American and Latino gangs in spatial terms.

Urban Decay in The Wire

Urban decay in The Wire is established in the city’s peripheries, the slums and low income housing ‘projects’, but it is also seen in the city’s decaying, resource-starved police departments. The first season of the series positions the low rise housing complexes controlled by D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gillard Jr.), through persistent engagement with the various characters, as embodying the city’s moral and economic decay. I intend to argue that it is this moral and economic decay of the city that is used as spectacle in The Wire, and a driving narrative device. The dark and dirty world of the low income housing projects and the world of the slums are set up as the main sites of urban decay in the series, and through investigation of the characters inhabiting these areas we are able to come to a better understanding of this decay.

The low-rise drug dealers of season one

The low-rise apartment complex drug dealers of season one: Poot (Tray Chaney), Bodie (J.D Williams), D’Angelo (Larry Gillard Jr.) and Wallace (Michael B. Jordan)

Through the young character of Wallace, pictured above far right, (Michael B. Jordan) in the opening to “The Wire” (season 1: episode 6), the spectator sees the extent to which urban decay has taken away any semblance of normality, in the sense a nuclear American family, in these slum inner-city neighbourhoods. The episode begins the image of a dead body atop a car, at which point the camera tracks a wire into the bedroom of Wallace. He is seen to be waking up in his bed, then rising to feed countless numbers of small children that he appears to have taken under his wing. The decay takes on a very literal meaning in this sequence, with the house rotting away at the structural level, as well as the children sleeping on dirty mattresses on the floor and a near-empty fridge which seems to suggest that poverty is at a critical level. The sounds of decay in The Wire, which are heard very obviously here, seem to that of a dog barking monotonously, as well as a nearby police siren. It appears as though this entire sequence has been set up for the purposes of showing off the spectacle of urban decay that is engulfing the city, without any real sense of relating to the broader narrative focus of the episode. However, as Wallace leaves the house he finds the body of another ‘game-player’ whose death he inadvertently helped to arrange.

Whilst the finding of the body gives the sequence a broader narrative focus for the episode, it also adds to the spectacle of decay that has been set up in preceding images. Although Wallace is able to leave the decay of the house, he is unable to escape the decay of the city. This leads his character to question his involvement in ‘the game’, and he leaves the city for the countryside. Vitullo-Martin (2008 ) suggests that the slums of Baltimore are worse than even those of the 19th century, because the characters of The Wire do not see a way out, with many having not ever left the confines of the city. Wallace does foolishly return, suggesting that those do find a way out eventually come back, as if seduced by some seedy charm of the decaying city.

Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) left, and Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), as leaders of the drug trade, live above the decay of the low-rises, but still involve themselves at the level of the city

Subsequent commodification of urban decay

The creators of The Wire claim to be presenting a realistic vision of a decaying Baltimore (Vitullo-Martin, 2008 ), which they do to some extent. I believe, however, that they are also presenting the spectacle of decay as commodity in a sick culture, turning this idea (urban decay of a city) into a consumable television program on the HBO network. Urban decay is commodified through representation of life in Baltimore, be it as a police officer, drug dealer or port worker. This commodification occurs through numerous ways (in much the same method that Dogtown Skaters of week 1) in the series:

1. The cool street, slang style of language used by the police and the drug dealers

2. The ‘urban’ music in the show, heard almost entirely amongst the diegesis

3. The attitudes of the drug dealers

4. The clothing of the characters in the drug trade

Although these things add a sense of authenticity to the complex diegetic world of the show, they are still commodified in their representation on the show. The series’ merchandising commodifies the show in a much more literal manner, offering viewers the opportunity to purchase a piece of the show, in the form of ‘hoodies’, t-shirts and coffee mugs, all viewable on the show’s ‘shop’ website.

Merchandise from The Wire – commodification of urban decay

Although the profits from one item claim to be donated to a Baltimore charity, it nevertheless provides the interesting example of the commodification of a city’s urban decay, in order to help save the very same city. Merchandising of The Wire may not be the responsibility of the show’s creators, most probably HBO’s domain, but these items add to the world of the show and give spectators another means of access to the series. The creator (David Simon), therefore, needs to be aware of these commodified forms in which his show is appearing.

Urban decay in The Shield

The Shield‘s urban decay is seen through the representation of gang life and also through depicting the moral decay of police officers, in particular Vic Mackey. The Strike Team’s mandate is to deal with any gang related activity in the dangerous milieu of Los Angeles, and from early on in the series we see that Mackey’s team act as landlords to the drug trade. They allow, for a price, the selling of drugs in particular areas on the assurance that no violence will occur. This ambiguous representation of Mackey and his team is part of an overall depiction of urban decay in the series, one that sees decay spreading right through the city and its institutions much like The Wire. The urban decay represented in The Shield allows for the greater spectacle of Vic Mackey’s fascistic police methods to take place.

The Shield focuses primarily on Latino gangs, the Byz-Lats and the Los-Mags as well as African-American gangs such as the One-Niners. The critical fourth season of the series places an increased emphasis on gang life and membership and the police attempt to curb gang related crimes by seizing property of offenders with affiliations to the One-Niners and other Farmington gangs. This season also sees the drug trade shift from that of crack cocaine to tar heroin, a significant shift in the market which allows dealers to assume more control, for longer over the ‘dope fiends’. All of this makes the site of urban decay a much more complicated place, with tensions building between police, drug dealers and innocent citizens. Mackey’s use of force in adding to the spectacle of decay will be discussed, because of it’s importance to The Shield’s notions of decay.

Mackey detains a young child: his use of force as spectacle adds to the urban decay

Mackey’s use of force as spectacle in the decay of downtown Los Angeles is seen throughout the series and many examples are offered in each episode. The season 4 episode “Grave” offers one of the most brutal displays of force, all in the name of finding a boy who has become addicted to crack cocaine. The Strike team pulls up beside a drug dealer, who they think can help them find the boy. The dealer throws a glass bottle at the window and rides off on a bicycle, at which point the Strike Team’s car then side-swipes the dealer after a short chase, throwing him from the bike, with Mackey exclaiming, ‘this is why you should always wear a helmet’. These excessive, over-the-top displays of Vic’s manliness suggest that masculinity is in some sort of crisis. The series depicts a masculinity that is so overproduced that its artificiality becomes evident (King, 2002) to the viewer. The Strike team finds the dealer inside a supermarket, attempting to conceal packets of cocaine by swallowing them. Mackey’s squirts an entire bottle of mustard down his throat, to induce vomit and reveal the cocaine packets. This aggressive style of policing becomes a part of the urban decay of the city; over-enthusiastic police are seen as thugs by citizens and are consequently distrusted. Mackey’s force, in particular, is given privilege by the narrative; it is pervasive and seen as necessary spectacle to overcome the immense urban decay of Los Angeles’ Farmington.

Commodification of The Shield through merchandising

The Shield presents urban decay as commodification through the Fox subsidiary cable network FX’s merchandising of the show, including a PlayStation video game in which players are instructed to take on the character in the Strike Team and fight the world of drugs and crime.

Commodification of decay: The Shield (PlayStation 2) video game, in which players can control Mackey and other members of the Strike Team in a decaying Los Angeles environment.

The video game encourages players to ‘raid crack dens and criminal hideouts while taking down the notorious Byz-Lat and One-Niner gangbangers’ (Aspryr Media, 2007). The decaying urban environment of Los Angeles has been commodified in the form of this game; with consumers able to purchase the experience of living amongst and policing the decay, all the while doing this in a very detached manner.

As is the case with The Wire, through the merchandising of these types of series that present urban decay as a central and constant theme, the idea becomes commodified – repackaged and sold off in the form of video games (above,) soundtracks (pictured right), t-shirts and other apparel. The merchandising of television shows is a necessary way for the networks to make money from these series, but at the same time this commodification aids in, I believe, diluting the ‘message’ or theme of urban decay that the show is attempting to convey.

In writing (typing?) this blog post I have attempted to highlight how urban decay in presented in The Wire and The Shield as spectacle, and how notions of urban decay have been commodified by the two series. The Wire positions its decay of city as spectacle through displaying sequences, which, although they may have narrative significance in a specific moment, depict extreme poverty, drug dealing, and violent crimes for the primary purpose of an overall vision of a decaying city, through five series of television. The Shield sees actions of police officers as part of the urban decay spectacle, inadvertently adding it to whilst trying to decrease it through excessive use of force. Both series are commodified within the realms of merchandising, which weakens their power to convey an overall theme of urban decay by repackaging their ideas in the form of video games, urban-themed soundtracks and clothing that replicates that presented in each of the series.


Aspyr Media 2007, The Shield, accessed on 1 June 2008 from http://www.aspyr.com/product/story/64

Chopra-Gant, M 2007, ‘The Law of the Father, the Law of the Land: Power, Gender and Race in The Shield’, Journal of American Studies, vol. 41, issue 3, pp 659-673.

Davis, M 1992, City of Quartz, Vintage Books, New York.

Lefebvre, H 1996, Writings on Cities, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.

Levine, M.C 2000, ‘A Third World City in the First World: Social Exclusion, Racial Inequality, and Sustainable Development in Baltimore’, in M Polese & R Stren (eds.), Social Sustainabilty of Cities: Diversity and the Management of Change, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, pp 123-156.

King, G 2002, Spectacular Narratives: Hollywood in the age of the blockbuster, I.B Tauris, London.

Rusk, D 1996, Baltimore Unbound, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Vitullo-Martin, J 2008, Urban Decay, accessed on 29 May 2008 from http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/_wsj_urban_decay.htm


The Wire (HBO, Simon 2002-2008 )

The Shield (FX, Ryan, 2002-)

Useful links:

The Wire – All 5 Seasons – on watchtvsitcoms.