When writer David Simon was growing up in Bethesda, his only impression of Baltimore came looking out the window of his father's Impala when the family drove to New York to see relatives: "A smoky downtown in the distance, auto graveyards and piers with old cargo ships -- my idea of it was a very working-class, industrial city and not a pretty place," he says. "Certainly any subtle charm escaped me at that age."
Simon's 1991 award-winning book "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets" was turned into an NBC series in 1993, and "The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood," which he co-wrote with former cop Edward Burns, became a successful HBO miniseries in 2000. Both were shot in Baltimore, as is Simon's third venture, "The Wire," a fictional series in real settings. Simon's television projects pump an estimated $20 million to $30 million a year into the city's economy.
Nancy Hinds of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association notes that "every television show, every movie, every song that's written about Baltimore, you would like it to be very positive and rosy. [Simon's] shows don't portray Baltimore in the best light, but he loves Baltimore and he's not doing it to harm. Basically he's telling a story that happens in every big city, not just Baltimore. And it's not the Baltimore that visitors see when they come here for vacation or business."
The second season of "The Wire" was built around Baltimore's docks and how their decline has affected the working-class white neighborhood of Locust Point. The terminals that spread from Sparrows Point along the harbor line continue to be an inspiring setting for Simon.
Simon likes to drive by the Seagirt Marine Terminal (2600 Broening Hwy.; 410-288-8602). It's the port's largest pure container facility, home to seven 100-foot-tall cranes that can move 35 containers an hour; three are dual-hoist systems capable of lifting two containers simultaneously. "I'll pull over and watch through the chain-link fence for a while," Simon says, because "it's proof that we're still a city, especially if there's anything going out: 'Look at that, something was made here, and now it's going somewhere else!' It's a very simple pleasure, but I like it. Those cranes are beautiful."
Simon also likes to take visitors to the Hebrew Friendship Cemetery (3600 E. Baltimore St.) for "the story you tell getting there and the story you tell walking away." That's because it's the last resting place of Harry Weinberg, "one of the richest men to ever die in America," Simon explains. "This is the quintessential Baltimore story, the perfect cycle of Baltimore life."
Weinberg, who died in 1990, opened his own tire store in 1922 at age 14 and got rich through mass transit and real estate acquisitions. "All he did was make money; the guy couldn't miss," Simon says. "He finally ended up in Hawaii, where he bought most of Maui just before the 707 came in and jet travel was possible. All of a sudden Hawaiian real estate mattered, and he had all of it." When he died, Weinberg's fortune was estimated at $950 million. The publicity-shy local boy, who had bought burial plots at one of Baltimore's oldest Jewish cemeteries in the '40s, had set up the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation in 1959, and upon his death all but $3 million of his estate was given to the foundation to improve the lives of the poor in Baltimore. The trust, now estimated to be worth $2 billion, gives out $100 million a year, and many medical and social services facilities in Baltimore carry the Weinberg name.
"This guy couldn't shake Baltimore off him if he tried," says an admiring Simon, adding: "No matter where you go, Baltimore gets you in the end. This guy was the richest guy in America, could have been buried on the hillside in Maui, and yet he couldn't give up the plot. 'Hey, pal, I'm from Baltimore!' It's beautiful."
-- Richard Harrington
is working on his third series set and shot in Baltimore, the HBO drama "The Wire."