New Haven, Through “The Wire”

(Opinion) Back in the 20th century, it was a mark of serious literacy to have read Tolstoy’s War and Peace cover to cover. I never earned that badge, but I recently attained what may become our century’s version: I finished watching all 60 episodes of The Wire, the gripping HBO drama about inner-city Baltimore and its spider web of troubles.

While it aired from 2002 to 2008, The Wire received poor ratings and glowing reviews. The most concise came from Time Magazine, whose editors named it the best television of 2006: “No other TV show has ever loved a city so well, damned it so passionately, or sung it so searingly.” The Wire’s affection for and despair over Baltimore, the hometown of the show’s creators, David Simon and Ed Burns, is made explicit in the last episode, which features two extended montages showing the city in its best light, after the series has spent five seasons revealing it at its bleakest and most violent.

The Wire struck a resonant chord with me, a native of New Haven with similar feelings of enthusiasm for and frustration with my city. One-fifth the size and with a slightly lower murder rate, New Haven is not Baltimore, yet it faces a similar tangle of interlinked and apparently intractable problems: grinding urban poverty abetted by an educational system that, despite good intentions, fails its neediest students year after year, on-again-off-again turf-based violence that can quickly claim young lives, a terrible absence of honest work for a large, low-income population lured to the city three generations ago by now-vanished industries, and a political class whose promises of change seem perpetually compromised by the bargains necessary to win and hold power.

Through its threads of individual tragedy, The Wire has much to say about these communal sorrows. In the hope that it might encourage Independent readers who haven’t watched the series to do so, and help illuminate its relevance to New Haven for those who have, I’ll describe a few things I learned from The Wire.

(Note: This article includes a few “spoiler” revelations about The Wire’s plot, but none that will ruin the series for anyone who hasn’t seen it.)

The Silver Bowl Diet: How Reformers Turn Into Conservatives Overnight

In The Wire’s fourth season, a progressive reformer is elected mayor against long odds, and the city awaits the changes he has promised. Before taking office, the new mayor has lunch with Tony, an older man who had been a one-term mayor decades earlier. Tony chose not to run again despite a clear path to re-election.

The new mayor asks Tony why he retired, and the veteran tells a withering, metaphoric story of his first day in office, when his chief of staff brought him a beautiful handmade silver bowl. “It’s a gift from the unions,” the aide told him, setting it down in front of him. The new mayor noticed the bowl was full of shit. “What am I supposed to do with this?” he asked. “You’re the Mayor, you have to eat it,” said the aide. When he was done, the aide brought him another bowl from another group with a stake in city government, and then another. After a year of this diet, Tony says, he decided that a quiet life as a lawyer and family man was more appealing.

To do his job and keep it, an urban mayor has to take a lot of crap. The inverse of this parable is implied: that a mayor who does the right thing as he sees it, without considering the political implications, will enjoy a very brief tenure. Acting on conscience alone, a politician will inevitably alienate a significant part of his electoral majority. The Wire drives home this point many times, as Mayor Carcetti, the would-be reformer, again and again decides not to make the boat-rocking changes he promised while running for office, frittering away his power in an all-consuming effort to secure first re-election and then the governor’s mansion.

Like Baltimore, New Haven has a “strong mayor” system, but that strength means, as Carcetti learns, that the silver bowls delivered to the mayor’s desk are many and large. An urban mayor’s choices are to a great extent predetermined. Little of his money is discretionary; much of it comes from Washington or the state capitol with chains, not strings, attached. He cannot take dramatic action on any policy question without angering one constituency or another. When no real opposition party exists, as is the case in most American cities, voter participation dwindles, and the party primary determines the contest. In this political environment, a city can feel like a very small town, and the votes of any constituency willing to organize count disproportionately. It’s easy to get swept out of office by angering the wrong people.

Avoid that mistake, and you can hold office for a long time. It takes many years to learn how to navigate such a system without making powerful enemies, and to develop a skin thick enough and digestive tract tough enough to survive. It’s easy to see why someone who makes the commitment to that steep learning curve wants to keep the job once they’ve won it: they’ve invested heavily in a set of skills that aren’t as relevant or useful anywhere else.

Many in New Haven are eager to see the city change. Their hopes take different shapes: a more creative, engaged public education system, a more transparent city government, a responsible, sustainable budget, a return to community-based policing, and so on. A common complaint among New Haven reformers is that the current administration is standing in the way of change, and that electing a new mayor would open the floodgates of innovation and reform in city government.

I have said these things a few times myself, and I may again, but The Wire gave me some sympathy for the Catch-22 of the urban politician: making change means making enemies, and enemies can rob you of the power to make change. Holding office in a modern city strips a politician of his courage with brutal efficiency. The process is as murderous to dreams of reform as the drug industry is to its young soldiers.

The Only Game in Town: Keeping Busy in Post-Industrial America

[T]hree things—autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward—are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.
—Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers

In the fall of 1979, I was a fifth-grader on a school bus headed across town from Westville to East Rock. The bus slowed to a crawl to make its way through a crowd of strikers shouting and waving signs outside the Winchester Repeating Arms factory, which had been threatened with closure by its owner, the multinational Olin Corporation. I was looking out the window by my seat, trying to make sense of what was going on, when it was shattered by a thrown brick. The safety glass stopped the missile, but I’ve never forgotten the shock. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could be so angry and desperate.

The Winchester factory, now vacant, is in Newhallville, a neighborhood named for a mid-19th-century industrial hub, the carriage factory of George Newhall, once the largest such manufacturer in the world. The Civil War cut off Newhall’s primarily Southern business, and the Winchester factory stepped in to become the city’s largest employer, remaining so for nearly a century; at its peak in the 1940s, it employed 20,000 people, almost all of them resident nearby.

You can understand why the area has an empty, abandoned feel to it, despite the incremental renovations of recent years, when you imagine 20,000 people arriving for work in what is now known as Science Park, most on foot or by public transportation. (My great-grandmother was one of them, bicycling there during World War II.) The Winchester factory was only the largest of dozens of industrial employers throughout the city, including Sargent Hardware, New Haven Clock, and the Strouse-Adler Company, which manufactured the Smoothie corset in a factory now filled with luxury condominiums on Olive Street.

Industrially, New Haven is a ghost town. The city’s population has dropped to 125,000, 25 percent below its 1950 peak of almost 165,000; the manufacturing industries, which gave the city a shape and identity independent of Yale, are gone. The university and its hospital, far and away the largest employers in New Haven today, provide jobs to perhaps 10,000 city residents, all told.

Most of us know the rough outlines of this history; for anyone interested in more detail, they are fleshed out in Douglas Rae’s brilliant book on 20th-century New Haven, City. The Wire serves as a grim epilogue to Rae’s portrait of an American city in its heyday: it shows us how industrial decline in cities like Baltimore and New Haven provided fertile ground for the rapid growth of the drug trade.

When the jobs their parents and grandparents held disappear, people of limited education and limited resources often turn to drugs. This is a cliché on the consumption side, but it’s emphatically true on the supply side as well. A young man in inner-city New Haven with no access to a car faces enormous competition for very few jobs. If at all ambitious and intelligent, he will seek challenging and rewarding work, as described above by Malcolm Gladwell.

To an extent unmatched by the few legal jobs available to an inner-city youth, the drug trade depicted in The Wire offers its workers autonomy, complexity, and reward for effort. Of course, it also offers a very high probability of jail-time and violent death, along with the likelihood of having to violate one’s conscience on a regular basis. Those terms are daunting, but set them against the existential horror of permanent unemployment or underemployment, and one can imagine why so many accept the bargain. College athletic coaches and entertainment-industry professionals may be on the lookout for “urban” youth with extraordinary gifts and skills, but the only industry recruiting intelligent young people for steady work is the drug trade.

The unconscious but profound complicity of the public education system is highlighted in The Wire’s fourth season, which follows the lives of four boys, friends at the same middle school, as their adolescence brings them into regular contact with the drug business, and their interest dwindles in a testing-centered education that has no relevance to the future they see ahead of them. Along the way, we are given dozens of anecdotal examples of the ways an inflexible bureaucracy and its strait-jacket of rules make it nearly impossible for teachers and administrators to bring creativity and student-specific techniques to bear on their Herculean task.

Nevertheless, if The Wire names any one cause for the sad chaos it explores, it is the absence of the factory and the myriad other blue-collar jobs to which its characters’ grandfathers went each morning to work. It’s reasonable to insist, as education reformers do, that manual labor should not be the limit of an inner-city youth’s aspirations, but the disappearance of that option is, without a doubt, the primary cause of the communal devastation The Wire depicts. The industrial economy America enjoyed in the 20th century made ours a very rich nation; that economy having served its purpose, we dismantled its machinery, giving little thought to the fate of the people who had operated it. The miseries The Wire chronicles, and somehow manages to transform, are the consequences of that indifference.

Juking the Stats: Letting Data Drive You into a Ditch

In 1976, a social scientist named Donald Campbell made an observation about what happens when we use numeric data to make consequential decisions. What he said has come to be known as Campbell’s Law:

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.

The language is academic, but the point is important to the world we live in.

Campbell’s Law identifies two negative consequences of letting data drive decision-making. Consequence 1 is cheating: the likelihood that, under pressure, the people whose performance is supposedly being measured will “cook the books” to improve their results. Consequence 2 is less obvious but perhaps more important: the pressure for “good” data causes the measured process itself to change, as even well-intentioned participants change their methods and focus to produce the desired data.

The Wire depicts two successive mayors eager to show voters that crime went down and education improved on their watch. The politicians order education and law enforcement officials to produce “better numbers.” We watch both consequences of Campbell’s Law enacted repeatedly as public servants scramble to generate the data required.

Beat cops respond by “juking the stats,” re-classifying crimes to reduce their apparent seriousness (Consequence 1 of Campbell’s Law); long-running investigations into major drug-distribution networks are put on hold for the sake of immediate “buy busts” that produce meaningless (but quantifiable) arrest statistics (Consequence 2); these tactics alienate the street-level participants in the drug trade (both dealers and buyers), some of whom might, with more strategic engagement, turn into valuable sources of information for the police (Consequence 2, again).

While simple cheating (Consequence 1) does not seem to be widespread in the inner-city middle school that is the focus of The Wire’s fourth season, we see several examples of the more subtle corruption of Consequence 2, as teachers are instructed to “teach to the test” and a university research program attempting to reach at-risk youth in creative ways is nearly canceled because it interferes with test prep.

“Teaching to the test” is a common practice in schools threatened by No Child Left Behind accountability rules. It means limiting curriculum to test material and repetitively drilling students on test questions and test-taking techniques in order to boost their scores on standardized test material. Genuine education goes missing, but at least temporarily, test scores show improvement, a perfect example of Consequence 2.

New Haven doesn’t suffer from the same degree of data-mania that afflicts The Wire’s Baltimore. Nevertheless, we do have the same regular crime-statistic-evaluation meetings which, on The Wire, are the scene of managerial browbeating and the confusion of data and reality. (The Baltimore PD recently discontinued these meetings, citing a New York City study showing that “more than 100 retired high-ranking officers believed [the data-driven process] created intense pressure to manipulate crime figures” (“Baltimore Police Idle Comstat Meetings,” The Baltimore Sun, 4/9/10).)

Our new police chief, Frank Limon, brought a colleague, Tobin Hensgen, with him from Chicago, to serve as his Assistant Chief for Internal Affairs, Education, and Training. Hensgen is an MBA, a PhD candidate in the field of research methods, and the co-author of a 2005 book entitled “Managing Information in Complex Organizations.” He’s also a nationally known fantasy football handicapper. When Hensgen was sworn in, he and Chief Limon both spoke about using crime data to predict future trends the way meteorologists use weather data.

I recently spoke with Assistant Chief Hensgen at length about the use of data within the New Haven Police Department. He insisted that quantitative crime data are not used as a factor in decisions about promotion and compensation. That’s encouraging, and suggests that the crime data coming out of the department are more likely to be free of the taint of which Campbell’s Law warns us. More importantly, the act of measurement is less likely to corrupt the law enforcement processes measured.

Education in New Haven is another story. The distorting effects of high-stakes data have been imposed on our schools by Washington and Hartford through No Child Left Behind. Now eight years old, NCLB is seen by many educators and researchers as a well-intentioned mistake. In her recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch documents the damage high-stakes testing and accountability have wrought. With its absurd requirement of 100 percent “proficiency” by 2014 for all students, and the vague threat of “restructuring” that will attend a school’s failure to meet that goal, NCLB has imposed a tedious and curriculum-stunting regime on public education. Its effects are most injurious in the poorly performing schools whose students it was intended to help.

New Haven is home to many such schools, and teachers in our system complain of the problems Ravitch describes. Teaching to the test is common. Despite the overwhelming evidence that a period of physical exercise improves educational outcomes, recess has been shortened or cancelled at a number of city elementary schools to allow for increased classroom time.

The contract recently negotiated between the teachers’ union and the Board of Education received national attention from the media and the Obama administration as a model of reform-oriented collaboration. While it represents progress in that sense, the contract specifies that standardized test data will be used as a primary evaluation factor for teacher promotion and compensation. If Campbell’s and Ravitch’s arguments have any merit, this must raise serious concerns about the increasing impact of data-driven evaluation on education in the city.

Many people of my generation and younger, having come of age with technology that previous generations never imagined, see these tools as part of the solution to problems that have plagued America for decades, if not centuries. Smart and committed innovators and reformers advocate enthusiastically for the increased use of data and analytic tools in education and in other parts of government.

These high-minded reformers aren’t necessarily wrong: data and technology must have a significant place in 21st-century government. Not to use them would be foolish. However, as we take them up, we must be aware of the dangers identified in the early days of the data revolution by thinkers like Donald Campbell, and we must, as Diane Ravitch has done, pay close attention to any evidence of distortion brought about by these new tools. Without that combination of humility and responsibility, we risk validating Mark Twain’s famous line: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

All the Pieces Matter: The Future of the American City

What drugs haven’t destroyed, the war on drugs has.
—David Simon

The Wire began as a crime drama without villains; even the first season offered no easy resolutions. Some of the drug dealers and murderers were arrested, some went to jail, but we weren’t allowed any illusion that that solved the problems the show addressed. Those doing wrong were portrayed with intelligence and compassion, and if we couldn’t forgive the wrong they did, we could at least see what brought them to it.

As the series went on and its scope broadened, this pattern continued, weakening only once, briefly, when David Simon did some personal score-settling at his old workplace, The Baltimore Sun, offering us unrealistic characters who were easy to condemn but hard to believe.

Despite that brief lapse, the show’s great achievement is its authentic and captivating portrait of a city, its ills, and the people who both suffer and perpetuate them.

The insights that there are no easy solutions to our problems, and no single person or group to blame for them, will be vital to New Haven as we attempt to move past The Wire’s conclusion.

From Urban Renewal in the 1960s, through the War on Drugs that began in the 80s, to No Child Left Behind this past decade, our city has been the object of a series of ambitious and well-intentioned policies that have caused more harm than good. Many of these programs were generously funded, and many bright people participated enthusiastically. Nonetheless, with the clarity of hindsight, and in light of their huge implementation costs, largely unmet goals, and unintended consequences, it is reasonable to label these programs failures.

Portraying a city struggling in the wake of those same failures, The Wire is often described as a “dark” and “cynical” vision of contemporary America. Dark it may be, but is it cynical? The Wire presents a bleak picture of the human cost of societal failure, but the show itself is an unprecedented success. In succeeding, it heartens and inspires: if a group of smart writers, unknown actors, and a film crew can capture this reality so well and with so little compromise, surely we can change it.

The Wire provides an implicit lesson in what may be necessary to successfully approach the complex and dynamic problems of urban America. The show was compassionate and open-minded, but realistic; it respected the uniqueness of the place and people it dealt with; it understood that they would change over time, and it changed with them.

Can we ask so much of ourselves? If New Haven is going to change for the better, we have no choice. Amid the wreckage of the best intentions of the past, our only option is to start again, but not from scratch. We have to decide what’s worth keeping and what isn’t, stop doing the things that aren’t working, and figure out what to replace them with.

No one is going to do this for us. If the tasks are daunting, we have the comfort of knowing that, all across America, many communities are in the same predicament, and are fighting the same battle against despair. David Simon is already out with his next ode to a city in distress, Treme, a portrait of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. It’s going to be a while before he works his way down the Tragic Metropolis List to New Haven. Here’s hoping we get ourselves off it before he does.


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posted by: Michelle on October 1, 2010  11:21am

Bravo to Tim Holahan on a wonderfully profound and thoughtful essay. If New Haven is able to remedy some of its most significant problems, it will be due in no small part to the hard work and sustained efforts of local residents like Tim and others, who write, research, protest, and testify at aldermanic hearings out of a sense of outrage and a desire for improvement, rather than reelection.

posted by: Maz Burbank on October 1, 2010  11:45am

Good article, Tim, and it certainly pertains not only to New Haven (where I live) but also Bridgeport (where I teach)and most probably Hartford too. As the music says, we are ‘down in the hole’ here and it breaks my heart for our young urban people that life doesn’t seem to have anything better to offer . Unfortunately, you say “if a group of smart writers, unknown actors, and a film crew can capture this reality so well and with so little compromise, surely we can change it’ but the changes we need are lot more complex than simply making a TV series…

posted by: davec on October 1, 2010  12:02pm

“New Haven.  Where the weird turn pro.”

posted by: Bill on October 1, 2010  3:01pm

It seems one factor that always seems to be ignored or dismissed in analyzing the socio-economic problems of cities is the demise of the family unit. Even in families with 2 parents, both are often working leaving kids unsupervised for much of the day. If you want to get kids off the streets start the school day later, as it used to be, and keep kids in school later, giving them less time to be wandering about getting into trouble. Sometimes improvements can be made without spending more money.

posted by: Teo on October 1, 2010  3:22pm

Alright, Tim!
I’m picking up what you’re putting down!

posted by: D. Sepulveda on October 1, 2010  4:59pm

Tim did a brilliant job citing issues with “data mania” and its potential for abuse.  The article was well-written and insightful.  I hope we can count on more pieces from Tim in the near future.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on October 1, 2010  6:20pm

Excellent article.
Here is a picture of Winchester Repeating Arms from WW1 when less people were employed than in WW2, but it still gives a job impression of what it what economic opportunity was like for European Immigrants:
The building to the top left is now a parking garage that stores suburban workers cars.
Although I’m surprised Williams Finnegan’s book, Cold New World, wasn’t mentioned since it depicts New Haven from a similar perspective as The Wire. David Simon did much of his journalistic work, like Homicide: Life on the Killing Streets (which influenced the police perspective of The Wire) and The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood (influenced the perspective of the drug trade in The Wire), in the late 80s and early 90s in Baltimore when the crime rate in most cities was peaking. The Wire was a great television series, but the scenarios depicted in the police department, the newspaper and the drug trade were a little more relevant 20 years ago than they are today. The drug trade in New Haven, and to some extent in Baltimore, was dismantled and disaggregated by local, state and federal law enforcement efforts in the 1990s, after much of Simon’s relevant work had been published. However, the schools, and the political perspectives were quite up-to-date and relevant to things that are currently happening. All in all the series is definitely worth a watch, but with a critical eye. Similarly, Cold New World depicts a New Haven that exists today more marginally than when the book was being written and published. Still, it is an interesting look into the city at the peak of crime and the drug trade.
The issues of underemployment and chronic unemployment are extremely relevant, however, since the poverty rate in New Haven has actually grown since 1990. Every urban born child is brought into a world with less economic opportunity than the generation before-this is a serious problem that will not be addressed with Science Park development.
No Child Left Behind has also created enormous problems and should be immediately abandoned. The quality of education should not be determined by test results, but by the social and economic conditions in the city. Is unemployment rising because the school system failed, or because there aren’t any jobs in the neighborhood? How will neighborhoods improve if kids keep getting educated out of them leaving only the unskilled, drop-outs behind in the neighborhood?
Getting rid of teaching to the test is an obvious first step for the schools, but after that the focus needs to be on diverse economic development in neighborhoods for people of varying incomes and skill levels. Once the job market grows and diversifies, tackling curriculum improvements, teacher quality, and after-school programs would make sense. The extra funding going towards schools right now should be redirected to policies, initiatives, development, incentives and infrastructure that encourages local networks of commerce, jobs that create tangible things of value that other people want and need, and attractive neighborhoods with mixes of different building types and densities. As neighborhoods diversify, the magnet school system and the associated private yellow busing system can be slowly done away with and returned to a neighborhood-based system where kids walk and ride bikes to school. The money saved from getting rid of the buses can be used for the internal school improvements that will make schooling more relevant for, informative to and conducive to fostering interests in children.
The schools began failing when jobs were sent to China, commerce moved to the suburbs, the middle class was subsidized out, and obsolete municipal boundaries were not modified to new circumstances. Its not the schools failed then everything collapsed with it. Schools are not the center of life, economic opportunity is.
The family unity disintegrated when the head of the household couldn’t get a fulfilling job because it was sent over to China. The enormous social pressures for the male to provide for the family combined with no accessibility to jobs resulted in mass male abandonment from families. In suburbia, the two-income household has also lead to family instability as people spend enormous amounts of time away from each other in socially degrading places isolated from other people. Suburban children deserve better than to be raised by an endless stream of strangers in daycares, television and the internet. They diserve walkable neighborhoods where they don’t have to depend on people driving them around just to go to a friend’s house. Urban children deserve better than drug addicted parents, decaying redlined neighborhoods, and segregation. They deserve neighborhoods that are safe to walk around and that are diverse.

posted by: Jeffery on October 1, 2010  8:32pm

Simon and Burns would have had a blast incorporating the SCF “rabble-rousers” into the script.

posted by: Erica Holahan on October 1, 2010  10:43pm

Tim, you are a fine citizen of this fair city. Let’s get more people passionate about processing and making the hard decisions that ultimately accompany living in any US city. As a wise old cousin of mine once said, “you can’t know until you go”...I think that has practice implications for the Elm City….

posted by: DavidK on October 2, 2010  12:07am

I have read War and Peace and watched all the episodes of the Wire.I live in fear that all the boarded up houses in New Haven contain bodies of dead drug soldiers.

But, I have a different take on the meaning of the story. There is nothing wrong with data driven teaching of policing as long as your using the correct data. We do not have good measures, now. But, to go back to the old practice of throwing more money at the problem is the definition of insa

posted by: Teachergal on October 2, 2010  10:16am

Bravo Tim, i totally agree with your thoughts on this topic. I was a fan of the wire and also saw some direct connections to new haven, especially it’s students. NCLB was a disaster for the NHPS students. Teacher creativity and doing what’s good for kids was taken away from teachers and we were given packets upon packets of test prep materials to cover. We bored kids to death and we continue to do the same. I loved teaching for many years. As a career teacher of 30 years, I have watched programs come and go. I have watched the drop-out rate rise, seen NH ‘s social development program disappear, and see students each day who are bored by the way curriculum is presented to them. I will be leaving the profession soon and hope that NH is able to turn this sinking educational ship around before it sinks. The results of that will be devastating for too many children.

posted by: Steve on October 2, 2010  11:13am

Let me get this straight: A TV show is somehow deserving of mention in the same sentence as “War and Peace,” and urban problems are the fault of our educational system and the fact that “we” “dismantled” our factories. What? A writer who doesn’t even mention the pernicious destructiveness of the welfare system cannot be serious. Welfare was a primary draw for poor families to move to the cities, and welfare was what finally destroyed their families and their children. It’s not the whole story, of course, but how can you not even mention it?!

posted by: Susan Holahan on October 2, 2010  11:37am

Thanks, Tim. Your uncle, and my late husband, Tom Holahan would have enjoyed reading your comments even as he would now be married to a teacher in the New Haven school system and the grandfather of a newly enrolled kindergarten student, also in the New Haven school system. I invite you to come visit my school at any time to see what we can, and can’t do, under the directives of school reform, data based instruction and the new teacher evaluation process. Perhaps your visit will inspire you to Chapter II of your saga…..

posted by: Not Again on October 2, 2010  2:06pm

This story is just more public relations for Johnny Boy. Its not my fault, its the system that causes all the problems.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on October 2, 2010  2:41pm

It is highly unlikely that there are any bodies in abandoned houses. Very few abandoned houses stay that way for long-they are continuously getting fixed up and put back on the market, while others are getting foreclosed upon and boarded up, to wait for a rehab. Groups like LCI, NHSNH, and various private owners are always checking up on properties looking for secure first floor doors and windows. Mostly any broken into abandoned houses are done by kids looking for fun, homeless people looking for a place to sleep or drug addicts looking for metal products. I don’t think many people in real life are stupid enough to walk into an abandoned house with someone they know is carrying a gun.

The television series isn’t a cop drama written purely for entertainment value, it was created by a journalist who has insider knowledge of the workings of the Baltimore PD, the drug trade, the schools, the Baltimore Sun Newspaper and political campaign and governing practices. It is certainly worth a serious look.
You make a good point about government programs aimed at reducing poverty, crime drug addiction, etc because often times that have made problems worse by only addressing symptoms. However, everything else you said is completely make up. Either you made it up or you heard it from somebody who made it up.
Blacks in the rural agricultural south in the decades following the Civil War found employment mainly as sharecroppers. Advances in farming technology as a result of manufacturing farming equipment in the post Civil War urbanized industrial revolution, the same industrial boom that economically stabilized and attracted European Immigrants to America, was the same process that made manual labor increasingly unnecessary. Agricultural restructuring from manual labor to machine labor meant massive unemployment for the black population. During WW2, industry took its last large expansion in this country to supply goods for the war effort. Factories ran 24/7 in New Haven, residents even voluntarily supplied the factories with tin from their homes in order to melt them into guns in the Winchester Factory. This massive expansion in production and job hiring is what attracted southern blacks to northestern and mid western industrial centers in the 40s. At first jobs were plentiful for these migrants. Of course they were the worst jobs and they lived in the least desirable housing, but it wasn’t much different from what each new generation of European Immigrant had faced upon arrival. The only major difference was that after WW2 industry didn’t expand, it massively contracted with the closing of the war effort. The most recently hired workers were the first ones laid off. Blacks didn’t have the 3 generations of economic security and quality education that Europeans had to stabilize their families. Manufacturing had a bad rep by the end of WW2 because it made the city massively polluted, smoke filled, and generally unpleasant. Instead of improving it, there were conscious efforts made to get rid of it. Some plants were modernized and moved to suburban office and business parks, others were just simply abandoned due to higher taxes following the decanting of cities and building of suburbia. There were less residents to pay for the horrible effects of factories running 24/7 and wearing down our infrastructure so taxes were raised instead of annexing suburbs. Places like Sargent Co. were moved to Long Wharf where it was no longer within walking distance of work force housing, actually it wasn’t within walking distance of anything or along any transit line. First generation urban dwelling blacks simply did not have the resources to remain viable in the changing economy.
In the absence of employment the government stepped in in the 60s with programs aimed at combating the problems left from deindustrialization and suburbanization. These “solutions” often made things worse, by making people dependent on the government. Drugs in the 80s again made things much worse, by being disguised as economic opportunity but actually being massive social erosion. Mass imprisonment is the largest problem today-taking non-violent offenders and guaranteeing their long term economic marginalization.
Efforts like the “ban the box”, legalizing drugs and getting rid of government entitlements are only initiatives that address symptoms of deindustrialization and suburbanization. Banning the box, although in itself practical, has implications that may lead to more drastic initiatives that try to address the problems of imprisonment, but will only result in more unemployed people on the street. Legalizing drugs now is crazy. Doing it before crack and meth came out would have been a good idea, but because we waited it’s now too late to legalize what has become a massively socially degrading culture. Getting rid of welfare now wouldn’t make people pull themselves up, it will make them plummet into 3rd world style poverty. Attracting the middle class back to cities and getting jobs for all skill levels back into neighborhoods has to be the top priority. Only after that happens and people get their footing can entitlements be massively downsized, drugs legalized, and non-violent prisoners released into a legitimate economic environment of opportunity.
Part of creating jobs for low skill levels will involve a reintroduction to more manual labor farming. Machines are definitely an important part in ensuring people aren’t killing themselves on the farm, but we need to do agriculture at a scale that doesn’t pollute our ground water, spray our food with chemicals, and make us sick.

posted by: streever on October 2, 2010  8:12pm

Great article Tim! Very engaging.

posted by: Jeffery on October 3, 2010  12:34am

Note yo JH:
The more you write, the less people are inclined to complete the reading of your missives.
People, more often than not, become irritated at your too long and increasingly incomprehensible declarations. When you really get going, the going gets painful.
Keep it short and sweet.
Otherwise you, simply, seem the windbag.

posted by: LE on October 3, 2010  12:57am


posted by: Brian Garvine on October 3, 2010  8:25am

This story omits the most important cause of New Haven’s decline. It has gone on a school building boom that has raised its taxes to prohibitive levels. Why. So its Mayor could pull in campaign contributions from architects and construction companies to fund his run for higher political office. Why was he able to do this. There’s only one political party in the city.

posted by: robn on October 3, 2010  10:46am

Why can’t New Haven be more like Twin Peaks? Sure we’d have demon driven psychotic serial killers running around, but we’d also have the best police force (and the best coffee and cherry pie) in the world.

posted by: Louis on October 3, 2010  12:22pm

One important thing not touched upon: the lack of participating fathers in every troubled neighborhood.

posted by: Jon on October 3, 2010  2:46pm

I was just commenting on SeeClikFix about the cops in NH having their hands tied by lack of funding and dirty politics and then I read this. Nice article, I think about the similarities between the two cities/mayors/cops often.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on October 3, 2010  3:22pm

Feel free to keep on scrolling down whenever you see my name. Usually my long posts are responses to made up things other commenters are trying to pass as being factual. In order to demonstrate why they are wrong, it takes a while to tell the entire story or even a substantial part of the story. If people clearly make the point that they are posting opinions then that’s one thing, but trying to pass off complete nonsense as the truth bothers me especially if we are a country that wishes to have a functioning democracy.

Taxes have been a serious problem in cities since the end mid 20th century when the federal government facilitated a massive decanting of cities and populating of suburbia, which left cities with lower populations to pay for large regional problems. The school project was not planned well and will probably have adverse effects in coming years, if not already, but taxes are not a new problem brought on by the schools. Until the municipal boundaries in New Haven County are redrawn to reflect current relationships, it is unlikely that New Haven will move beyond many of its post-industrial problems. The current municipal boundaries are obsolete, archaic and were drawn at a time when agriculture made up the periphery of the city and not substantial populations of people. Westville incorporated into the city in 1920 when development along the electric trolley lines began booming, Fair Haven incorporated into the city in 1870 when industry along the Mill River and not oystering was providing employment for Fair Haveners. Similarly, as suburbs were being developed along highways, they should have been annexed to the city.

In post WW2 New Haven, a massive contraction of industry meant large scale unemployment in the black community. A combination of society’s pressure for males to provide for their families and the inability to access employment, resulted in male flight from family obligations. The way to reverse this would seem to be to bring low-skill jobs back to urban neighborhoods within easy access of people as it was for generation after generation of European immigrants.

posted by: robn on October 3, 2010  4:45pm


New Haven’s school construction program consists of only 6 new schools with the remainder being renovated. This is far fewer new buildings than the number of architects and constructors in town and unlikely to throw the industry into ecstasy. New Haven also has the highest density of architects and constructors in the state. So maybe there isn’t some insidious quid pro quo, maybe its just logical that local industry contributes to and votes for the local guy.

posted by: anon on October 3, 2010  5:15pm

Data is useless at a citywide level, but would be very useful if properly presented at a neighborhood level. 

Neighborhoods would know first-hand whether or not the cops were the numbers, and even more importantly, they’d know to call for more policing against specific crimes that were bothering them.  If they saw 3 drug arrests all year on their block despite constant drug dealing, they’d know something was wrong with the way the policing was being done, for example.

If the Mayor cites stats about the city as a whole, there’s no way to tell if it’s accurate, and no way for neighborhoods to relate.

There’s no way for a citizen to tell if 90% of the tens of thousands of supposed traffic enforcement arrests are happening downtown, for example, or whether the cops are actually doing enforcement of stop signs in the neighborhood, if all you see is a citywide number.

A few of the district lieutenants have been good about presenting all the local stats in detail, every month…. but mostly this is just ignored.  Ignoring the data just leads to more distrust of our police force.

posted by: Mary Mckintyre on October 3, 2010  7:45pm


Please disclose which architect or construction company you work for? Or do you work for the Mayor? Garven is correct. He is not talking about now, but since 2004 when DeStefano declared his candidacy for governor. The auditors have established that there are too many schools in New Haven for the number of students. The State will be back charging the city for over construction. The number I’ve heard is $23,000 per student per year for 1,200 students. That’s another $30 million in taxes DeStefano will need to raise. Just wait till the other shoe drops.

posted by: Tim Holahan on October 3, 2010  10:40pm

Thanks to everyone posting for the feedback, and many thanks to the Independent for giving me the opportunity to say my piece in long form. Also thanks to Jonathan Hopkins for the great picture of the noon rush outside the Winchester factory. (I should mention that my uncle Dave corrected me: my great-grandmother worked at the factory around the time this photo was taken, during World War I, not World War II. She brought gunpowder home for my six-year-old grandmother to play with. Those were the days.)

To be clear, I didn’t intend this article to be a complete enumeration of New Haven’s problems. My goal was to describe what I learned from a brilliant television show, and draw the parallels with my city. If The Wire didn’t deal with an issue, for the most part, I didn’t, hence no mention of school construction or welfare policy, both important issues. The suggestion that I wrote this article to provide cover or justification for the mayor’s administration or anyone else doesn’t really require a response, I hope.

In the last section, I addressed the question of what cities like New Haven might do, having absorbed the lessons of The Wire. More than endorsing any specific policy or action, I wanted to urge my fellow citizens not to give up, as so much of America seems ready to, on the possibility of positive change, whether through government reform or other community action.

If you haven’t abandoned the idea of progress, there’s plenty of room for debate about where to start. An alternative perspective from Simon’s (and mine) on some of these issues, particularly the effects of deindustrialization, can be found in the work of John McWhorter, a brilliant, controversial African-American academic. McWhorter is a critic of much of liberal social policy since the 1960s, but he’s a fan of The Wire. As it was ending in 2008, he wrote an interesting piece for the New York Sun about his agreements and disagreements with the show. That article can be found here:

One issue on which McWhorter and Simon agree is the “War on Drugs”. The law-enforcement-driven attempt to solve the drug problem from the supply side has failed miserably by almost every measure. Measurement aside, the sometimes-daily reports about the human cost of the war in Mexico are horrific. It’s time for a change. The likelihood that California will legalize and tax marijuana seems promising. I hope that will occur, and that it will be a stunning success; if so, that should give other states the guts to take the plunge. I don’t know what exactly we can do to change course in Connecticut and New Haven; if anyone reading this has a good idea, please make your voice heard.

Education is an issue that’s closer to my heart. I’m far from an expert, though I’ve spent as much time in a classroom (one year, as an assistant teacher) as many national leaders of the education reform movement. (The most salient thing I learned that year was that I had a lot to learn.) It seems pretty clear to me that we can’t divorce academic performance, as the current crop of reformers want to, from the social circumstances of the students and their schools. According to Alfie Kohn, the average cost of a home in the zip code around a school is a better predictor of the test scores of students in that school than anything else.

It’s urgent that the community and government of New Haven more vigorously address the problems of our schools. If there’s an education crisis in this city, however, it’s been going on for decades. Nothing will be achieved by blaming the people working in troubled schools. There’s plenty of blame to go around, and little of it worth assigning. Truly incompetent administrators and teachers must go, but my sense is that they are far fewer in number than Michelle Rhee would have you believe. In any case, the evidence is strong that student performance on standardized test scores is not a valid way to evaluate teacher quality. Peer review is. As a community rich in educators and academics, New Haven needs to push back forcefully against high-stakes testing, and show the state and nation another way to make change. For some encouraging specifics, read this Times article about a success story in Massachusetts:

Finally, I do think The Wire can be ranked with real literature, and can sustain the re-viewing and re-thinking that works of art must. The breadth and depth of the show’s portrayal of an American city has been compared by critics more qualified than me to Dickens and Balzac; David Simon said that his aim was to capture the Greek tragedians’ sense of man as the perpetual victim of his institutions. Whatever comparison works for you, he and his colleagues created memorable characters and gripping stories out of our time and place, and a whole greater than the sum of those parts. We’re in their debt.

posted by: Sheridan McCracken on October 3, 2010  11:35pm

To Jonathan Hopkins.

You end your last post… We need to do agriculture at a scale that doesn’t pollute our ground water, spray our food, or make us sick.

What exactly are you propsing here. That all Negroes go back to being sharecroppers living in poverty so that the elite liberals of the north can continue there life of leisure. So much for equal rights.

posted by: Erica Holahan on October 4, 2010  2:07am

The Wire uses the “running for mayor” motif to portray a dedicated man who loves his city, wants to see things get better, and thinks he is the man for the job. Despite some personal flaws, we pretty much like this guy who upsets and wins the race. As the daughter of a one-time New Haven Ward 10 alderman and two-time mayoral candidate, I can relate to some of the internal struggles the candidate faced, and how hard the public life can be on family members.
  I would like to commend our mayor (DeStefano) for loving our city and working to make it a better place, and his family for living a public life.
  Finally, I would like to say that one does not (obviously) have to run for mayor to love their city or make it a better place. There are thousands of citizens in New Haven and surrounding towns who are doing just that. I keep thinking of that old adage that some high percent (95%?) of accomplishing things is showing up.
  So let’s all keep showing up New Haven, letting our voices be heard, and loving our sometimes difficult to love city. It matters, and it already is making a difference.

posted by: FIX THE SCHOOLS on October 4, 2010  8:42am


Very thoughtful interesting piece you have written.  Thank you. 

The Wire was a GREAT show.  I loved it because of the parallel it drew between the “good guys” and the “bad guys”.  The good guys (the police and the politicians) were corrupt.  The bad guys (the drug dealers) were ruthless but in some ways principled (Think Omar).  Simon seemed to tear down the stereotypes between the good and the bad and portray everyone as human beings reacting to their own circumstances. Brilliant writing.

On your criticism of ed. reformers:  Look, there are two gaps.  The broad international achievement gap that plagues our “good” high schools.  That’s the Finland/Singapore gap where high performing foreign students blow away our high performing students.  It’s a real problem for our slipping old industrial economy. 

So to your point about the evils of “teaching to the test”, if a high performing 4th grader in a high performing school is forced to spend 30 straight days within a 180 day school year being drilled on math problems that she learned 18 months earlier in anticipation of the CMT (which is only a minimum standards test), THAT is an outrageous use of time and will actually stunt learning.

But in New Haven we have the more pernicious and infamous domestic black-white education gap with which we have to deal.  This domestic gap between children from low income urban minority families and their white affluent suburban peers
is about 4 grade levels wide by the end of high school.  In our cities it is not uncommon for a 5th grader to have 1st or 2nd grade reading skills or be unable to add two three-digit numbers together.  The result is that about 10% of African-American males actually get through college.  If you believe that college is a great equalizer, this is completely unacceptable for a society which believes in equal opportunity.

For the very-far-behind, teaching to the test is PRECISELY what is needed.  And by the way, there are wonderful ways of “drilling” without “killing” enthusiasm for learning.  Perhaps you have seen some during you short stint as a teacher,. 

Two gaps with very different approaches needed.  Teachers who take on the domestic achievement gap need to be BETTER than those who teach in suburban schools. These are teachers who have the drive, commitment, and the skills to compensate for the challenges that the kids bring with them.  Can they completely overcome the weight of poverty and all that comes with it?  Not entirely, but they can sure give a kid a much better chance of going to college and breaking the cycle. 

Also, testing has evolved pretty substantially in recent years.  Do you think that AP curriculum and testing is harmful?  If so, apparently our higher ed system disagrees with you.  And while our K-12 public school system has failed the last two or three generations, our university system continues to be the envy of the world. 

I guess it boils down to “What do you think public education should do?’  Provide a minimum level of skill proficiency so that we have literate and docile factory workers as we did in the middle of the 20th century?  Or should public education be reformed to reflect the new challenges of the 21st century in an increasingly competitive and technological world?  Seems to me we need to step up our game in a flat world and make sure that EVERYONE gets to line up on the same starting line together.

Lastly, Go see “Waiting for Superman” and write a review for the NHI and ... your aunt Susan is one GREAT teacher!

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on October 4, 2010  10:08am

Sheridan McCracken,
There is an enormous unskilled and undereducated population in the US that has experienced continual downward mobility for the last 5 decades. These people are not part of the main stream economy and culture, they are living on the margins of society, and our current way of addressing them is through mass imprisonment and throwing money at them through the government. This population includes concentrated urban black and hispanic poverty stricken people, a portion of the recent immigrant population that is involved in the drug trade, and the largest percentage of this population is southern rural white poor people. These groups have been left out of economic opportunity because of deindustrialization, restructuring of farming, and harsher immigrant laws coupled with south and central American drug gang violence.
Our current system of global trade networks that import goods from 6000 miles away is unsustainable. China will eventually develop a middle class that is large enough to meet the demand of their production, rising energy costs will soon make transportation much more expensive, and unemployment because of job outsourcing in the US is going to bankrupt us at some point. Farming is now done at an industrial scale here and in other countries that we import goods from. Entire forests in South America are being chopped down daily just to meet demand for US food production, yet the workers will remain in horrible poverty. Growing monocultures of crops at such a large scale requires us to use petroleum based pesticides and herbicides which render the soil useless in just a few years. Run off of these chemicals when it rains gets into ground water and the hormones we feed to cattle and chickens are not good for people. Rising health care costs are directly related to bad farming practices and bad air quality that is the result of a vehicle dominant transportation system.
In coming decades the US will have to make more tangible goods of actual value that people want and need; we cannot continue to rely on financial and banking trickery to create imaginary capital. We need to do farming more locally to make sure health care costs do not continue to rise uncontrollably. Both these changes will require low-skill workers. It is more likely that the farming would be done by recent immigrants, while the manufacturing work would be done in urban areas.
There are dignified ways to have agricultural labor that uses technology in a balanced way as to not make manual labor obsolete but also not make working a horrible experience. We don’t have to (and shouldn’t) return to the farming system of a century ago in order to do local agriculture. The idea that manufacturing necessitates polluting smoke towers and local farming requires degrading workers is simply false.
I find it much more disturbing to suggest that people who face chronic unemployment and downward mobility are better off living socially degrading lives in trailer parks and housing projects then they would be if they had employment that provided goods that people need, while also becoming contributors to society rather than drains on it. My feelings are that the relatives of southern black migrants who came to mid western and northeastern cities in the mid 20th century deserve the economic opportunity and neighborhood amenities that were awarded to every generation of European immigrant group (except some late Italian immigrants who faced some of the same problems as blacks, although were eventually accepted into main stream society) upon their arrival to this country.

I wonder if its practical to jump from abysmal school performance to world-class in some cases. Perhaps there should be a 2-step system to get abysmal performance back to the level it was at in the early to mid 20th century when the baby boomers were being educated. From there we can take our schools to the next level. An entire generation of people were left behind during the domestic economic shift from manufacturing to financial services. 3 generations of solid employment and education are typically needed to stabilize a family to a point that they’re economically secure. A portion of the urban black population has experienced 5 decades of the exact opposite. The type of social degradation that has developed in this underclass seems like an enormous thing to overcome that will probably require a several step process that weans people off of government dependence through employment, then prepares the next generation for employment in a high-skill economy.

posted by: robn on October 4, 2010  1:21pm


I know that subject of BRIAN’S comment was the 2006 governors race and its clear that the construction industry gave handsomely to Mayor DeStefano. I haven’t argued contrary to that. My point is that there were 6 new schools and there are 100s, maybe 1000s of architects and constructors in New Haven. Where’s the quid in the quid pro quo that BRIAN suggested? If there’s corruption, can BRIAN or you specifically point to it or are you just implying it? If its the latter, implication, how does that help anyone form a better picture of whats going on in the city?

posted by: MrEdCT on October 5, 2010  6:16pm

Thank you Tim.  I really enjoyed this piece even though I’ve never watched “The Wire”.

I only have one nit to pick.  I would estimate the vast majority of people that work at Yale New Haven Hospital do not live in New Haven.  So even one of New Haven’s major employers still does not really support its local residents.

posted by: Tom Burns on October 5, 2010  9:38pm

Great article Mr. Holohan—-The Wire was an interesting show——Holohan, Campbell and Ravitch have hit it on the head—-as has New Haven and Garth Harries—we are forced to play a game we wish not to as politicians and no-nothings talk about test scores——WELL MY DAUGHTERS CALLIE (13) AND CASEY (11) ARE MUCH MORE THAN JUST TEST SCORES AS ARE MY OTHER CHILDREN (THE STUDENTS OF NEW HAVEN). We will be the first city to measure what counts, while still having to play the “game”—-keep watching as this miracle unfolds—with patience,perseverance and strong, consistent leadership our teachers and administrators are up to the task—the nation is watching and ready to follow—-We will get this right and for all the right reasons—Tom Burns

Tim-you mentioned earlier that standardized tests are a primary factor for promotion and compensation (this is not so)——just to set the record straight—Tom

Thanks for the great article

posted by: Matt on October 5, 2010  10:58pm

A wonderful article.  As a former New Haven resident, it brought back memories of the city and its many difficulties (though it has improved since the 1990’s).  Another example of just how many universal truths can be found in The Wire.

posted by: Too Long in New Haven on October 7, 2010  9:45pm

I don’t have television, and am unfamiliar with The Wire.  It appears that the Baltimore story mirrors New Haven, and keeps your speech interesting, but not without pro-and-con arguments about every paragraph, and certainly from every reader.   

Regarding how things have changed, and the fault/blame/guilt of and about the schools and the lost manufacturers, how about this:  One gorilla in the room is the presence of many thousands of illegal aliens, who I didn’t see mentioned by Mr. Holohan. One estimate was that illegals are 12% to 15% percent of City residents, invited by our mayor and our wealthy City to load the already immense school system, without regard for planning for the broad burden they represent.  Anyone who visits ANY of the businesses which traditionally employ urban high school kids, and people looking for part-time work, can see the illegals’ cost to the traditional fabric of New Haven.  Ask the students and the guidance counselors: they will tell you of a genuine “Great Depression,” offering another take on genuine and incontrovertible unfairness and urban hopelessness.  Oh -better yet- ask the PARENTS of these kids, whose children have been moved over and out, in favor of whatever-it-is that the Mayor engineers. Let’s see how you and your readers dance around this one—