The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-city Neighbourhood – David Simon & Ed Burns

  Earlier this year I reviewed the brilliant Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets which detailed a year in the life of the Baltimore Homicide Department. And now, having missed the actual tenth anniversary date of The Wire’s first airing in the US (June 2 2002, (thanks Tom Robinson for that)) it seems totally appropriate to have a look at the sister book which chronicles the people living and surviving in the urban slums of Baltimore city circa 1993.

The age of the book though, makes no difference to what is a startling and extremely relevant subject, shockingly despite the book being first published in 1997 a lot of the issues contained within are still endemic today.

The cover quote saying this book is ‘a devastating portrait’ and that isn’t the half of it.  For those who have seen The Wire, then this is season 4 but with only a thin sliver of humour. For everyone else who hasn’t watched one of the most powerful and true to life dramas ever produced, I shall give a brief description of what this book deals with.

The treatise is set around some of the areas notorious open air drugs markets.  The narcotics culture has pervaded all over the district and we are introduced to the many diverse individuals who coexist together, everyone from addicts, dealers, the children growing up seeing all the money associated with drugs and community workers.

The portrait of each individual really made me feel close to them, and I was really rooting for everyone to come good throughout, of course with a book like this, there is plenty of adversity and affliction and not nearly as many happy endings as I hoped for.  But this is real life, none of that Disney happy endings for everyone nonsense, it doesn’t happen and people really should stop kidding themselves that it does.

Some of the people, (most of the names haven’t been changed, interestingly) who appear in this book, have me in mind of the tragic characters that Dickens was so successful in creating in all their intense sadness and hopelessness.  To give more depth to each individual, extensive interviews were carried out by the authors over three years chronicling their thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams etc.

As you may have guessed this isn’t the lightest read you will ever come across, and it is certainly more heavy going than Homicide was, yet it is never less than compelling,and when finished it is a book to be endlessly refered too and contemplated.  The subject matter and challenge of the book are a small price to pay though for the understanding that can be gleaned about the social iniquity of one of the most powerful countries in the world.

throughout the text are interfused the feelings of anger, desolation, betrayal and bewilderment. People here feel dismissed and misunderstood as the world around them goes to hell. It also includes the best insight into the young people brought up in the world of drugs that I have ever read. By humanizing the drugs trade, it enables a clearer understanding of so called ‘gangster children’ and how they view themselves and in turn how the outside world views them. It certainly is an opinion changer.

Watch this, but only after the first three seasons.

However it is not all grim reading, there are success stories, there is community spirit (although some of the ‘gang society’ is run on illogical or paradoxical rules, but still it exists) and I would even venture that the word hope can also be used.  I wholeheartedly recommend this book to everyone, for the sheer determinedness of  the people whose lives are chronicled within, it may well change your opinion and will certainly shock but will also teach you something about how you view life and your fellow human beings.

Politicians everywhere should be reading this devastating indictment of the decline of neighbourhood and community, perhaps it would explain a lot about social context,  how the drug dependent survive, how they can be helped and that most importantly without a radical overhaul of a system which fails so many there will only be the gradual deterioration of family values, morals and social degradation in the populace at large.,

This reader never felt that his feelings were being manipulated anywhere in the book, to write a balanced book that doesn’t preach one way or the other is impressive but the authors decided on a pact of not interfering, like wildlife documentors, they didn’t assist anyone, which must have been tough, especially when a certain person wanted to get clean and asked for a lift to the rehab centre because of the temptations of walking down the block and be tempted with all the drugs on the way was too much. Was it callous to refuse? Maybe but the only way to create the proper portrait they were aiming for, you could argue, is not to get involved.



15 Replies to “The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-city Neighbourhood – David Simon & Ed Burns”

  1. A thorough and excellent review Steve…i have heard so much about The Wire but never seen it. I just might check it out along with this book. I try to stay away from shows highlighting these societal ills but the reality is they are real…well done on this!!! Will let you know how the book goes 🙂


    1. I always do my best for you Boomie! The TV show contains a ton of swearing and is a real slow burner but after about six episodes everything just clicks and you realise how fantastic it is. I’m normally not to much into dramas but this really is cracking stuff. Puts UK drama to shame. I will be most interested in your views, as always.


    1. There is something phenomenal about the way it’s written and who it is written about. It may be only 6:15 AM but it’s made my day to hear of your interest.


      1. 🙂 Well, I suppose if was only 6:15 there was still time to knock me out of my spot, but I’m happy to hear I could make your day (for at least part of it!).

        It really does sounds like one of the most interesting books I’ve heard reviewed in a while.


        1. It was one of those reviews where I didn’t post it for ages in case I thought of something else to include, it was a challenge to interest you dear readers but try to not give much away. But I like a challenge.


  2. Call me old fashioned but I still believe in the Disney Happy Endings and that dreams really can come true. After all, I do enjoy writing children’s picture books amongst others and if you believe your dreams can come true, then why not make that happy ending happen.


    1. I agree that there are many happy endings, but that day my realism face was on, there are to many people willing to trust that good things happen just because they can without weighing up the inverse of the situation. I’m not totally negative though, afterall I do like my happy endings, especially The Hundred and One Dalmatians!


  3. We watch little television but we were enthralled with The Wire series, one of our very favorite. I will certainly be reading this book. Thank you so much for the excellent review. 🙂


    1. Well let me tell you, you are in for a treat, with this book and Homicide, you see how The Wire faithfully creates all those real life details, and then you realise that half of them you didn’t notice when you watched it. You’ll be rewatching all five seasons again after guaranteed.


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