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Visit to a ‘Corner’ of hell in Baltimore


This fall my Jesuit friend Mark Aita will leave Holy Name Parish, a largely Hispanic parish in Camden, N.J. -- a city so depressed and desolate that the state government has been forced to take over its management -- for what may be an even harder apostolic challenge: West Baltimore.

In Camden, for 17 years, Fr. Mark, 51, a medical doctor, and his Jesuit and lay colleagues have run parish medical and legal clinics, a thriving school, and, Mark’s pride and joy, a Little League baseball team. He has watched children he has brought into the world go on to prep school and college -- or die young to drugs and gang wars.

To prepare himself for Baltimore, Fr. Mark could find a textbook and a training film in David Simon and Edward Burns’ book The Corner and the HBO series based on the book -- presuming he can’t be scared off. The six-part dramatization, which will be repeated on HBO this fall, was produced in a semi-documentary style in the Fayette Street West Baltimore neighborhood. It is a demanding, uncompromising though rewarding TV experience.

The book, The Corner: A Year in the Life of An Inner-City Neighborhood (1997), is by David Simon, who also wrote the book and TV series “Homicide,” and Edward Burns, a retired policeman. The events they describe -- shootings, beatings, drug dens, family struggles and failures -- happened in 1993. They either witnessed or learned from the participants who had come to trust them with the most intimate aspects of their lives.

Aside from a white policeman, Officer Robert Brown, the participants are all black. With a few exceptions, these are not nice people. Nearly all have messed up their lives. They are drug addicts. They steal, lie to one another and themselves, fight, kill, lack the discipline to hold a job, conceive children they cannot care for with women they will never marry.

Many are covered with hideous facial sores and open wounds in arms ravaged by countless needles. And few of them can get through a sentence without blurting obscenities several times.

In short, they embody the worst possible popular image of the urban black person.

They also, in the midst of their misery, in their own way, love one another and insist on seeing themselves as human beings.

The New York Times, in its long, multi-part summer series, “How Race Is Lived in America,” focused one article in the June 11 issue on the production of this HBO series and on the racial tension between David Simon, the white author, and Charles S. Dutton, the black director. Simon thought he was quite capable of understanding black experience; Dutton was suspicious of white writers, demanded a black screenwriter and gradually froze Simon out of the decision-making. He also insisted that 65 percent of the technical crew be black.

The corner is a literal intersection, Fayette Street and Monroe Street, where the young black men stand and sell dope to neighborhood junkies and white kids who drive by. It is also a metaphor for an overwhelming force, like addiction, in one’s life. From time to time a character will flee the neighborhood, as if escaping jail, only to find that his “corner” has followed him wherever he goes.

The events, with flashbacks, unfold within one year like a “Masterpiece Theater” family saga, though there are no country mansions, World War I heroics and dynastic marriages -- only squalid crack houses, street fights and momma’s new “boyfriend” moving in and shooting up.

We focus on three unraveling lives -- Gary McCullough, in his early 30s; Fran Boyd, the mother of their son; and their son, DeAndre.

Gary was once “somebody”; he had a year of college, followed the stock market, had a police job and a future. Now, so he can smoke crack or shoot heroin every day, he pulls “capers” -- steals refrigerators from homes, rips off car batteries and plumbing -- and, for a summer, holds a job in a fish market. Still, Gary is capable of moments of introspection. Sprawled against the wall of a dope den, he tells his fellow denizens that he has just seen a movie on the Holocaust. What Hitler did to the Jews, “We’re doing it to ourselves,” he says. Then the camera focuses on his arm as he draws the blood up into his syringe and shoots it back in.

Fran, once the center of a “happy family,” says she started drugs when her sister died. Now her house, called Dew Drop Inn, is the center for a variety of people, including her two sons and others who use the building as a “shooting gallery.” When others do drugs or steal drug money, she is a righteous scold, until reminded she is no better herself. She joins a detox program but slips back into her old ways.

Her son DeAndre, 16, with a ready smile, is a bit of a charmer -- without an ounce of discipline. He had his first sexual experience at 11, treats all women like toys, has impregnated his 13-year-old girlfriend Tyreeka, skips school, already has a Boys Village incarceration record, throws a temper tantrum when corrected at his short-lived Wendy’s job, and has been selling stuff on the corner since he was 13.

There are brief moments when we think he might do something right. A teacher puts him in an oratorical contest, but he neglects to memorize his speech and reads it blandly from a sheet as judges frown. Ironically, it is a text from Martin Luther King Jr. DeAndre’s sloth is an insult to the words he reads. As his son is about to be born he talks a good game about being a responsible father, but while Tyreeka is in birth pains DeAndre is smoking weed on the street.

Yes, there is one beautiful person: selfless Ella Thompson, who runs the oasis of civilization in this urban hell, Martin Luther King Recreation Center. She sponsors the basketball team, runs art workshops and dances, leads the little children holding hands in a safety chain across the street. She is patient, saintly. But both the book and film warn us that the odds against her are so overwhelming that her situation is hopeless. Intruders rob and ransack her center. One suspect -- DeAndre.

In episode three, after Gary’s reverie about the Holocaust, director Dutton interviews Gary’s father, who moved into the neighborhood in 1955, watched all the whites and successful blacks move out, raised 15 children here and now declares that “all the drug sellers should be rounded up and put in the gas chambers.”

“You can’t mean that,” says Dutton. But he does.

The corner lives today. Many of those we see on screen, including Gary and Ella, are now dead. Dutton brings on the real-life characters in the last minutes of the final episode to somehow wrap things up positively; but it doesn’t work. Yes, Fran has been clean for four years. Tyreeka and her son have been away from DeAndre for three years. And DeAndre is still DeAndre, 22, selling drugs on the corner. And any blah-blah-blah about him trying to learn responsibility doesn’t wash.

My concern is with his son, DeAnte. In the best of possible worlds he will grow up and take a college course where The Corner is a text and the HBO series is in the library’s media center. He will see where he has come from and dedicate his life to liberating his brothers and sisters from that hell.

This is America’s greatest shame -- the destruction, largely self-destruction, of inner-city blacks, by drugs, lousy education, bad housing and no jobs. Colin Powell, in his address to the Republican National Convention, called attention to the “kids who no longer believe in themselves and who don’t see a reason to believe in America.” He gave the addicts and the prisoners eight sentences.

So far, for the most part, the addicts and prisoners have been the invisible men and women of this campaign. Prisoners are noticed mainly when they are executed. And neither candidate opposes their executions. Other than convention rhetoric, I will be surprised if these issues get anywhere near the attention they deserve from either party.

Meanwhile, Fr. Mark will move to West Baltimore, set up a center, maybe a little school or a Little League team. And maybe some day little DeAnte will come to the door.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail address is schroth@murray.fordham.edu

HBO will air ‘The Corner’ on Wednesday nights at 11 p.m. beginning Sept. 6.

National Catholic Reporter, August 25, 2000