The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood

The-CornerThe Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood chronicles a year in the lives of a group of West-Baltimore natives. Written by Ed Burns (former police officer and teacher) and David Simon (former Baltimore Sun journalist), you may know of these guys from their other book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, or the HBO television shows: The Corner, The Wire, Generation Kill, Treme, and Homicide: Life on the Street which was based on the book but the show was not helmed by Burns or Simon.

The Corner is centered around Fayette and Monroe, one of the drug market corners in Baltimore. The main characters are Gary McCullough, a once prominent businessman who fell into addiction when his wife Fran left him; Fran is also an addict and their sixteen year old son DeAndre has started slinging on the corner. Although the book follows these main characters throughout, we get to know the whole neighbourhood. The old timer junkies Fat Curt (his body bloated from junk), Rita the local doctor who can hit any vein (her arms are rotting due to infections), Blue, an artist who eventually gets clean, and many other slingers, touts, burn artists, cops and kids.

I have never read anything (non-fiction) that is as tragic and eye-opening as The Corner. You might think why do I want to read a book about human suffering, drug addicts, drug markets and drug wars? My reply is that this book makes up for all the symbolic annihilation of a large society of inner-city America. But it is more than that. Sure it destroys the myth of the American Dream and portrays hardship, but there are moments in this book where people do have dreams, amongst all the shit they are in they can get clean, they go back to school, work and create a better life for themselves, and this is the side of drug addiction we don’t get to see which is a shame as we are all too familiar with the stereotype of a black drug addict and thief.

The book provides some comical elements too, especially concerning Gary, (former businessman turned addict). Gary really isn’t cut out for the addict lifestyle, he is far too kind and never rips people off. He does capers to get his fix (capers are supposedly victim-less crimes / petty crimes). So Gary serves as a bit of comic relief, and is perhaps the most intriguing character in the book with his penchant for philosophy, religion, hard work and heroin.

The Corner, more than anything is a non-judgmental sociological tome that challenges one’s preconceptions about drug abuse, crime and the lower class.

For middle and upper class folk it is so easy to write off addiction and addicts as weak people with no control. I still think that to an extent (more so for low/middle class NZ drug users) but have far more sympathy for those who are born into it. When all you see is your parent spending the government money on dope, people being shot outside your house, some strange man stealing food out of your cupboards and the furniture out of your house, you are molested, your mother is so high she doesn’t even know you are there, where do you go? what do you do with your life? how does throwing money at that fix things? Another great aspect of The Corner is, much like The Wire, its commentary on institutions.

Some may deem the book too liberal and in that case I would advise seeking out the HBO mini series The Corner, it has these characters and their stories without (as much of) the harsh criticism of the war on drugs. I don’t understand how pointing out the truth makes Simon and Burns left wing nutters (a remark I‘ve read once or twice). Burns and Simon are far from nutters, they are truth-tellers who had to earn the trust of the citizens of West Baltimore to bring us this story. Burns and Simon were two white males coming into a predominantly black neighbourhood wanting to chronicle the lives of the inhabitants, probably with a minimal frame of reference to this lifestyle and wrote about these people with respect. In the authors’ note they state how many remembered Ed from his po-leecing days and that it took a while for the corner folk to trust that the two were not police.

Perhaps Simon and Burns’ messages are too raw, or maybe they may come off as too fatalistic, as the pair have no problem admitting they have no answers and no solution, which is my only criticism because it’s incredibly frustrating. All I can say is that it’s great that issues such as poverty, crime, inequality, failing institutions and political corruption are finding their way into the mainstream largely due to these two Baltimoreans and their fine literary and visual works. A must read.

Available in Paperback.

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