Lee Gardner is a senior reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education. He was previously the editor of the Baltimore City Paper.
The creator of HBO’s “The Deuce” talks about the rebirth of Times Square, other cities he loves, and why bureaucrats can be TV heroes, too.
No artist working in television today has more to say about cities than David Simon. A former police reporter for the Baltimore Sun, his 1991 nonfiction book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets became the basis for the NBC series “Homicide,” which launched Simon’s second career as a creator of prestige cable TV content. As the writer and executive producer of the HBO series “The Corner,” “The Wire,” and “Treme,” he has created more than a hundred hours of scripted drama documenting, with reportorial precision, the complexities and dysfunction of American cities. The central conflict of “Show Me a Hero,” a six-hour HBO miniseries from 2014, hinged on affordable housing policy in Yonkers, New York. It doesn’t get more urban-nerdy than that.
Simon’s latest, “The Deuce,” focuses on how the modern porn industry was born in the skeezy cradle of Midtown Manhattan in the early 1970s. While the story, co-created with crime novelist and frequent Simon collaborator George Pelecanos, lives with the prostitutes, pimps, and cops at street level, it also hints at the broader frame of the real-estate machinations that led to the tourist-friendly Times Square of today. As the show’s first season nears its finale, Simon spoke to CityLab from his home base of Baltimore about Balzac vs. Dickens, his own youthful adventures near Times Square, and why cities are the “real America.”
Cities have played a central role in almost all of your television projects. Where do you think that focus came from?
It was sort of thrust upon me. The newspaper where I worked put me on the city desk, and so that’s what I attended to. But once they did it, I got interested in the whole notion of urban living and what was at stake. If you start thinking about issues—what’s working, what’s not working, and why—you’re eventually going to be drawn into the idea of the city as a living, breathing thing.
And the truth is, America is now sited within the cities, and we’re never going back. More than 80 percent of the country is now living in metropolitan areas. That number's only likely to increase as a percentage of the population. So we’re either going to figure it out or we’re going to fail as a society.
Yet over the past few years, the public narrative has often pitted urban “elites” against the ostensible salt-of-the-earth Americans living in small towns and rural areas.
You can go back to Sarah Palin’s speech for the Republican convention nine years ago, when she claimed the mantle of “real America”—the real Americans who live in small towns. What astonishing bullshit, you know? If real Americans only live in small towns, then most of the country is not American anymore.
The Americans I know, who are as committed to the idea of United States as any, they live in cities or they live in suburbs that are oriented toward cities. That’s where the future of the country is. This political gamesmanship that somehow claims an authentic America that is distinctly rural is just bullshit. They’re talking about a present that doesn’t actually exist.
You were a pre-teen in 1971, when the first season of “The Deuce” is set. What was your first experience of Times Square and that Midtown area?
I remember one trip when I was maybe 12 where I took a bus to New York with a friend to go stay at his grandmother’s house. We got off at Penn Station, and we had to walk up to the Port Authority, so I walked up 8th Avenue with a suitcase. And I remember, in retrospect, seeing an astonishing array of street corner sex trade and not having a clue what was going on. At 12, I don’t think I knew what a prostitute was. The other kid had to tell me what was going on when we reached the bus station.
Graduating high school and going to college, I took a summer job with my uncle in an electronics warehouse on Long Island, and I did on occasion drive into Manhattan. I was 17 years old, and I saw a certain amount of what Times Square was, but it was an incredibly dangerous vibe. It felt electric, just completely out of control. And in fact the city kind of was out of control then.
I have no real nostalgia for it other than to remember just how vulnerable, as a 17-year-old, I felt. I remember once trying to buy weed in Tompkins Square. I got sold oregano, or some bullshit. And I was grateful, as I went home to smoke my oregano, because, you know, I was alive. I remember walking into one of the peep-show places. It felt like it had to be illegal at any minute, and it also felt like every other second you were checking your wallet and wondering where you were going to get robbed.
I mean, New York back then, it’s hard to describe it because now everyone turns a corner and walks down a side street and thinks nothing of it. But it used to be if you parked your car on a side street and you walked away from it, you would get about 10, 15 steps and it was dark, half the lights would be shot out, and the city would be barren. There weren’t people everywhere. It was dangerous. I was a 17-year-old over his head. This is a long-winded way of saying I don't think my personal experience has very much to do with “The Deuce.”
Recently I watched Ms. 45, the Abel Ferrara film, showing all these trash-strewn, depopulated Manhattan streets from the early 1980s, and I kept thinking, I’ll bet there’s a frozen yogurt place there now.
Well, yeah, you watch Serpico or Taxi Driver or The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, it’s almost like a Western. It has that same vibe of wilderness. This one shot in Serpico where he’s running down the street—I think it’s probably the South Bronx—it’s just bombed-out four-story townhouses. None of them seem occupied. It’s just rubble everywhere. You’re thinking, My God, this could be Berlin in 1945.
That New York is gone. And New York’s future is not indicative of a resolution to America’s urban problems. New York is a unique place. It’s the financial and cultural capital of the country. It has metrics that other cities can’t replicate economically or culturally. And when they try, as Baltimore tried, to import New York’s version of policing without importing New York’s wealth, it fails miserably.
You sometimes hear people waxing nostalgic about the old, gritty Times Square instead of the new, tourist-y one. Was anything important lost when Midtown was cleaned up?
I don’t know that I’m equipped to say, because I was not part of the arts scene in New York. People could live in New York on very little money in 1977 or ’78, and some of them contributed mightily to the culture of the city and the country. There’s just no denying that that there was a mobility and a practicality to be able to live in Manhattan, or certainly Brooklyn, that doesn’t exist anymore. New York’s become a playground for the rich.
In some ways, to the extent that it no longer reflects the same stratification of race and class, I think something probably has gone out of the city. On the other hand, I’m not one of these people that rushes in to say I wish it was all peep shows and SRO [hotels] instead of Disney and all these corporate logos on 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue. If you talk to people who were living there at the time, they’ll tell you horror stories. It was all an adventure in urban dystopia until your neighbor went down to get the paper at 5 in the morning and got shot to death, because that would happen off of 9th Avenue in the 40s. Or if you were living in the public housing over in the 50s on the West Side, and you had to negotiate your way past all the street walkers to get your kids to school. Forgive me for not buying completely into the notion of nostalgia.
Not that I’m rushing into Bubba Gump Shrimp in Times Square, but, hey, it’s tax base. I mean, I don’t mean to make fun. When stuff [like that] shows up in Baltimore, Maryland, I’m happy. I’ve watched my city lose 120,000 people. The idea that any business wants to come back in and start up—OK, welcome.
So far, the first season has focused mostly on characters at the street level, but there are also hints at a larger story about real-estate manipulation involving organized crime. Is that going to be part of the longer arc of the series?
Yeah. If HBO renews it for its planned run, the second season will be the late ’70s, and the third season will be ’84, ’85, ’86, around there. That really was the period in which the sex trade predominates in this part of Midtown. It settled there because Times Square had always been the obverse side of the coin of the theater district, always a little bit of burlesque and tawdry and street life. It just became more entrenched as time went on. But it was disassembled by other realities, including the value of the real estate. There was more money to be made in cleaning it up than keeping it the way it was. We’re trying to follow the history, and we hope we’ll be able to do it in three seasons.
So much of the work you’ve done for television is about how cities are dysfunctional or troubled or struggling. Are there cities that you think are doing a pretty good job?
There are a few cities I don’t think you can count because they are unique cases. New York is one of them, for reasons stated. A 30-, 40-year run up on Wall Street is that many years of bonuses, and it’s that much layering of money into the culture of New York, so that they’ve rebuilt the city.
If you ask me the reason that first [Mayor Ed] Koch then [Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani had success in terms of managing and reducing poverty and the crime rate, it had nothing to do with policing techniques or COMPSTAT that any of that bullshit. They were able to money the city again. The only thing likely to mug you now in Alphabet City or Morningside Heights is a two-star restaurant. Other cities don’t have that unique infrastructure of wealth. Same thing with West L.A. Not necessarily the whole L.A. region, but certainly West L.A. is attached to an entertainment industry that is recession-proof and has been for generations. And Washington, D.C., is unique. Washington has been able to rebuild itself because of the influence of the federal government.
The Rust Belt cities, the cities that once relied on industry and organized labor and those kinds of jobs, I think all suffer from the same problems. If they manage to get a banking contingent, as some cities have, if they’ve managed to maneuver some portion of their economy into being a center for something other than manufacturing, then they can at least partially address their future. I also think if the city has a couple of good strong research universities and it’s not undereducated—if it has magnets that can address the school systems—that can help. I’d say Pittsburgh. They’ve never had the same rates of entrenched poverty, never had the same rates of under-education, never had the same rates of drug abuse as in Baltimore or Philly, places like this. The last few times I’ve been to Pittsburgh I’ve been pretty impressed with what they’ve managed to achieve.
What are your favorite fictional depictions of cities?
I love what Honoré de Balzac did with Paris. I haven’t read all the novels. I’ve read about half of them. But you realize he’s created such a schematic of Paris in his time that, anywhere you look, you are experiencing life as actually lived, and not merely by the rich but by every practical measure of the entire society. I think his ambition was almost unrivaled.
Dickens did some of the same stuff. People often playfully refer to [“The Wire”] as being Dickensian—we made fun of that. The thing about Dickens is … Balzac walks you right up to the economic contradictions in his society. Dickens looks at them very directly and then almost willfully resolves never to ask the next question, about the Industrial Revolution in England. It’s always some rich uncle or some grandiose coincidence. Or twins or whatever. It’s always some other plot device that allows you to put your heart up on the shelf. I get less joy out of reading him than Balzac.
There’s people that have done it with crime fiction. Everybody from Ed McBain to George Pelecanos with D.C. to Dennis Lehane with Boston to my wife [novelist Laura Lippman]. My wife has actually got even more specific about Baltimore. There was a time there were, in addition to her feminist themes and her female characters, she was also focused on Baltimore County—on the idea of this jurisdiction that surrounds the city—so a lot of her novels were rooted in that framework.
But a lot of crime stuff tends not to capture all of the city. There are people who get off the beaten path and do books that, if you read 10 or 11 of them, you’ve got some sense of city. But I don’t know. I tend to read the people Laura tells me to read. She’s the one who to told me to read Pelecanos. I read Richard Price. I felt like Price had the place surrounded when he was doing all these Jersey City books, one after the other.
TV or film-wise? I don’t know. Can you think of anything?
No, I don’t have a good answer either.
TV or film-wise, I think most people go project to project. Nobody’s trying to build anything on a literary scale, though they’re very good projects. There was a German television series called “Heimat” which was amazing. Ivan Strasburg, my director of photography on “Treme” and “Generation Kill” and “The Corner,” he turned me on to it. Heimat is a small town in Germany from World War I to World War II, and in that microcosm you’d really experience the dynamic of both wars, the feel of one world war to another with the Weimar in between. It’s a brilliant project.
I don’t know. Most people are doing comic books and fantasy. I mean, there are a few things in TV that work really well: comedy, people getting killed, and pretty people fucking. Those three things are tried and true when it comes to currency in television. Anything outside of that that manages to succeed is a lucky break. Did you see “Gomorrah”?
Obviously it was a crime story, and I guess I’m hesitant because it was a really good crime story, and you learn a little something about the urban dynamics of wherever you’re at from a crime story. But the stratification of society beyond the underworld and the forces arrayed against it—that’s not its business, and that’s not where it goes.
It’s hard for anything [on screen] to get into offices and do paperwork. It’s hard to chase bureaucrats. But often that’s where the action is. It just doesn’t look like action.
I’m proud of my work for different reasons, but one of the reasons I’m really proud of “Show Me a Hero” is the heroes were the bureaucrats. Not necessarily the politicians, and certainly not the demagogues. And it wasn’t a police story. The people who really mattered were the people in the housing department and consultants and the neighborhood people who wanted it to succeed.