One happy ending to "The Wire"

If you found the show's bleak view of the inner city too depressing, you'll love Wendell Pierce's New Orleans rebuilding project.

By Joan Walsh
Published March 10, 2008 12:14PM (EDT)

I'm extremely sad about "The Wire" ending, partly because it's my favorite television show but also, as I wrote last week, I feel like it's at least one hour a week our culture devotes to the crisis of the inner city, and it's over. More stories about wealthy white people, please! I can't get enough!

But I was strangely comforted by meeting Wendell Pierce (Detective William "Bunk" Moreland) at the Summit on Equitable Development, Social Justice and Smart Growth I attended in New Orleans last week. He was there to lobby support for his latest project (not a television show): rebuilding and preserving Pontchartrain Park, the middle-class African-American neighborhood where he grew up, along with former Mayor Mark Morial and jazz great Terence Blanchard. Pierce, like Bunk, is a mensch: On Friday afternoon he stood and smiled and talked and signed autographs and posed for photos with an infinite number of fans until conference organizers apologetically had to shut down the room, and then he continued outside.

When I caught up with Pierce, he was breaking down the last few episodes of "The Wire" with the fans around him. One asked if the show glorified violence and he explained: "No man, you saw what happened to Omar! He winds up in the morgue with the wrong name." He was particularly taken with the story line of Kenard, the little boy who killed Omar after having played Omar with a bunch of other little boys last season. "And what was Kenard doing right before he killed Omar?" he asked the group. My inner third-grader answered correctly: "Setting a cat on fire!" "Yes!" Pierce answered, and since I had his attention, I then turned the tables, asking him a couple of questions about "The Wire," with admirers looking on waiting their turn. Here's some of what he said:

So a bunch of us at Salon, every Sunday, watch "The Wire" and sit around and write to one another about what it all means. We are tremendously sad to see it go. I wrote last week that it was tragic to me that "The Wire" is the only hour each week our culture reliably devotes to the crisis of the inner city...

Yeah, and we had to pitch it to HBO every year -- and it was never nominated for an Emmy! You realize it's gonna be an ongoing thing to get people focused on these issues, because it was such hard work for David to keep it on television. The greatest thing about the show is the writing, it was so dense. You're going to be able to watch the DVDs over and over and pick up things in every viewing.

I still love that we had Kurt Schmoke [the former Baltimore mayor who favored drug decriminalization] on the show in Season 3 [the Hamsterdam drug legalization experiment]. Or that Melvin Williams [a Baltimore heroin dealer "Wire" writer Ed Burns arrested] plays the deacon who helped Cutty. You know Ed Burns caught Melvin and put him in prison, but then made him part of the show. Felicia Pearson [Snoop] had just gotten out of jail for manslaughter, they put her on the show. She done took a life; Melvin, I don't even want to think about what he did, I actually still get a little scared of Melvin when I see him. But talk about reformation...

Well, we will miss you on "The Wire," but you're at this conference because of other work you're doing, trying to rebuild and preserve the Pontchartrain Park neighborhood.

This was an African-American middle-class neighborhood in the 50s. It's built around a golf course designed by Joseph Bartholomew, who'd designed other golf courses in the area that he couldn't play on -- he'd play secret matches on them no one could know about. He designed this one, he said, to have a place African-Americans could play, "a game I love for the people I love." We're trying to rally the second generation of Pontchartrain Park residents as a call to action, to save it. You can find out all about it at Pontchartrain

Pitching Pontchartrain Park, Pierce overwhelmed me with details about the various federal agencies available to finance the project, the senior programs he wants to build there and the model inspiring it (Boston's Beacon Village), the school he wants to preserve (Coghill Elementary, where his mother taught). The policy wonk in me was scribbling furiously and still overmatched. I asked people I trust working on New Orleans rebuilding efforts, who weren't as likely to be starstruck by Pierce as I was, and they couldn't say enough good things about his work, in Pontchartrain Park and all over the city. Sad as I am to say goodbye to "The Wire," I love the fact that one of its stars is using his stardom to challenge the sad neglect of urban America his show chronicled.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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