From Baltimore to Lod, ‘Wire’ actor sees urban decay as universal problem
The grim TV series shocked viewers with its depiction of inner-city life. Star Gbenga Akinnagbe had seen Lod before.
Over the centuries Lod has been conquered by many people: Romans, Ottomans, Jews, Christians, and more. The city has been subject to a long list of ailments, starting with the revolving cast of conquerors. In these ways, Lod closely resembles the Baltimore that’s portrayed in HBO series “The Wire.”
I played the part of Chris Partlow in the show. From growing up in broken environments and the months I spent filming on set, I could see, firsthand, how accurately “The Wire” depicted Baltimore, Maryland.
The creators of the show insisted on a brutal honesty rarely allowed on television. For many who thought Baltimore’s ills were solely due to drugs or its poor, black population, the HBO series destroyed the media-driven illusion. Poverty knew no race in the show.
I know inner city America like the back of my hand, but I’d never walked through the ghetto streets of another country. Change the food and the faces, and it’s the same thing. I roam the streets of Lod with brothers Tamer and Suhell Nafar as my guides. As members of the rap group DAM, they are hometown heroes. Instead of drugs and violence, they turned to music and community activism. The brothers often give tours of their forgotten city. I’ve taken the tour twice.
Its small size makes Lod easy to dissect. Its varied ethnic history makes it a fitting microcosm for “The Conflict” as a whole. Currently the city’s major inhabitants consist of Georgians, Yemenis, Moroccans, Indians, Russians, Ethiopians and Arabs. A little bit of everybody.
Suhell, Tamer and Jackie Salloum − the director of “Slingshot Hip Hop,” their documentary on Palestinian hip-hop − take me to one of their favorite spots to eat. Excited, I take out my pen and notepad. I have a million questions. However, Tamer encourages us to eat first. I dig into the hummus, eggplants, pitta and sauces. I try not to look like a greedy American, but it’s too late.
Outside the restaurant, I see the same kids riding bikes around the same rubble and burning garbage I noticed when I was here ten days earlier. For the poor − Jew, Arab or otherwise − things usually don’t change.
One of the first things I was told when I arrived in this land was that time doesn’t exist here. I know another place traumatized so badly that time itself is affected. Ironically, “Wire” creator David Simon is in that city telling its story as well with “Treme” − New Orleans, there’s no place like it.
In New Orleans, there are only two measures of time: before and after Hurricane Katrina. It’s the same in Lod: before 1948 and after. A great deal of the poverty was either created or magnified after ‘48. The efforts made to make the city more Jewish seemed to circumvent the natural ebb and flow of the long-standing metropolis. It was as if the city was a creature that fought back by punishing all the inhabitants. Years later, a second exodus would occur when wealthy Arabs and Jews left the city for more affluent neighborhoods and to live abroad. Lod got poorer.
We are going to Dahamash now. The village is old and was around way before ‘48. Since ‘48, Dahamash has been deemed “Unrecognized.” The entire village, housing about 600 people, is subject to demolition. It’s easy to tell when you are close to the village. A sharp, pungent smell hits me in the face like a short punch to the nose. Before I can ask what the stench is, I see it as we turn the corner. Mountains of garbage rotting in the sun line the dirt road into the village. “Can we stop for a second?” I ask Tamer. Grimacing at the smell and protective of his son in the back, I can tell he doesn’t want to, but he does.
I ask the photographer to get pictures of this unbelievable site. Being a photographer, he loves the visual aesthetic of it all but can hardly take his hand off his nose long enough to take the pictures. I can’t wrap my head around how sanitation and water services could be cut off to people because the state declares where they live “Unrecognized,” although they were there before the state! It’s like a tragic joke.
Tamer and Suhell take me to the famous Station neighborhood. One of the first houses you see when crossing in from the train tracks looks like it could be a drug-dispensing house, with its barbed wire, high fence and video cameras. My concerns are substantiated when Tamer asks me to lower my camera and not photograph that particular house. “They look the same in Baltimore,” I tell him. “Drug dealers always need to watch for who’s watching them.”
We continue on. The neighborhood is Arab. It’s called the Station because the entrance sits on train tracks. Directly across from it is a lower-middle class neighborhood, also near the tracks. A few people, including children, have died crossing these tracks, Tamer tells me. After years of asking the city to do something, a number of kids were killed in a single year. The city finally responded by putting up a wall to protect the residents − but only on the Jewish side. The homes on the Arab side are only separated from the tracks by a layer of garbage and a partial fence already felled by the growing wall of trash. The city doesn’t provide regular services here, either.
A value system prioritizing human beings is firmly in place in the politics and cultural norms of this city. The policy of home demolitions is destructive to all people looking to live in true equality. For the unemployed, displaced, and racially devalued, drugs − selling and using − are often the only option. Compound this with the fact that the citizens of Lod do not get to elect their own mayor and there’s little wonder that the cycle of poverty has spun so out of control.
But wait, there’s hope. My impressions of the city are not all bleak, believe it or not. I try to look at most everything around me through the scope of history. When I look at Lod with those eyes, it is clear that this weakened city will never fall. It has seen the worst and the best this region has to offer. It has been the center of art, commerce, bloodshed, racism and coexistence. Lod is not only Baltimore but all of us, at our ugliest and our most glorious. The faces and ethnicities may change but Lod/Lyd will outlive us all.