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Profile Image for Kinga.
479 reviews2,254 followers
April 1, 2020
"The Corner is rooted in human desire - crude and certain and immediate. And the hard truth is that all the law enforcement in the world can't mess with desire."

I have this flaw in my character that I am extremely judgmental. I try to fight it. I try to tell myself I don't know the circumstances. I can't see the whole picture. But no matter how hard I try, there is always that voice in my head that keeps saying "why can't people just get their shit together". You know, go get a job, stop selling drugs, leave that abusive relationship, don't join a gang, don't do drugs. Just say 'no', right?

I will tell you this - no one has managed to do more for my personal improvement than David Simon and Ed Burns with this book of theirs. I can almost feel I am a better person now. 'The Corner' is a documentary of one year of the Corner of West Fayette and Monroe in West Baltimore. People getting high, people selling drugs, people getting in trouble, people shooting each other, kids having kids - you know the statistics. Now, Simon and Burns show you the people behind the statistics. They don't patronize or infantilize their subjects. They humanize them. They tell you like it is, they don't try to justify them, or blame everything on the system.

This is not an easy read because the portraits of Fran, DeAndre, Gary, Blue or Fat Curt hit a little close to home. Well, of course I like to think that if I were born in the ghetto I wouldn't let that happen to me, I would just work hard, and try hard, and I wouldn't get in trouble.

Because I am so strong-willed, right? I can't fucking manage two days without chocolate but I would make it out the ghetto.

As the authors say: "Yes, if we were down there, if we were the damned of the American cities, we would not fail. We would rise above the corner. And when we tell ourselves such things, we unthinkly assume that we would be consigned to places like Fayette Street fully equipped, with all the graces and disciplines, talents and training that we now possess."

If this book doesn't bring you close to tears, I don't want to know you, you must be a bad person.

Now, on the other hand, this book also made me want to become a dope fiend. Just a little bit, you know. Imagine I could swap all these conflicting desires and needs I have for just one need and desire - to get that blast. Just that. No other emotional and material needs. No need to find love or a more fulfilling job or start family or make more money, just get a blast. A simple goal, achievable on a daily basis. Yeah, fucks you up good in the end, but it doesn't matter because what matters is to get a blast. This is a very simple code: get a blast and never say never because you never know how far you will go to get a blast.

Oh God, this book was great. Can David Simon go and live somewhere else for a year and write me another one like that? That's all I want for Christmas, thank you. The language was beautiful and literary, and full of slang at the same time and somehow it didn't sound like your dad trying to be hip. You might listen to a hundred rap songs, and you won't have a clue. You can watch all the 'urban movies' you can download in the whole wide internet and you still won't understand. Read this book and you might just begin to have an idea.

This book deserves a song in the review:
Profile Image for Kiekiat.
69 reviews126 followers
January 30, 2020
'The Corner' reminded me a lot of the Elliot Liebow book, Tally's Corner, which was a sociological study of black men that hung out on the street corners of Washington, DC in the early 1960's. 'Tally's corner was a type of immersive observer sociological study that produced a classic work. I was not surprised to learn at the end of the book that Simon and Burns, the authors, had used a style similar to what Elliot Liebow used--of embedding themselves into this neighborhood, one of over a hundred "drug corners" in Baltimore, and watching the goings-on, the tragedies, triumphs, hope mingled with sadness and all of the daily workings of a group of people they came to know.

The main focus of the group was on one family and their sometimes close, sometimes slight connections with various denizens of the neighborhood. The family included Fran Boyd, a heroin addict living in a shooting gallery when we first meet her. There is her ex, Gary McCullough, whose family figures largely in the book. It was McCullough's father who first arrived in Baltimore as a youth from Salisbury, North Carolina, after enduring one too many beatings from his father. Fran and Gary's son, DeAndre McCullough, also has a lead role in the book. DeAndre is 15 when we meet him, "slinging" drugs with a crew of semi-loyal friends and a cousin. Gary McCullough is now a dope fiend (the jargon used in the book) and needs to get his daily fix to put things right with the world. To get the fix, Gary, among other fiends, pulls what he calls "capers," which involve everything from stealing scrap metal out of houses to shoplifting irons in a suburban mall. Fran is also a dope fiend needing her daily fix and her sons DeAndre and DeRod live with her. Fran also has to hustle to feed her habit and take care of her kids. She's a conflicted character who clearly loves her children and has urges to straighten up and get "clean," i.e., get off the drugs. The main drugs used on the corners are heroin and cocaine in powder and crack varieties. Almost none of the sellers like DeAndre use hard drugs, most sticking with marijuana and beer.

The neighborhood has a recreation center funded by grants and run by Miss Ella Thompson, a woman whose 12-year-old daughter had been raped and murdered five years before. Ella channels her immense grief over the murder into helping kids of all ages at the Rec center and recruiting locals to coach a basketball team for the older boys and to teach art lessons to the younger children. She is almost an archetype in rough neighborhoods around America--the saintly woman who shepherds the children with love and forgiveness, while at the same time harboring no illusions about the grim realities of neighborhood life.

'The Corner' opens a window to a world that few Americans ever really experience. The really "bad" sides of a city, where few of the people are white, most are poor and some are quite dangerous. These are the sorts of areas that people from the suburbs avoid if possible and drive through with trepidation. Baltimore remains one of America's most dangerous cities, and the drug corners, far as I know, still exist, just as they do in most blighted urban hellholes.

Simon and Evans present a nuanced view. Yes, many are sucked into life on the corner, either selling dope, using it, or both. But some people get out and join the military or find jobs that give them more opportunities at ordinary, unfulfilled lives. They maintain ties to the old neighborhood only to go to church or visit family still living in the maelstrom. Likewise, one of the great strengths of the book is that it refuses to turn the corner's residents into stock characters. Humanity with all its mingling of good and evil, sorrow and joy, is brought out in various scenes the author's observed. Corner people routinely help each other, often sharing the same residence that is either abandoned or owned by one of them. Just as often, they will put the screws to a comrade, stealing his or her dope or failing to divide the spoils equally from a joint caper. The teenage males in the book rarely attend school, yet sometimes they do surprising things. DeAndre, for example, mysteriously volunteers to read Martin Luther King's, "I have a Dream" speech in front of a school assembly. He does such a great job that his teacher enters him in the city speech tournament, where he loses to more experienced public speaks but manages to deliver the speech with dignity and power. Miss Ella forms a rec center basketball team and DeAndre and his crew join up and enjoy playing despite losing every game. Gary McCullough, DeAndre's father, pulls capers to get his daily fix, but on many nights he pours over favorite passages in the Bible and peruses such writers as Karen Armstrong. At one time Gary had a good job making $55,000 per year and had a stock portfolio worth $150,000 which he had built up with wise investments--an astonishing accomplishment for anyone dealing with the vagaries of the stock market.

If you've watched the HBO series, "The Wire," then you've basically seen life on the corner. It is a world of addicts, dope sellers, stick-up men (usually males who rob dope sellers at gunpoint or steal the dope stash. The drugs are nearly always in another location in case the police happen to visit, which they do on occasion. Usually a crew sells the drugs, which in Baltimore are often supplied through contacts in New York City. Most of the sellers on the corner are black males, as are the crew. It is a coordinated effort as the seller hawks his product, one or two of the crew stand lookout for the police or the occasional robber, and another goes to the stash--the hidden place where the dope is kept--and gets the buyer his drug of choice. A favorite of those on the corner is the "speedball," a mixture of heroin and cocaine. Several corner junkies "get clean" while some other heavy users finally succumb to years of toll the drugs have taken on their worn-out bodies.

The authors pass no judgments on the residents of the corner. They are more critical of the society that has caused such a place to exist in almost every major city in America. Baltimore, so they say, had a mere 2000 heroin addicts in 1958. Now there is an estimated 45,000, though the actual number is unknown. Politicians and talking heads on TV constantly babble about the sudden "opioid epidemic" in this country--yet based on statistics of estimated heroin users, we've been experiencing this "opioid epidemic" for fifty years or more.

Reading this book led me down several rabbit holes. I began buying some books on the drug cartels of Mexico and Colombia and also started reading a book I've owned a long time, 'The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade.' The authors ask the question, "Why do Americans use more drugs than any other nation in the world?" I also wondered why! 'The Corner doesn't attempt to provide answers and, so far, I haven't found any, yet. What "The Corner' has done, though, is given us a window on a world few of us will ever experience and, I hope, has helped readers put a human face on a population largely disenfranchised in modern America.

Profile Image for Matt.
936 reviews28.6k followers
April 27, 2016
This is a difficult book to discuss. After all, it tramples all over the third rail of American life: race. It’s about an inner-city neighborhood that’s nearly as far from my own life experience as possible. As an outsider looking in, it’s hard not to blurt out something hopelessly condescending or insufferably judgmental.

I am white. I came from the suburbs. I played soccer and listened to Blink 182. I came from a different place than the Baltimore citizens chronicled in David Simon’s and Edward Burns’ The Corner. My corner is not their corner. My understandings and assumptions are not theirs.

The Corner serves as a bridge between worlds and understandings and mindsets.

In Simon’s police classic Homicide, he spent a year with Baltimore homicide detectives, giving us a grim, often-grisly look at a violent city that averaged a murder a day. The one shortcoming of that book is that it was too one-sided. In following just the cops, there was a stark unbalance between police and citizen. The (mostly) white cops became distinct individuals, with varying styles and strong personalities. On the other hand, the black victims, perpetrators, and civilians became a blur. They became an Other, an alien species.

In The Corner, Simon and Burns give us the other side of that coin. Here, the authors imbedded themselves in the neighborhood, spending a year following a handful of people living in the area of Monroe & Fayette.

Based on what I’d read in Homicide, I expected this to be a bloody tale. It’s not. That doesn’t make the depiction of this neighborhood any less bleak. Life around the corner of Monroe & Fayette is an endless hustle, a day-to-day struggle for a little bit of money or a little bit of dope. It is a scarred and pockmarked place of rundown drug houses, gang-infested corners, broken families, and a wilting community center; it is a community populated by slingers and fiends and petty criminals and teenage mothers and unwatched kids, and a few stolid citizens trying to keep the whole thing bursting at the seams.

At the center of this story is fifteen year-old DeAndre McCullough. The reason, obviously, is DeAndre’s youth, a time when all the mistakes are still waiting to be made. The most notable thing about DeAndre is that his position as The Corner’s center is not based on any exceptional quality. He is no Good Will Hunting of the projects, no character from a Horatio Alger novel. He is a delinquent and a truant and a small time drug peddler. In terms of his environment, he is average, and therefore, a perfect portal into this world.

The Corner also spends a great deal of time with DeAndre’s parents. His father is Gary, a onetime seeming-success story, who was making as much as $60,000 a year in early 90’s dollars. Drug addiction destroyed his career, and now he gets by running small-time hustles (which he terms “capers”) to steal scrap metal. DeAndre’s mother is Fran, who we first meet stealing her son’s stash. Fran is the archetypal junkie, ready to quit the needles and the high, just not today, and probably not tomorrow, but maybe next week. Throughout the book, there is a will-she-or-won’t-she- quit tension; anyone familiar with addiction will know how it turns out.

Other peripheral characters (if that’s the right word for actual people) include Fat Curtis, a longtime user who’s mostly used up; DeAndre’s various friends; Tyreeka Freamon, DeAndre’s girlfriend; and Ella Thompson, who runs the local recreational center and is the closest thing to a hero this anti-heroic book has to offer.

Of all the people followed by Simon and Burns, there are some noteworthy exclusions: there are no cops, no detectives, no outsiders at all, really. The Corner admirably avoids the Dances With Wolves/The Last Samurai syndrome of filtering a place and a culture through the eyes of a visitor. To the contrary, Simon and Burns work hard to disappear; at no point in the text do they draw attention to themselves, or remove the focus from their journalistic subjects.

(The level of depth and detail is astounding, and seemingly impossible to explain. It is worth reading the Author’s Note to understand Simon’s and Burns’ methods).

This book, like Homicide, is written in the profane, informal, sometimes darkly funny idiom of the streets. However, this never comes off as forced or patronizing. In other words, it doesn’t sound like a white suburban wannabe trying to talk gangster. Rather, Simon and Burns have spent so much time walking this beat, they seem to have absorbed its rhythms, cadences, and languages. If the streets had a voice, it would read like the pages of this book.

While The Corner is most concerned with the lives of the people it follows, it is also a polemic, a broadside across the bow of the endless and unwinnable drug wars.

Get it straight: they’re not just out here to sling and shoot drugs. That’s where it all began, to be sure, but thirty years has transformed the corner into something far more lethal and lasting than a simple marketplace. The men and women who live the corner life are redefining themselves at incredible cost, cultivating meaning in a world that has declared them irrelevant. At Monroe and Fayette, and in drug markets in cities across the nation, lives without any obvious justification are given definition through a simple, self-sustaining capitalism. The corner has a place for them, every last soul. Touts, runners, lookouts, mules, stickup boys, stash stealers, enforcers, fiends, burn artists, police snitches – all are necessary in the world of the corner. Each is to be used, abused, and ultimately devoured with unfailing precision. In this place only, they belong. In this place only, they know what they are, why they are, and what it is that they are supposed to do. Here, they almost matter.

Simon and Burns certainly have a grasp on the troubling consequences of criminalizing addiction; however, The Corner is far more than a screed against our nation’s draconian drug laws. Indeed, the authors refuse to lay all the problems of the inner city at the feet of any one culprit.

In The Corner, everyone shares a bit of the blame: broken families and fatherless kids; unfair laws; overbearing cops; failing schools. Everyone takes a hit. Simon and Burns pay no attention to political parties, ideologies, or sacred cows. They are willing to expose the systemic failures at every level. And that’s what it comes down to: the failures of our institutions.

The realness of The Corner prohibits any false redemption arcs. To Simon’s and Burns’ credit, there is a striking sense of compassion and empathy in every page. But because this is real life, and not the fiction of The Wire, things don’t always turn out the way we hope for these people. Sometimes, things don’t really turn out at all, they just keep plodding along.

Despite the verisimilitude of The Wire (which Simon created), there is a certain glorification to the drug-running and violence and cat-and-mouse games of the inner city. It plays out like a Greek tragedy, in which the heroes and the antiheroes struggle on the corners, all the while being controlled by the various godlike institutions – City Hall, Police Headquarters, etc – that rule over them and ultimately control their fates. There are tragedies, of course (poor Wallace), that felt real. But for every bit of cold, hard, documentary-style realism, there is a moment of Hollywood swagger that broke the effect (the mythical Omar, for instance).

There is no glorification in The Corner. There is no false ennobling of the day to day struggle to survive. There is only a mess, and no clear solutions for cleaning it up.
Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,565 reviews1,891 followers
March 6, 2019
This book is a collaboration between former journalist David Simon and former policeman Ed Burns, both probably best know now for their television work in particular for the modern Greek tragedy The Wire. Simon enlisted Burns- who had retired from police work to introduce him to his former beat, and presumably watch his back, and they then got to know and interview addicts and street corner dealers, and non-drug related residents including a woman running a youth centre, this book is the result, as in Simon's Homicide it follows a number of different people struggling with varying degrees of lack of success to get on with rolling their boulders up hill sisyphian style.

Reading this you get an understanding of just how much work there is involved in being a drug addict, or at least in being a poor drug addict, an exhausting non-stop business. The reliance on good will in providing community services, itself dependent on the support of flawed individuals comes across very well, as does the difficulties and tensions inherent in providing state (and therefore necessarily bureaucratic) services to a population who, due to addiction, are only intermittently able to function as citizens.

For fans of The Wire you get to see in this book a lot of the inspiration for the addicts' side and to some extent the drug dealers side of the story.
Profile Image for Diana Townsend.
Author 14 books33 followers
June 24, 2013
The interesting thing about The Corner is I used to pass this exact corner in the summers when I visited my Grandmother. I had no idea that that corner was a drug corner; I was so sheltered and naive back then. I knew there were drug dealers and addicts, but they were everywhere it seemed and it became a staple in the backgrounds of my visits. Interestingly enough, I learned to fear these addicts, walking past them with my cousin and seeing them high out their minds, I would just look at the ground, embarrassed for them, wanting to erase their ugliness from my mind as soon as possible. Then, The Corner comes out on HBO. I watch it and forget about it. I remember being transfixed on it but losing myself in the acting, never caring or connecting the fact that this was about real people. Fast forward to a few months ago, my husband and I watched the entire seasons of The Wire. We loved it. Inspired, I convince him to watch The Corner, which I always thought was a spin off from The Wire; I was wrong. We watched it with our adult eyes and I fell for Gary's wide eyed innocence and DeAndre's poetic toughness. I felt for Fran and was angered by her as well. After surfing the internet to see what they were all up to, I find that DeAndre has died from an overdose and my heart breaks all over again for this family. Almost everyone, except Tyreeka and Fran, is dead.

Reading this book, I felt lost. I felt like the only thing that spared me from living this exact lifestyle that DeAndre and CMB and Tyreeka were forced to live was I was lucky enough to be born somewhere where open corners were virtually unheard of. You had to seek them out, they didn't seek you out. I grew up afraid of drugs, allowing afternoon specials to convince me that I was better than that, while these kids grew up around drugs. DeAndre never really had a chance and that pisses me off. It makes me so angry that Fran spent so many years high and never took the time to really raise him, and neither did Gary, and then DeAndre falls right into their footsteps. I know we all make our own choices but honestly, what choices did he have? I am finished with the book but I feel like I will never truly be finished with any of them. I feel like Blue, Ella, Pooh, Fat Curt, Gary, DeAndre, Tyreeka, and Fran will always haunt my dreams. I think they will remind me to stop being so judgmental. To stop acting so self righteous. To remember that not everyone chooses this life, that they kids being born into it didn't ask for this.

Rest IN Peace you guys... I will never let myself forget your stories.
Profile Image for Max.
347 reviews336 followers
August 27, 2015
The Corner documents the intractability of the inner city drug culture and the pervasive hopelessness that charts the destinies of its citizens. Simon and Burns spend 1995 in a Baltimore neighborhood with an open drug market – the corner. They follow the everyday lives of the corner’s participants; the dealers, addicts and their families. The portrayals are heartfelt and heartbreaking.

Drug infested communities are often approached as a problem but The Corner depicts them as a systemic self-reinforcing culture. We might find a solution to a problem, but where do we begin to change a culture that readily sustains and replenishes itself. Its victims often die in their teens or their twenties from drug related violence or drug induced illness. But they have already had children who are destined to take their place. Few escape the corner. Most are condemned to repeat the cycle.

Simon and Burns have done an incredible job of bringing this bleak world to life for those of us who view it from afar through the media. Most of us in the suburbs and affluent sections of the city are just looking for ways to protect ourselves and our children. Today while we lament the victims of ISIS, we mostly ignore the victims of the corner. Partly this may be because we consider drug addiction a choice, but the authors show that this choice is an illusion. Children are raised by children who are themselves already addicts. There is only one life they know and can fit into – life on the corner. The authors make clear those growing up in the thousands of corners throughout America are a human tragedy of grand proportions.

As Simon and Burns realized in 1995 and as we are finally coming to accept today, we can’t arrest and incarcerate away the problem. There isn’t jail space enough. The war on drugs, drug enforcement agencies with huge budgets, mandatory sentences are not only doomed to fail, they undermine the police agencies they were designed to help. Meeting an officer’s quota by locking up street dealers and frisking every bystander not only inflames the entire community as we have recently witnessed in Baltimore but it is ineffective. This is because the real issue is the drug culture not the drug transaction. As the authors put it:

We want it to be about nothing more complicated than cash money and human greed, when at bottom, it’s about a reason to believe. We want to think that it’s chemical, that it’s all about the addictive mind, when instead it has become about validation, about lost souls assuring themselves that a daily relevance can be found at the fine point of a disposable syringe.

Our politicians, police and pundits typically offer up self-serving opinions and answers that aren’t answers at all. Unfortunately, Simon and Burns offer no solutions of their own. Now 20 years later in 2015 Baltimore has flared into violence as racial bias and overly aggressive policing led to civil unrest. Yet while everyone wants fixes that will quell the protests, the deeper underlying issues of the corner at the heart of that Baltimore community seem to be forgotten.
Profile Image for Stephen.
4 reviews
May 29, 2010
I have the unique perspective of having lived on "The Corner" for a year, and in the neighborhood for two more. My review might be biased because I don't have the luxury of distancing myself from the characters or saying "such and such was probably embellished for dramatic flair."

The characters in The Corner are real people struggling to live "normal" lives in the face of circumstances that 99% of us would consider absolutely unacceptable. Burns and Simon stay with each character long enough to break through their one-dimensional exterior that makes it easy for us on the "outside" to dismiss. They paint a picture of injustice, ignorance, selfishness, selflessness, hopelessness, hopefulness, and finally - humanity.

Despite how raw, true, and honest this book is, don't expect it to offer a simple conclusion or resolution to chronic poverty and drug use. Expect to simply sit with each of these people and see their real humanity break through. The easy labels we use to categorize good guys and bad guys melt away and we find ourselves confronted with stories that share similarities with our own. The drug dealer becomes a father. The drug fiend becomes a mother. The slut becomes a daughter. The criminal becomes a son.

This corner doesn't have to be in Baltimore in the early 90s. There's a corner in every city in every age. The drug of choice may change every once in a while; the welfare system may receive an overhaul every few years, but on the streets, in the houses, and on the corner sit our brothers and sisters in humanity.
Profile Image for C.E..
195 reviews8 followers
March 13, 2008
Books don't get much more powerful or moving than this.

The premise is simple--Baltimore Sun reporter Simon (who's lately been earning acclaim as the driving force behind HBO's "The Wire" which takes place in the same area)and Ed Burns spent a year living on or around one of the busiest drug markets in Baltimore and reports what he learned. In doing so, he tells the stories of the people who inhabit this world: street pushers, kids trying (although often not that hard) to stay straight and the parents who worry about them, when they're not too busy trying to score their next fix. The stories are harrowing--from people who spend their days cashing in scrap metal for cash to get hooked up, to families sharing one small bedroom in a shooting gallery. Pretty much everybody is hoping for a change in fortunes, but the book offers few happy endings. In spite of this, its a fascinating glimpse of a world where most of Simon's readers will never go.

The narrative is occasionally broken up by Simon and Burns' musings about the war on drugs. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, its hard to disagree with Simon's belief that the war has failed, at least in his little corner of the world. There's a particularly powerful passage near the end where Simon flat out shatters the Horatio Alger myths that many middle-class suburbanites cling to, particularly the idea that should they find themselves in that situation, they'd simply apply a little Puritan gumption and work their way out their unfortunate circumstances. In the end, he doesn't offer any solutions and precious little hope.

Yet, the people who live there are more than mindless junkies. They're human, with hopes and dreams and stories to tell. Perhaps Simon's greatest achievement is the way in which he employs his sharp eye and powers of observation to paint a wholly three-dimensional and, given the circumstances, refreshingly non-judgmental picture of a community in deep decline.

In the end, its an amazing powerful read, one that will leave readers deeply affected and likely having shed at least a couple of tears along the way.
Profile Image for Ted.
515 reviews744 followers
June 9, 2019
Fat Curt is on the corner.

He leans hard into his aluminum hospital cane, bent to this ancient business of survival. His fattened, needle-scarred hands will never again see the deep bottom of a trouser pocket; his forearms are swollen leather; his bloated legs mass up from the concrete. But then obese limbs converge on a withered torso: At the heart of the man, Fat Curt is fat no more.

"Yo Curt."

Turning slightly, Curt watches Junie glide over from the other side of Fayette, heading into Blue's for the evening's last shot.

A stunning book by David Simon and Edward Burns, the producers of the highly praised TV series The Wire. That was fiction. This isn't.

"A year in the lives of an Inner-City Neighborhood". The City? Baltimore Maryland. The neighborhood? A couple of blocks along Fayette Street, shown on a map near the front of the book.

And the corner? Fayette St. and Monroe St. An open-air drug market, one of many shown on the map, as they existed in the early 90s.

The people that appear in the narrative? Real people, many of whom gave the authors permission to use their real names in the book. Several of these find their way into a section (following page 290) of photographs. The real photographs of real people. DeAndre McCullough. Fran Boyd. Gary McCullough. Fat Curt. Ella Thompson. "R.C.". Tyreeka Freamon. And a "jump out" of cops searching for drugs perhaps being carried by three teen-aged Afro-Americans a few steps from that corner of Monroe and Fayette.

These pictures I turned to again and again as I learned more and more about these people.

An astounding exercise in sociological reporting, detailing the thirty year failure of the American "war on drugs" - billions of dollars wasted, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of lives ruined, young people growing up in these neighborhoods sliding into the drug culture and the majority never able to get away from it.
Profile Image for Jamie Smith.
495 reviews79 followers
June 16, 2021
Had I known before I checked it out that this book was published in 1997, I might have passed on it, thinking it too far removed from present day concerns to be of much value. That would have been a mistake, because its unflinching examinations of the causes and consequences of drugs and poverty are as apt today as when it was written, and sadly likely to be just as apt far into the future.

These are the mean streets of Baltimore, at the height of the crack epidemic of the mid-90s, and the height of the AIDS epidemic as well, the disease so common it was referred to simply as The Bug. This was a time where there were an estimated one hundred to one hundred twenty open-air drug markets around the city. The corner of Monroe and West Fayette, in impoverished West Baltimore, was just one of them, and the book’s maps show that there were others just a few blocks away in any direction.

The book pivots around the McCullough family, and in particular their fifteen year old son DeAndre, along with friends, neighbors, and accomplices in the drug trade. Drugs break everyone; the only way out is to get detoxed and then physically leave the city. Those who stay, even with the best intentions and a firm resolve, get pulled back with the inexorability of gravity.

We, in our smug self-righteous middle class way, tell ourselves that we would never surrender, that we would stay in school, work hard, get the help we need to avoid or treat a drug addiction, and make something of ourselves. How adorable. If you can’t muster the resolve to lose ten pounds, how would you ever beat a heroin addiction?

These people are not just poor, they are the forgotten, abandoned underclass of urban America. We toss them a monthly welfare check, and food stamps, and a little something extra for each child, but we are long past the idea that the money is helping pull them out of poverty and rebuild their lives.

Welfare is a bribe – and a fairly good one at that. For more than two decades it’s been a bribe and only a bribe, stripped of the higher ideal that once accompanied the payoff. Those ideals called for a process by which poor and damaged citizens could be rescued and made whole, but such a process has proven more costly and problematic than anyone initially imagined. So the nation has retreated from that commitment, using check day as a rear guard. The pretense of salvaging human beings has been gradually reduced to a string of elemental transactions: Take this. Shut up. Stay put until next month when there will be more of the same. (p. 407)

The struggles of the McCullough family provide the book’s narrative thread, and indeed their story puts real names and faces to lives ruined by poverty and addiction. DeAndre’s mother loves her kids and does what she can for them, while still spending her days urgently looking for the next fix, willing to do anything for it. Gary, her former husband and DeAndre’s father, was once a successful man with his own company and a bright future, and now it is all gone. He lives in the basement of his ashamed parents’ house, planning what he calls ‘capers’ to get him high once again. To call them capers sounds almost lighthearted, but he will steal anything from anyone, even those as desperate as himself, to get his next hit.

The book does have a hero, Ella Thompson, who in spite of her own loss, the murder of her twelve year old daughter by a human monster, turns her grief into something positive, running the local recreation center to give children a safe, caring place to spend a few hours after school. Many of these children’s parents are too deep in their own addictions to care for their sons and daughters, so Ella is the only bright spot of love and compassion in their blighted lives.

Drugs are the economic heart of the inner city. “How do you make police work matter when more than half of Fayette Street, perhaps eighty percent of those between the ages of fifteen and thirty, is in some way involved in the sale or use of heroin and cocaine?” (p. 178) Without drugs, what would be left for these people, other than occasional dead end minimum wage jobs? The welfare check money would not last a full month anyway even if most of it were not spent on drugs in the first few days after its arrival. Survival requires hustling. You can sling drugs yourself and risk jail time, or work as a tout calling out the day’s brand of dope, or as a lookout or a runner. Even the lowliest of these can make more money in a day than a minimum wage job pays in a week.

The book gets to the heart of these issues when it leaves behind the McCullough family and examines the larger causes and consequences of how we got here and how it affects everything.

For instance, in police stations everywhere there is a saying: stupid criminals make stupid cops. A zero-tolerance policy leads to police chasing down the most inconsequential players in the drug economy, which solves nothing other than padding arrest statistics. There is little time and few resources left for tackling the people whose arrests might make a difference, and because it takes no skill to jump out of a car and arrest a lookout or a tout, the cops don’t learn the important skills of stakeouts and working informers and piecing together evidence. Sweeping up a bunch of the low level guys also allows for plenty of overtime to fill out the paperwork, as well as paid court days where they spend their time sitting around in the very unlikely event that they are called to testify because the accused wants a trial instead of a plea bargain.

Even when a user, called a fiend in this book, as in drug fiend, get arrested no one is saved, and whatever help they receive only puts them in better shape for their next hit.

That’s the irony of a drug arrest at the street-corner level: Locking up a hardcore fiend won’t close the shop or stop the product. It won’t keep anyone from the game, or pave the way toward rehabilitation unless a fiend genuinely wants to quit fiending. The real tangible benefit from day-to-day police work in the drug war is medicinal: A run-and-gun player gets hit with a charge and, like it or not, he gets a brief convalescence. He gets some food, some sleep, maybe even some antibiotics. He gives those tired old veins respite. Then, when the whistle blows, he’s charging out of the penalty box for more of the same. (p. 103)

Better schools are not the answer. “To those who argue that the urban school systems of this nation are underfunded, or understaffed, or poorly managed – and in Baltimore, at least, these are fair accusations, every one – there is this equal and opposing truth: The schools cannot save us.” Even the small percentage who make it through to graduate have been poorly served from a system dumbed down to keep the kids coming to class. It reminded me of when I lived in Washington DC and would read with dismay the articles that regularly appeared in the newspaper of kids who had graduated from a DC public school at the top of their high school class but struggled to pass community college courses.

Even the socializing effect of an alternative curriculum – the kinds of skills designed by desperate educators to get these kids to the most basic level of employment – has no real application on Fayette Street. Job interview techniques, cooperative learning, managing emotions, interpersonal discipline – stuff like that will get you hurt at Fayette and Monroe, where the rules of that corner demand not social skills, but unhesitating ruthlessness. (p. 309)

And so everyone is going through the motions: the addicts play the justice system to get a reduced sentence in exchange for detox that they don’t take seriously; the cops arrest people whose arrest will make no difference; the social workers talk and talk to people who aren’t listening, and the school system makes a big, expensive show of pretending to teach.

In Baltimore, as in every other beleaguered city system, the administrators and bureaucrats have for decades wrapped their failure in the latest educational trends, programs, and jargon, as if changes in approach or technique could ever matter. Back-to-basics, alternative schools, privatization, magnet schools, teaching the whole child – all of it offered up as slogans in place of meaningful endeavor, as if the Titanic could have reached the New York harbor narrows with a more seaworthy set of deck chairs. (p. 312)

Out in the safe middle class world there is much hand-wringing about teenage pregnancies, with the assumption that if we could only get through to these kids having kids, explain to them the consequences of having children too soon, we might be able to break the cycle of poverty, but that assumes there is actually something out there worth waiting for.

On Fayette Street, the babies are born simply because they can be born, because life in this place cannot and will not be lived in the future tense. Given that fact, there is no reason to wait. The babies speak to these child-mothers and child-fathers, justify them, touch their hearts in a way that nothing else in their lives ever will. The government, the schools, the social workers, the public-service announcements wedged in between every black-family-in-the-suburbs sitcom – all wail out the same righteous warning: Wait, don’t make the mistake, don’t squander every opportunity in life by having a child too young. But the children of Fayette Street look around them and wonder where an opportunity might actually be found. The platitude is precisely that, and no one is fooled. (p. 258)

There are scenes in this book that made me angry, or sad, or tore at my heart. So much potential, so many lives squandered and lost. On these blighted streets those who make it to forty-five are considered exceptional, survivors against long odds. In the book’s epilogue, written a couple of years after the events described, some of the young men are already dead and others in prison. Only a very small number made it out, in each case beating their addiction by literally leaving town and leaving the drugs behind. In 2012 the New York Times published a sad coda to the story: DeAndre himself, having been clean for years and working as a drug counselor, got pulled back in and overdosed.

Times change. Since the book came out, heroin faded as a drug of choice, only to reappear now that the government has belatedly cracked down on the opioid free-for-all, after the pharmaceutical companies made their billions. Desperate drug addicts are now more likely to be suburban or rural, and all those politicians and preachers who spoke patronizingly of blacks being unable to confront and surmount their addictions are silent now that many of the new addicts are white and displaying the same social pathologies as black ghetto dwellers.

This book is worth reading for the terrible story it tells of the people caught in the maelstrom of drugs, but is even better in its clear-eyed analyses of what life is like for the abandoned underclass. There are no suggestions for fixing things, because the authors are too smart, too experienced to expect real change. As things were before, so they are today, and thus will they ever be.
Profile Image for J.M. Hushour.
Author 6 books207 followers
June 19, 2020
Simon & Burns, as masterful as ever, walk you through a year of a drug corner's goings-on. the most poignant part of this work, and there are many, is very similar to their main theme of their other work, especially The Wire which is the harrowing story of the crumbling of American institutions. The Corner is part biographical sketches of various folks on the corner, focusing on a young drug dealer and his addict parents, but also part scathing indictment of institutional racism, the "war on drugs", how we deal with poverty and policework. As you can see, it is quite timely.
Like their other work, Simon and Burns dig in and let the people speak for themselves and you will be at turns horrified and hopeful, but that is precisely the point: without recognizing the former how can you get to the latter?
Profile Image for Cynnamon.
571 reviews102 followers
October 28, 2020
DNF after 100 pages

Very authentic, but too depressing for me at the moment


Abgebrochen nach 100 Seiten.

Dise Doku über das Leben aus einem sterbenden Viertel von Baltimore voller Drogenabhängiger, Verzweifelter, Hoffnungloser und Kleinkrimineller ist unbeschreiblich authentisch, aber daher auch für mich zur Zeit einfach nicht zu verdauen.
Profile Image for Jess Penhallow.
348 reviews21 followers
June 14, 2019
Wow. What a powerful story of people stuck in a cycle of poverty, drugs, and crime. The fact that these were the stories of real people made them all the more affecting and I was rooting for them all even when they did some terrible things and even knowing that this is not fiction, these people's lives are not at the whim of the author, they are the whim of the many forces of life.

I don't read a lot of non-fiction but this book was engaging in the way that fiction is. The authors picked the moments in a year in the lives of these people that would construct a real narrative and character arc like those of fictional characters. It was truly masterful to the extent that I had to read the author note about 25% in to ensure that all these events really occurred.

I won't be forgetting this book in a hurry.
Profile Image for Víctor .
243 reviews4 followers
January 24, 2022
“Este libro es una obra periodística, los nombres que aparecen en estas páginas son, de hecho, los nombres reales de las personas que han vivido y luchado en la calle Fayette, al oeste de Baltimore.”

Lectura de estas que marcan y que tienes que asimilar durante un tiempo una vez la has terminado.

La Esquina es un retrato real desde una de las partes más crueles y desoladas de América. Es el relato de las personas que nacen, crecen y mueren en unas calles repletas de drogas y donde toda idea de futuro parece una fantasía, un simple sueño inalcanzable.

Nos adentramos en uno de los peores barrios de Baltimore de la mano de varios protagonistas, cada uno con su complicada vida que vamos descubriendo desde su punto de vista. Entre personaje y personaje aparecen varias reflexiones o apuntes de los escritores, normalmente para dar más información de la situación social del momento y para hacer una crítica sistemática al sistema y gobierno americanos.

“Para cada individuo, ningún destino es cierto y la esperanza siempre perdura. Pero la esquina en sí misma es inmutable.”

De ritmo lento al principio me costó pillar el punto a la obra, pero una vez empecé a empatizar con los protagonistas ya no había forma de dejar de leer. En muchos momentos llegué a sentir frustración, porque pese a ver briznas verdes en algunas partes de las historias, la realidad que se cuenta no es fácil de digerir.

El final me pareció real como la vida misma, porque esto es lo que a lo largo de los capítulos se refleja, la verdad tal y como pasó, pasa y seguirá pasando.

“Han pasado treinta años y ahora la esquina de la droga es el centro de su propia cultura. En la calle Fayette, las drogas ya no son lo que ellos venden o consumen, sino lo que ellos son.”

Creo que podría recomendar esta obra de David Simon, así como sus series de la HBO a cualquiera, pero me atrevería a decir que esa persona tiene que estar concienciada de que lo que va a leer o ver no es algo bonito, es la triste vida de gente que ha tocado fondo “desde el corazón roto de América”.
Profile Image for Jen.
358 reviews37 followers
June 25, 2011
A very heavy book--figuratively and literally. At over 500 pages, I did have a little trouble with the length--I wasn't always compelled to pick it up and read more, given I was going to read about more hardship, disappointment, and misery. However, I understand why the authors wanted to give a year-in-the-life of the people they wrote about--it gives a fuller spectrum of their day-to-day lives. For those of us outside "the corner" life, this book gives a lot of intimate and personal details about the people who are in it, letting us see their inner turmoil and aspirations--or lack of aspirations. For people who ask of the urban poor, "Why don't they try to get a better education? Why can't addicts go to rehab and get a better life? Why do these teenage girls have all these babies? Why can't law enforcement get rid of drugs in the neighborhood?", this book offers a lot of insight into these questions. The authors don't have answers to them, but they humanize the people in the maelstrom.
Profile Image for Julia.
93 reviews1 follower
February 5, 2008
This is quite possibly one of the best books I've read! Ed Burns and David Simon undertake a journalistic approach to the traditionally anthropological method of ethnography- the descriptive documentation of a living culture. The result of over a year of living among and gaining the trust of individuals within the culture is an amazingly engrossing story of the year-in-the-life of the residents around an open-air drug market on Baltimore's west side.

Focusing on a core of approximately 10 individuals, including several family units, this book provides an honest and often painful insight into life in the inner-city ghetto. Its characters cover a range of age and degree of drug-involvement, providing a broad perspective on addiction, hope, and choice. Their relationships to themselves and one another are portrayed in their own words and thoughts, providing an intimate portrait of a group of people often ignored or written off by mainstream culture.

Presented in the style of fiction, but altogether true, this book provides the chance for a broad audience to gain a better understanding of the living situation of the urban poor in this country. For city-dwellers, suburbanites, or rural residents, the Corner is an opportunity that should not be missed.

** And for those of you who don't like to read (which I realize is unlikely to be anyone with a goodreads account), the miniseries adapted from this book by HBO is a powerful and well-encompassing portrayal of the text.
Profile Image for Mariel.
667 reviews1,070 followers
March 23, 2011
Ed Burns and David Simon's The Corner gave me a lot to think about. I really could not stop living in it, or talking about it to anyone who would pretend to listen to me (life before I wrote reviews on goodreads).
Their journalistic approach of living with their subjects (in no way are the people within this account "subjects". I'm not good with word choices) for a year and being able to not leave their own footprint in was fascinating to me, for one thing. Not that it isn't hard to read about it. Well, it's always hard, I can make myself sick thinking about something like prison and trying to think of anything that could possibly help (I'm not that smart. Probably no one is). Yet, they don't pretend that they are not there. Their prescence is noted in the prose in what I thought was a different idea in storytelling. Not a documentary style, nor quite the omniprescent narrator either. It felt, to me, like they were the reader along with me finding it all so damned hard. I can't think of another book that made me feel that way. (The other book with a unique journalistic style that still felt oh so immediate to me was Nicolas Gage's Eleni, another favorite of mine.) I have the HBO tv movie version on dvd but have not yet seen it. The show employs a mockumentary style. I'm not keen on losing that special storytelling feel that their book had, to be honest.

The background history of Baltimore and how the situation got to be that fucked up... Yes, quite a lot to think about. For example, this book supposes that the cheap price of cocaine was an extenuating circumstance in the rise of the drug problem in inner cities. That the families did not need the men as much (who would and did already buy heroin), and it was the cheap price of coke leading the women off the path as well was when the shit really hit the fan... I'd never thought about it from that stand point. Money, of course, is another (as Lester says on The Wire, follow the money trail). Kids started running drugs because they wouldn't have to do life sentences. Kids running the drug business on a fast food business level. Like Lord of the Flies for street violence, methinks. Kids raising kids and the kid breadwinners are dealers. When money moved out of the neighborhood (I'm out of shitty metaphors [for now]), the strings keeping it together went out. It goes back further than that. The Corner works as a great history book too. Why which community moved there, jobs... nothing happened that wasn't building up from every other day before it. The personal lives and motivations are the same. Except they are flesh and blood and one can hope (pray) that every other day before isn't how it is always going to be.

The people are some I won't soon forget. Make no mistake, no matter at which lowest point they may be in, it is still always make it or break it time. The Corner ends on a lowest note. Fans of The Wire might recognize DeAndre as Brother Mouzon's assistant (the sadsack one who forgot his "Harper's Bazaar" magazine). Tyreeka appeared as an employee of the community college that Stringer Bell attended for his business courses. (I'm impressed how Ed Burns keeps in contact. Wire fans also know that he still talked to people whom he put away in prison for twenty years. It is because he actually gives a damn about his subjects, something that won't surprise anyone who knows his work.) It can go up and down again. Feeling why you really, really don't want it to is the point of reading a book like this one. The stakes were there no matter how it goes down. The soul, the heart (we're all going to die anyway so the ending can't be the point)... Gary's story is one of the most heartbreaking for me. That he had that mind and gave it all away to drugs. That he was aware of what he gave away and that wrong make it or break it choice happened repeatedly. There's an old man in my town who was not always retarded. He became mentally challenged after an attack. He remembers what it was like from before. That's what they make me think of, when they continue to choose this amputated life (and that goes for anything better they could be missing). I so wish it would get spontaneous and end differently for him. I can't bear it for anyone. I know what they are missing.

Profile Image for Aaron Arnold.
442 reviews135 followers
September 9, 2016
I had to wait a few days after finishing this book to write anything about it, because it didn't seem like any part of my reaction really did it justice, or would be worthy enough to record without cheapening the book. It's unquestionably one of the most powerful books I've read in a long time, and knowing that it's nonfiction - that all these people really did exist and really did do the things it describes - makes me pause. Very few books make me think about my own relationship to the text to the extent that The Corner did. Maybe it's because it's about real life, that Baltimore and so many other inner cities are really suffering in this way in my own country right now that makes it hit so much harder than, say, the equivalent suffering in a Zola novel. While I think America is a great place to live and has towering advantages over many other countries in many things, I think its greatest failing, at heart, is a willingness to simply look the other way at real human suffering if caring about it would cost money.

The quote from Kafka that opens up the book, which also later made an appearance in season 5 of Simon's TV series The Wire - "You can hold back from the suffering of the world. You have free permission to do so, and it is in accordance with your nature. But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided." - sums up what I want to say about my personal and our collective attitude towards the corner perfectly. I'm not exactly sure what drives David Simon to delve so deeply into the lives of these people and all the others he's featured on his shows or in his books; he'd probably say that, contra the Kafka quote, holding back is the one thing he can't do. He immersed himself in the lives of Ella, Fran, Gary, DeAndre, and the many other people with smaller roles for well over a year, connecting their joys and heartbreaks, their own pieces of the "suffering of the world", into an immensely affecting work for public consumption. If you've seen The Wire then all this will be very familiar, but it's worth looking at this material through a new medium, particularly because its diligent, searching explorations of the individual people's lives is much more focused on the ground-level day-to-day struggles to stay clean or get a new fix or get a job or keep a job than the panoramic sweep of the show. I'm not sure which of the main characters has the most painful story, but each was gripping.

Periodically Simon will interrupt the narrative to go into extended rants on how exactly we've gotten ourselves trapped in this endless drug war and cycle of poverty. This book was written in the early 90s before the decrease in crime rates, but his moving analyses of the vicious logic of drug use and drug crime remain perfectly relevant, especially in a city like Baltimore. The real question for me is: after reading an amazing work like this, what am I going to do about it? I can continue not being a heroin addict, but I don't know what I can do about the nightmare vortex portrayed here. The corner has an internal logic all its own, and I'm not sure that there's much I can do about it other than to support the end of this pointless Reaganeering that has hollowed out our cities and ruined millions of lives. Like Simon said through The Wire, you can't call it a war on drugs - wars end. The challenge that our society faces is how to admit defeat and begin the long, painful process of making sure that the kind of life pictured here becomes just fiction again. Any ideas?
Profile Image for Melissa.
60 reviews3 followers
April 8, 2008
Don't follow this link if you plan to read the book & haven't, but I was pleasantly surprised after I searched for one of the characters online this morning...
A bizarre redemption tale.
The Corner is written in documentary form, with apparently 75-80% of the content being observed events in the lives of these West Baltimore residents. The focus of the books is more on the drug users than the drug sellers, which makes sense as I'm sure there aren't too many dealers out there looking to be followed by a group of writers, one of whom is an ex-cop. It's a sad book, of course, but there are real moments of light & humanity. There are also segments that give background to the elements of the corner - teen pregnancy, the brown paper bag, the prison system, the schools...It's an informative book & while definitely not light reading in the sense of the weighty content, it's a fairly fast read.
29 reviews
December 27, 2020
A bleak, important dispatch from the ground level of the war on drugs in America. The reporting here is impeccable, to the point that it feels like you’re living life right alongside the neighborhood residents of the titular Baltimore street corner. This was not an easy read—the human tragedies are unrelenting, with only sparse moments of uplift. But that only serves to hammer home the seemingly unavoidable conclusion that the war on drugs has been a massive and painful failure. At times the writing was overwrought, and I wasn’t the biggest fan of the polemical digressions, even though I didn’t disagree with the arguments being made. But I thought the writing grew stronger as the book went on. At the very least, this is a compelling journalistic work, and in its best moments, it’s a searingly powerful document of a people and a place failed by America.
Profile Image for Michael Burnam-Fink.
1,505 reviews229 followers
September 18, 2019
How can I describe The Corner? How can I do justice to this heartbreaking book? You know David Simon and Ed Burns as the creative force behind The Wire. This non-fiction book is the truth behind the television, a revealing portrait of a broken family living at one of the worst drug corners in West Baltimore. Dope and coke are sold 24/7, violence is omnipresent, and the pursuit of drug-induced happiness has made life and liberty seem as distant as the moon.

Gary McCollough is a former businessman turned dopehound, a street philosopher who's basic decency and inability to hurt anyone else means that he's a perennial victim. Fran, his ex-wife, has buried her own life in the needle. Their son, DeAndre, is fifteen, caught between boyhood posing and the awful realities of life on the corner. Other characters round out the neighborhood. Ella Thompson volunteers at the rec center, one of the last honest citizens left. Fat Curt is an old veteran of addiction, his organs failing and limbs swollen, who has no where else to go. Blue runs a shooting gallery in the shell of his dead mother's house.

In this year long story, Simon and Burns follow their subjects, painting revealing portraits of bare humanity under the twin weights of drugs and a society that has abandoned any sense of responsibility towards the ghettos. The first rule of the corner is chasing the blast, that rush of pleasure from the the drug and relief from the snake of withdrawal symptoms, and a moment of blessed escape away from the grind of life. And life, life is absolutely grinding. It's an endless series of scams and being scammed to get money for the dope. It's getting beat on by other crews, by your friends and family, by the police. It's overloaded systems of public services, education, justice, healthcare, that can barely manage to cart the bodies away, let alone help anyone.

Simon and Burns are at their best when they're talking about hopelessness, and the things that lift their subject past it. Corner life is lived entirely in present tense. Even a plan as simple as "I'll buy a loaf of bread to have toast tomorrow" is void in the face of junkie roommates. The effort required to get clean, a months long ordeal to get a rehab slot in the face of requests for documents, court dates, and the blast itself, is a fragile thread, let alone the effort of staying clean when drugs are easier to get than coffee. The most tragic parts of the book concern DeAndre, a smart kid who's almost entirely given up on school, but doesn't have the brutality and fearlessness it takes to make it as a gangster. At 15, DeAndre impregnates his 13 year old girlfriend Tyreeka. Neither of them are in any sense ready to be parents, but the baby provides a focus for a girl who's not sure that she matters to anyone, and a sense of immortality for boy who sees only a little bit of life ahead.

At times, Simon devolves into a general rant at the War on Drugs, and the false hope that 30 years of brutality can win against the corner, against the raw desire for oblivion in our midst. And now, 25 years on, the drug war is much the same. With the Opioid Epidemic, the Corner is now in white America too. As I hit 'save' on this review, President Trump plans to release a drug plan that includes death for drug dealers.

Screw it. Down the flag. Let the dealers and the junkies hold a parade down the National Mall. Throw some samplers to the crowd, because That Shit Is The Bomb. Drugs won. War over.
Profile Image for Todd N.
339 reviews238 followers
March 16, 2016
Two writers spend a year hanging out and observing a West Baltimore neighborhood that is almost completely given over to open-air drug markets. It's sort of an urban "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" with fewer linking verbs.

One of the writers is an ex-cop schoolteacher named Ed Burns, and the other is David Simon, writer of the excellent Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and creator of The Wire. In a lot of ways The Corner is the flip side of Homicide, showing Baltimore from the point of view of the street rather than the detectives.

This book allowed me to enter and understand a world completely foreign to my middle class suburban upbringing and set of values. However, by the end I felt proud of a mom for stealing only $60 from her drug dealing son's bankroll to buy her daily blast.

It shows what a horrifying mess the urban poor live in and how America has absolutely no use for these people, even if they could escape the drug and gangster culture that is all they have ever known. My favorite passage is a sarcastic answer to the myth that more personal responsibility is the answer:

If it was our fathers firing dope and our mothers smoking coke, we'd pull ourselves past it. We'd raise ourselves, discipline ourselves, teach ourselves the essentials of self-denial and delayed gratification that no one in our universe ever demonstrated. And if home was the rear room of some rancid, three-story shooting gallery, we'd rise above that, too. We'd shuffle up the stairs past nodding fiends and sullen dealers, shut the bedroom door, turn off the television, and do our schoolwork. Algebra amid the stench of burning rock; American history between police raids. And if there was no food on the table, we're certain we could deal with that. We'd lie about our age to cut taters and spill grease and sling fries at the sub shop for five-and-change-an-hour ... Come payday we wouldn't blow that minimum-wage check on Nikes or Fila sweat suits, or Friday night movies at Harbor Park with the neighborhood girls. No f---ing way, brother, because we pulled self-esteem out of a dark hole somewhere and damned if our every desire isn't absolutely in check.

So much for the conservative view. Fortunately there is plenty to offend liberals too like the description of welfare as a dirty bribe akin to foreign aid to dictators, the public school policy of "social promotion" as a complete joke, and the rehab centers as a nice vacation from the constant hustling of the corner.

Definitely recommended. Be sure to look up the addresses on Google Maps street view for the full effect.

[I almost forgot to mention: I was surprised when I realized that I had visited this same neighborhood in the mid-nineties, a few years after the events of this book take place. On a business trip I took a quick detour to visit the H.L. Mencken House, two blocks away from one of the main character's drug corners and the scene of a gun battle. It's strange to think that I was walking up and down Hollins St. looking for the Sage of Baltimore's house wearing my dorky business casual clothes and carrying my laptop bag. I mentioned this to an in-law who is a foster parents for kids like the ones in this book, and he laughed and said, "No offense but you're pretty white -- even for a white guy. That wasn't too smart."]
Profile Image for Toby.
836 reviews330 followers
September 22, 2012
With The Corner David Simon and Ed Burns have produced a fine journalistic example of documenting a living culture - the drug trade in one small area of Baltimore in 1993 - in a descriptively interesting manner that sheds some light on the whys and hows of the situation. As with Homicide you are immersed in the world of these people and you are horrified at the differences between you and them but at no point are they held up for ridicule; Simon and Burns are largely sympathetic in their honest portrayal of this lifestyle as only writers who have lived amongst their subjects truly can be.

My only problem is with my expectations, due to its links with the second greatest TV show ever made I wanted a book from both sides of this struggle, cops and robbers so to speak, and I didn't get that.
Profile Image for AticoLibros.
73 reviews225 followers
December 22, 2012
Hay muchas razones para leer "La esquina", de David Simon y Ed Burns. Ahí van dos: es un ejercicio de periodismo narrativo ejemplar, por honesto, rico y ambicioso, en un tiempo en el que el trabajo de contar historias reales ya no es como lo conocimos; y dos, retrata la otra cara de América, el gueto, busca explicaciones e intuye por qué fracasan todas las políticas para erradicar la droga y la pobreza. La esquina es un horizonte, siempre va a estar ahí, en cualquier parte del mundo. (La Tribuna de Salamanca)
Profile Image for Zach.
285 reviews296 followers
July 12, 2010
My mom sent me a text the other day to say that she finally finished season one of the Wire, which we loaned her like 6 months ago. Asked for her thoughts, she replied: "Such a downer to think people live that way. Like Sopranos it humanizes the game and its players."

We'll see if the critique of capitalism so central to season 2 (which is, honestly, the heart of the entire show) hits home to the same degree.
Profile Image for Cody Lasko.
153 reviews6 followers
September 17, 2021
One of the greatest non-fiction achievements I could possibly imagine. What the creators have constructed is as staggering in its scope as it is beautiful in its prose and presentation.

By focusing on a single urban corner in a single crime addled city this book somehow gets to the corrupted soul of the American dream and strikes such an emphatically human chord that it can only leave a deep sense of awe in the reader. These characters are real people. Hell, even all the names are real. Everything is intimate and all the more powerful for it.

This is journalistic perfection. It is engrossing and endearing. And it is simply a must read, even a few decades after its original release.
Profile Image for Bill reilly.
507 reviews8 followers
September 22, 2017
I read this because of my experience with “Homicide,” also written by David Simon and one of the best books I’ve ever read. It is set in Baltimore once again, not that it really matters, as it could be any city in America. It is a battleground, with gunshots as common as sunrises and sunsets. Drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes, it is all there; the dark side of the good ‘ol USA. My favorite character is Gary McCullough, a black man and brilliant stock day trader turned heroin addict. His “capers” to feed his addiction usually involve stripping copper plumbing from residences to sell as scrap metal. The survival skills are downright awesome. Gary’s son Deandre, fifteen, is a dealer too smart for his own good. One of the books heroes, Rose Davis, a school administer tries to save him. Another, Ella Thompson, defied the odds and raised her boys right, only to have one come home in a pine box after a freak accident while serving in the navy. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Simon is a brilliant storyteller, a modern day, streetwise Dicken’s; he is that good. The pain is unrelenting and drugs are a means of escape. Simon tells the story of the migration of blacks from the south to Baltimore in the 1940’s and 1950’s who found good jobs in factories, steel mills and shipyards. As they closed, slums expanded and by the 1980’s cocaine arrived in large quantities. Gary McCullough’s father worked for Standard Brands for twenty years and when they closed, he received a pension of $38 a week. In 1986, at the age of sixty five he was driving a taxi seven days a week for twelve to sixteen hours a day. Most of his kids made it. A few of them, including Gary, fell to drug addiction; an American dream turned into an American nightmare. Amongst the sinners, a saint, Ella Thompson, a mother who had just buried her son, organized a basketball camp and spent $200 of her own money to provide uniforms for the kids. She also coerced a junkie named Blue with talent as an artist to teach her flock how to paint. She is an American Mother Teresa, and the star of this book. Meanwhile, the revolving doors of the court system and drug war are a joke. The sadness is overwhelming, but there are some moments of comic relief. Gary and a partner in crime (caper) “liberate” a refrigerator with other items inside from an apartment and roll it down the street on a dolly. The police ignore them as they focus on drug dealers instead. What a country! A man gets thirty days for stealing an $8 bottle of vitamins. Using that scale, those bloodsucking leeches on Wall Street should be guillotined. Shootings, stabbings and beatings are a part of the daily routine. The rehab center has a long waiting list. Ella Thompson would not give up in her unrelenting efforts to save at least some of the children. It is another world, and one a million miles from my white, suburban universe. DeAndre, turning sixteen, is to be a baby daddy with his thirteen year-old girlfriend, Tyreeka. Abortion is discussed between the two; my god, what a decision to make. His father, Gary, sees “Schindler’s List,” and reads Elle Wiesel, and draws a chilling parallel between the Jews of the Holocaust and the blacks of America. “They hate us” he says. I am unable to add anything to this. I am, in a figurative sense, speechless. Gary worked sorting crabs while still on heroin. After a seventeen hour shift, he shot up and passed out. His ex-wife, Fran, the mother of DeAndre, does twenty eight days at rehab and enrolls in college, and Simon makes us care. He also provides a comic moment when Gary acts as a tour guide for a young white man he labels John Boy. The Walton’s look a like needs guidance in acquiring some quality white powder. A small glimmer of hope occurred when Blue returned to Ella’s rec center after a drug relapse. The kids give him a reason to stay clean. Broken families with broken children; it is all almost too much to take. Ella somehow rises above it all even after an outsider rapes and kills her 12 year-old daughter. She forgave him and built a community garden in her name. She is so much better than me. A few of them do survive and you will have to read this great book to find out who makes it. DeAndre’s poem is on the last page. So much brilliance wasted. Be prepared to cry often, as Simon brings so many peoples tragic existences to life in every chapter of The Corner. This is, quite simply, a masterpiece
Profile Image for Mavis Davis.
87 reviews1 follower
April 8, 2010
If I learned anything from this book it's that drug abuse is booooring. Seriously. It's like going to a party sober. It's no fun and all your friends act like assholes. Boring.

My main concerns with this book were thematic and so ingrained within the structure that I had difficultly overlooking them. For starters, it's too long. There was no need for this book to prattle on for over 500 pages. Several passages that went on for pages about the boys under-16 basketball team. One passage would've sufficed and used as a reference later. But several passages repeatedly about something as banal as pick-up basketball games could've been succinct and concise.

I also felt as if the author read maybe 1 or 2 books on sociology and proceeded to makes these grand statements about the status of social problems in inner-city America. Whether or not the writer was qualified to do this remains to be seen but on the pages of this book, he fell short. I need grand statements about the status of American poverty to be backed by research, not anecdotal evidence based on a middle class white guy's 1 year in the ghetto.

I would've liked to see this book be more. The writer went a certain way and centered his book on a family and the people that satellite around them. A more investigative approach, rather than a passive one, outlining drug addiction and poverty in Baltimore, I think, could've made for a richer read. The business of drugs, the cycles of addiction, and the ways in which those involved view themselves, I think, would've added depth to this book and justified a 500 page social statement.

If this book had gone one way or another I would've been fine. On the one hand, a straight-up ethnographic study (field research-like) would've sufficed. A greater statement on the condition of poverty in inner-city Baltimore would've sufficed. But the blend was inconsistent. At best this book is a passive glimpse at life in inner-city poverty and drug addiction. At worst it's armchair sociology written by a verbose journalist.
Profile Image for Flora.
342 reviews6 followers
February 26, 2014
A couple of thoughts on The Corner:

I thought Simon and Burns did a great job telling these people's stories, and they did right by their subjects in staying in touch and following up for several years afterward.

Like "The Wire," the pacing can be slow and maddeningly erratic. It took some time for me to care much about these characters.

Also, it was neat to see how this book provided the seeds for some of the "Wire" characters. I know there must be a universality to the corner life, but it's not my life -- so for me it's, "Here's a bit of Bubbles," "Here's the name Freamon," "There's some Randy and Duke here," etc.

David Simon is an angry man. Sometimes his writing loses control when explaining the dysfunction. After two or three such passages, I started skipping them. I also assume here that given the barely bottled rage that sometimes shows up in David Simon's writing, this is the best his editor could negotiate. And given those circumstances his editor did pretty well. Of course, it could have been Ed Burns's passages that rambled. (David Simon is also a very good writer and probably understands what needs to be done even when he fights an editor.)

One long passage that I did particularly admire, though: the one on babies. I never gave the pregnancy rate much thought. I'm not even sure how true this explanation is, or whether it's still up to date, so to speak -- but it really made me think.

One thing that really drove the second half of the book for me was how people tried periodically to get clean, even though the odds were stacked against them. I needed to know whether they made it. Fran and Gary's efforts to raise themselves were particularly admirable.

Now, if you'll excuse me, that's 2 books that have weighed heavily on the soul. I'll be picking up something fluffy now.
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