You think Baltimore’s got it bad? Try Southern California

In June 2002 HBO took a chance on a series created by a few journalists out of Baltimore, Maryland — a town most Americans had forgotten existed — about the scourge of drugs on the decline of a once great American metropolis. Granted, the two journalists had created an award-winning documentary about the same subject, but a fictionalized account with characters an audience might sympathize with, much as they do with any broadcast network television hit — that was a toss of the dice.

Many of the principal players in creating The Wire also worked on the NBC drama Homicide: Life on the Streets.

Baltimore’s The Wire — Greatest TV show ever. Period. (Publicity Photo)

As it turned out, The Wire became the gold standard of television dramas. It only ran for five seasons, which is too bad, but the creators of The Wire  wanted to tell a specific story, with sub-plots tangled in to make the whole. From the police department mired in bureaucracy to the drug dealers and the people working at the port; the politicians making their deals to stay relevant and in power to, finally, the realities of the print media in the age of the Internets.

None of the institutions came off looking saintly by any stretch, but some of the individual characters were noble and virtuous, including some of the criminals, like Omar who had a code that says he doesn’t kill civilians — taxpayers. But everyone in “the game” was fair game.

My favorite characters were Bunk Moreland, played by Wendell Pierce, Sergeant Carver, played by Seth Gilliam and of course Omar Little, played by Michael K. Williams.

Carver starts the show as a violent, brutal detective who sees his role as a narcotics detective as one of enforcer, putting the physical hurt on suspects, with his partner, Herc, played by Dominick Lombardozzi. As all five seasons unfold, Carver transforms into a police sergeant who chooses to do his job as best as possible under the conditions and prove he is loyal to the chain of command and worthy of his stripes. And, eventually, that he is a good guy, not just on the “right” side of law and order, but a decent human being. Like Omar Little, Carver has a code and we get to see it develop over the five seasons. He may have to be a tough asshole in the course of his job, but he can also acknowledge right from wrong, even among the criminals he is fighting on the streets of Baltimore.


But that’s about as far as this plug goes for the best show ever on television. If you take the pictures painted by the two shows that take place in Baltimore,  you might get the idea that maybe “Balmer” is the worst city in America, not Detroit, MI. Well, maybe neither city qualifies to be the worst. Maybe there’s no way to truly qualify that statement. We see the lists all the time through Yahoo News and other sources; the best city for jobs, the best for cost of living, the best for getting paid, laid and married, And by association, the worst.

Back in the late 1980’s the City of San Diego made the list as “America’s Finest City.” Back when the city was awash in federal dollars by way of the military installations and all the defense-contracted companies that dotted the landscape, General Dynamics chief among them.

Why, business developers had ideas for every square inch of San Diego’s typography and gosh darn it, the city’s politicians were their allies. Just driving up and down the vaunted I-5 you can see that collaboration. Southern California has the best landscaped freeways in America.

There were the occasional hiccups along the way, like when a federal judge stepped in and said the county (and by extension the developers) had to keep 10 percent of that coastal land that wasn’t developed undeveloped. Wow, what a blow to the economic well being of free enterprise, especially the developers. Doesn’t matter that 90 percent of the coast is already developed. The developers had plans for that last 10% and forcing them to keep 1% of the coastal land, not including Camp Pendleton, free from development was a serious blow to freedom — in a developer’s sort of view.

Every time those developers drive north or south, to and from Los Angeles, they would cross that 15 mile stretch of the I-5 that cuts through the coastal boundary of Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and first get dreamy-eyed at the possibilities, and then teary-eyed at the realities, especially when they pass the sign that says Camp Pendleton will remain undeveloped forever. You know the one. It says, “Camp Pendleton. Preserving California’s Precious Resources.”

You might be thinking, “That’s odd. Don’t they shoot things and blow stuff up on Camp Pendleton?” Why yes they do, but as part of their mandate the Marines are also dedicated to preserving the land, especially the endangered species, that call the base home. And trust me, they take that part of their mission seriously.

The Marines are rightly proud of the headquarters of their Western Command. You probably would get your ass severely kicked by a couple MP’s if caught littering on Camp Pendleton. Well, you’d probably get a ticket and have your vehicle banned from the base.

Developers and their allies in and out of local government would love to get their hands on that land. They don’t come right out and say it because, well, who wants to do battle with the Marines? It would appear unpatriotic.

Except, of course, for Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. Right now the San Diego International Airport, Lindbergh Field, has but one runway and anyone who knows anything knows no self-respecting major metropolis like San Diego, the second largest city in California and the sixth largest city in America, no city like San Diego has a major airport with only one runway. Ask anybody. It stands to reason.

So, 16 years ago the BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure Commission) said that the Marine Corps air bases in Santa Ana and El Toro would be closed, both in Orange County, and their units moved to Miramar (and Camp Pendleton for the attack helicopters), which at the time was a Navy Air Base, home to the “Top Gun” school made famous by Tom Cruise and embarrassed by convicted former congressman and Top Gun Vietnam War Ace, Randy “Duke” Cunningham.

Duke was one of Top Gun’s earliest students.

Who wants the Marines? Not in my backyard. We only want them when we need them. Too noisy helicopters. You really believe the local press?

“WOW! Wait an effin’ minute!” some cried. Soon “grassroots” groups quickly formed to oppose the Marines coming to Miramar because they have helicopters, big noisy cargo helicopters that rattle windows when they fly over and we all know the safety record of helicopters!

Well, very few people actually knew the safety records of any military aircraft, but like so much in politics, the naysayers didn’t have to be specific, they just had to say the phrase, in some demeaning way, “helicopter safety records.” And the people skimming over the articles in the local papers just had to nod their heads in agreement, “Yep, you hear all sorts of stories about the safety of helicopters.”

At the time the Marine Corps’ newest aircraft, the V-22 Osprey, had some very serious safety issues and because the Osprey is a VTOL aircraft, Vertical Take Off and Landing, it was easy to lump it all together because the Osprey was in the news a lot.

So the battle ensued and the Navy moved their Top Gun base to their huge facility in Fallon, Nevada, where they have hundreds of square miles of open bombing ranges that their Top Gun pilots flew to anyway to do their thing.

For years there was this group, MARCH, Move Against Relocating Choppers Here, who did everything that legally could be done to prevent the Marines from relocating to Miramar. Their president, Jerry Hargarten, cited everything from safety issues, to noise and air pollution for reasons to scuttle the move. MARCH suggested the Marines moved to the recently closed March Air Force Base in Riverside County. Get it? The acronym?

As it turns out, as earnest as some of the people might have been about keeping helicopters from calling Miramar home, they were largely funded by developers who see MCAS Miramar as one big, undeveloped cash cow. Not only does the airbase have two long runways to accommodate large cargo aircraft, there’s all this land around Miramar that could be developed into revenue-producing stuff like malls and stores and condos and apartments.

MCAS Miramar would be the perfect place to relocate San Diego’s international airport. And therein lies the rub. Use a grassroots community group to push the Marines out and then use San Diego’s alleged need for a larger airport to make the argument to have Lindbergh Field move to Miramar. It’s really the best thing for everyone. It stands to reason.

Except that many of the people who live in and around MCAS Miramar derive their livelihoods either directly or indirectly from having that military installation close by, and if it isn’t their livelihood, it’s their personal heritage because so many of us (I’m one of “them”) are veterans of the military and we do not want the Marines to leave Miramar.

In 2006 a measure was put on the ballot to make Miramar a joint use facility, both military and commercial, but it was defeated by a large majority. The developers failed.

But this was not the norm for development in San Diego County, or Southern California in general. Developers usually have their way with government here and that’s been the case since the place was wrested away from Mexico. For the most part, California government never saw a development they didn’t like, especially if there were payments involved, by way of campaign funds in later years, but direct bribes back in the day.

Movies like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential  touch on that and when you dig into the history of California, especially since 1900, you read about the movers and shakers shaking down or paying off all kinds of politicians to get what they want, including water rights and business development.

If you move here from a place like Wisconsin, where there is a definite separation between business and state, seeing the two work so closely with each other, with individuals moving from business to government and back again with little notice, it stops you cold. In Milwaukee two City Council members were forced to resign because they went to lunch with some cable operators when bids were being taken on who got Milwaukee’s untapped cable market.

Here, doing lunch is all part of business, isn’t even noticed. Business leaders, developers included, spend a lot of time and money lobbying local government and the residents accept it because all in all, life in San Diego is pretty good, despite the downturn in the economy.

Our mayor in the late 1990’s was a woman by the name of Susan Golding. In 1996 Golding welcomed the Republican National Convention to San Diego with great fanfare. She also negotiated with the San Diego Chargers to keep them in San Diego, a plan that included the city buying all unsold tickets to home games that didn’t have at least 50,000 seats sold. It was called the “ticket guarantee.”

That caused a great uproar at the end of Golding’s administration, so much so Golding disappeared from the public eye. Where did she end up? She became a consultant with a six-figure income and her only client? The Spanos Family, the very people who own the San Diego Chargers.

That’s how it works here in Southern California. You think places like Baltimore and Detroit are bad, come to Southern California and see how this place operates. And it’s considered legal. A politician won’t resign for having lunch with developers and other campaign contributors.

This was all going to be a run up to the mayoral campaign between Carl DeMaio and Bob Filner, a perfect example of where business meets government — and then the two get in bed. That will have to wait another day, but the primer: Filner is currently a Democratic Congressman and DeMaio is a city council member who made his millions the old fashioned way: he started two companies and got government contracts.

“Well, don’t be coy, what kind of businesses did DeMaio start?” In 2000 he started Performance Institute to train government employees on outsourcing and then in 2003 he started another company, American Strategic management, to train private contractors on how to take advantage of government outsourcing.

There’s a great chance DeMaio will win too because he understands business, hint-hint, wink-wink. And that’s the way it works here in San Diego.