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In 1993, Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon had already authored the book Homicide and begun crafting its eponymous spinoff for NBC. But rather than heading off to Disney World, the 37-year-old Columbia resident decided to spend an entire year in one of the most Godforsaken hellholes in all of urban America: the corner of Fayette and Monroe in west Baltimore, where drugs are available any time, where stolen refrigerators are wheeled down the street with impunity, and where junkies rip the piping from once-stately houses to get cash from the scrap yard.

For all of 1993, Simon and former police detective Edward Burns hung out on the notorious corner, observing and occasionally influencing the lives of its dealers, users, and hangers-on. Though the interlopers stood out in the almost exclusively black neighborhood, the initial suspicions of both the police and those involved in the drug trade eventually wore off. (Passing out paperback copies of Homicide helped prove their bona fides, Simon says.)

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Writing their new book The Corner required another three years. The 560-page tome “is the other side of Homicide—it’s the people who are being policed,” Simon says. “Their stories are just as interesting as the detectives’, in a different way. I’d covered the drug war for at least a dozen years and looked at it from various points of view. Certainly, in Baltimore it hasn’t gotten any better. But I felt I couldn’t see it or feel it until I looked at the people at ground zero.”

Since Simon and Burns’ year on the streets, several Corner characters have managed to straighten themselves out, and “now that the journalism is done,” Simon has served as a character witness in court. And Simon keeps trying to push DeAndre McCullough—the on-again, off-again drug slinger and addict whose face adorns the book’s cover—into the clean category. McCullough, now pushing 20, recently started working for the TV show’s catering crew.

But Simon’s biggest buddy—McCullough’s father Gary, a workaholic businessman turned heroin fiend—died in 1996. “The Corner took longer to write than Homicide because there was a great deal more sadness,” Simon says. “Some passages were emotional minefields. After Gary died, I had several sections still to go, and even the lighthearted parts became struggles for me to finish.”

Even so, Simon and Burns tried to avoid sentimentality, offering hard-boiled sermonettes about America’s failed drug policy. “Clean-and-sober has nothing to do with whether a couple of white boys show up on the corner with some goodwill,” Simon says.

Indeed, the book doesn’t offer much in the way of constructive policy alternatives. “I’m not a politician or a social programmer—I’m a journalist,” Simon says. “But…we do have to face the numbers squarely and decide what is and is not possible in the war we’re fighting….If you waste money on meaningless drug-arrest stats and you don’t solve murders, robberies, rapes, and burglaries, you don’t make the city more livable, and you’ve failed.”—Louis Jacobson