Video above: A snippet from the YouTube video by Charlie Moore, a.k.a. CharlieBo313, titled “SAN FRANCISCO WORST HOUSING PROJECTS / HOOD INTERVIEW”
Charlie Moore shoots hood safaris. For years, he’s filmed visits to the most impoverished neighborhoods in cities across the United States for his CharlieBo313 YouTube channel, which has almost 350,000 subscribers. The titles of his videos are nakedly voyeuristic: “Chicago South Side Worst Hoods”; “San Francisco Most Dangerous Hoods”; “Las Vegas Worst Hoods”; “New Orleans Most Ghetto Streets.”
“I’m just documenting the type of environment similar to what I grew up in,” Moore told me. “I’m not even passing judgment.” The videos lean hard into this presumed neutrality. Compared with the dazzle of similar popular YouTube channels such as Say Cheese TV and HoodVlogs—accounts known as “hood news” for their niche focus on Black communities—CharlieBo313’s videos are empty and unembellished, devoid of character and style. There’s no soundtrack as Charlie prowls neighborhoods, his camera gulping in urban Americana over the quiet hum of a car engine. No tension grips the viewer as he cruises for literal miles, the lens trained on the blur of passing buildings. “I just drive and I film,” he said, letting the environment narrate itself.
Moore is Black and blends into the places he explores (commenters sometimes joke that he has a “universal hood pass”). Even so, his detachment reproduces a standard narrative about inner cities: They are dangerous, awful places. Moore’s travelogues gesture at misery and ruin without ever finding its root causes: Gawking at hoods deepens Americans’ feeling that they have already seen and fully understood these places they would never choose to encounter.
H ood is a tricky word. Like ghetto and ratchet, I don’t use it often, because it carries so much racist and classist baggage, no matter the speaker or the audience. My late grandmother lived off Bankhead, an Atlanta street and the namesake of a neighborhood that features in a few of Moore’s videos. (The thoroughfare is now named after the civil-rights leader Donald Lee Hollowell. But the name Bankhead has stuck, memorialized by rappers and the people who live the maps rather than make them.)
I spent a lot of time around Bankhead. I’d accompany my grandmother to her Bankhead church, to yard sales, to a now-shuttered flea market whose stalls were lined with prickly green carpet. Another infamous Atlanta street and area, Old National Highway, holds just as many warm memories, despite its stigma as a track for vice. I associate it with my vices: roller-skating to Miami bass, loitering at a constantly empty Smoothie King, idling in the drive-through of a criminally slow Wendy’s. The hood is far more ordinary than its taint implies. People live there, work there, order Frosties there.
I’m not likely to invoke my hood cred, because I don’t think I’ve earned the pedigree to do so. I believe that hood truly belongs to the people who are haunted by it; whose accents, mannerisms, or circumstances tether them to it; who can be punished for embracing it. Those are the people who get to be hood, who get to narrate it, rep it.
Moore is less stringent. His channel began as a comedy and prank reel interspersed with clips of abandoned Detroit neighborhoods. When his street videos garnered more views, Moore distilled the channel into an odd archive of city life. “It was just a hobby of mine to film those areas, because I always liked filming my surroundings,” he told me. Then he began to explore other cities, developing a format. He drives to a city and cruises through it, slowing down when he sees crowds. The people that catch his eye are almost always Black folks standing on corners and in front of stores, a backdrop so common that he’s turned it into a supercut. The camera lingers on them.
The video jump-cuts and his subjects, who might be charismatic or bored or simply willing, talk to the camera. Charlie is generous with their generosity, giving his interviewees space to talk about anything. “Sometimes this a peaceful neighborhood, but sometimes it could get very violent,” a Clarksdale, Mississippi, resident says flatly. The more personable subjects detail what they love about their hometowns, what they hate, their haunts. They spell out their social-media handles. Or not: “I don’t got no social media … stay off that … in California, the internet gets you 25,” jokes a wise denizen of Inglewood, California. Inevitably, Moore asks, “What’s the worst neighborhood in the city?” The answer usually excites him into more questions: Are they standing in that forsaken area right now? Why is it the worst? Can they offer any comments or stories to support their claims? It’s as awkward as it sounds. “Is there gang activity around here?” he asks two San Franciscans. He sounds like a cop.
That’s probably because he was a cop. Working for the Detroit Police Department, Moore performed beat patrols as well as prisoner processing. In his view, that background facilitates his craft. Policing “teaches you how to deal with some people that others may kind of fear, and you learn a way to deal with them that doesn’t really scare you,” he told me. The sangfroid that served him then also amassed him hundreds of thousands of subscribers, millions of views, and enough money to quit his police job.
Moore’s background in law enforcement helps explain the strange aesthetics of his videos. It’s almost as if he’s still on patrol. From offscreen, he nudges conversations along with clumsy bluster, his questions earning responses despite the nosiness of his enterprise. In a San Francisco interview, his interlocutors brush off the question about gangs. “We can’t really speak specifically,” one says with a smirk, prompting Charlie to chuckle.
The channel offers a straightforward service: His videos take you to the hood and show you what it looks like, who lives there, and that it’s the worst. Moore believes that his audience takes the clips as definitive. “They get a chance to see some of them close up without having to go there, because they would be afraid to go there,” he says of his viewers, who solicit and fund his expeditions. There’s a peculiar, almost magical gap between Moore’s empty footage and the bold and authoritative titles he peddles. CharlieBo313 never actually finds the horrors the hood is supposed to contain, but he insists that they are there, his tenacity the proof.
The classic term for the way Charlie Moore looks at Black spaces is the white gaze—the process through which white perspectives, through power or dominance, supersede nonwhite ones. But the comments under these videos complicate matters. Black people are also fascinated by CharlieBo313’s excursions. His interviewees appear in the comments, inviting viewers to come hang at their own YouTube channels; elsewhere, the residents of the places he films dispute Charlie’s depictions. “I was born and raised in Beaumont and this is and will always be considered home,” a user comments on Moore’s footage of Beaumont, Texas. Moore notes that his audience comprises viewers from “Japan, China, everywhere.”
If white gazes look at Black folks in the third person, as the philosopher Frantz Fanon once described them, then Black gazes are first-person views of Blackness. The residents who dispute Moore’s depictions remind me of a specific Black gaze: rap videos, which regularly feature Black spaces as experienced by Black people. Rap videos are dreamlike and mischievous: dilapidated buildings reclaimed as kingdoms; sneakers, jewelry, and cash flaunted like war spoils; living rooms and parking lots packed with lively bodies. In rap videos, hoods and the people that populate them get unmoored from their accepted definitions, becoming communities rather than shitholes.
Chuck D famously called rap the “Black CNN,” because of its power to broadcast Blackness. It’s Black life unfiltered. Anyone who loves rap knows that that’s not exactly right—rap is also Black life exaggerated and deconstructed and intensified—but the slogan is pragmatic nevertheless. If a dissenter doubts that rap is art, they can at least be convinced that it’s news.
Rap videos have long mocked this treaty. Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda,” the zenith of recorded ass-shaking, skewers the canon of bootylicious music videos while also indulging it. 2 Chainz’ “Watch Out” stitches the rapper’s head to the bodies of babies, senior citizens, and dancers, claiming the whole world as his audience. When the white gaze occasionally informs a rap video, it is generally a target, as in Vince Staples’s “Señorita” or Eminem’s “My Name Is,” which portray white viewers as nosy and prying. Otherwise, rap videos are where Blackness is a premise and not a violation, where Black visions can expand and multiply and proliferate.
That sense of self-determination is what’s missing from CharlieBo313’s clips, which look like rap videos abandoned mid-shoot. It’s eerie how much Moore’s place-based quests mirror the “heat maps” and “high risk” zones generated by predictive policing initiatives such as Los Angeles’s LASER and Chicago’s Strategic Subject List. The built environment itself becomes criminal, the wires and pipes and fixtures teeming with terrors. This is the core tenet of the broken-windows theory of policing: A place that looks good is good; a place that looks bad is bad. Few ask who does the looking.
YouTube incentivizes Moore’s urban treks and their inverse. The deeper I got into his archives of the “worst” hoods, the more the site recommended videos about the “best” cities to travel to, to live in, to own a house in—a whiplash that felt purposeful. It was as if YouTube’s algorithm agreed with Moore’s appraisals and wanted to spirit me to safety. During my conversation with Moore, I was struck by the passivity with which he talked about his channel. “If I go and I film in my area with a bunch of nice houses and it’s nice and clean, it’s going to get a very limited amount of views, and not a whole lot of comments,” he said. “That’s the way it is.” Viewers are interested in the cities Moore visits, he guessed, not because of his access or skills, but because rappers “talk and brag about these areas across the country, these tough neighborhoods that they grew up in.” He sees himself as a conduit rather than a guide, urban decay flowing through him to viewers.
Moore insists that he doesn’t fully indulge his audience’s demands. If he wanted the “ultimate amount of views,” he said, he’d “go to the worst area of Detroit or Chicago and interview some gang members.” His videos work without such action because the plot is ready-made. Put enough Black people and ghetto props in the frame, and the audience makes it work. All Moore has to do is film and drive.
Viewers watching places they’d never visit to confirm that said places aren’t worth visiting is a depressing and circular state of affairs. Moore’s trawls are always dead ends until he interacts with people. Moore has to inquire after “the worst,” be led to it, be told, “Yes, this is where the bad things are,” like he’s a tourist looking at a complex park map: You are here. Broken windows tell no tales. The channel practically disproves its claims with every video.
There is a limit to what the naked landscape of a city can offer a stranger, and those strangers should embrace the discrepancy. One thing I love about rap videos is that they reward such humility. Bfb Da Packman and Sada Baby’s “Free Joe Exotic” turns a recording studio and a parking lot into a miniature carnival. If I were to visit this parking lot today, there’d be no trace of the rappers’ delirious antics. OMB Peezy’s “Porch” has no porch, yet that’s what makes it great; the porch is an existential state. Scarface’s “On My Block” turns the block that raised him into a dreamscape where his whole life plays out. Common’s “The Corner” is set in his hometown of Chicago, but it’s about all corners where Black people have stood tall in the face of anti-Blackness. I can only ever know these spaces peripherally, through fleeting visions and glimpses, as places that exist outside of me but deep inside others. These hoods do not have to be Wakanda for me to feel connected to them. They do not have to wow or welcome me to make me care for them.
I wish I could give you this feeling, not just because it captures the peculiar magic of Blackness, of seeing strangers and recognizing them as kin across borders and traumas and time—but because I don’t get to make distinctions between a “here” that’s safe and a “there” that’s not. I’m always there: deciphering furtive movements and coded language, parsing the thin blue lines and Norse runes, feeling lucky.
Gawking at urban ruin drains people and places of history. The truth is both bleaker and more diffuse. Real wages remain stagnant as rent creeps up and jobs evaporate. Municipal coffers dry up like droughted riverbeds. Chemical runoff seeps into soil and water; air swells with irritants and pollutants. Childbirth costs mothers their lives or years of debt. Smoke blankets a continent. Who dares film that safari?