Lawrence Lanahan is enjoying a salmon BLT at Belvedere Square Market in northeast Baltimore. It’s the kind of upscale eatery where people linger over $4 cups of coffee and slurp $14 bowls of ramen.
Most of the customers enjoying these tastes of the good life are, like Lanahan, Caucasian. But it’s hard to imagine that any of them are more acutely aware of their whiteness.
A sociologist and journalist, Lanahan, CAS/MA ’02, is the author of The Lines Between Us: Two Families and a Quest to Cross Baltimore’s Racial Divide, an in-depth examination of how structural racism, especially as it relates to housing policy, has kept Baltimore—and other big cities in America—racially segregated.
“The point of the book is that white supremacy and structural racism are very real,” he says. “They’re not abstract notions. They affect every single person in every single metropolitan region. They shape the misdistribution of power. They create channels for wealth to flow to whiteness. That is why white people congregate the way they do.”
Just a few miles from the food hall, many of Charm City’s African American majority struggle to make rent, or to scrounge together enough money for a Happy Meal from McDonald’s. The disparity is patently unfair, and Lanahan has made it his mission for us to understand why. He interviewed hundreds of people for the project, and one of them, Lawrence Brown, an assistant professor of community health and policy at Morgan State University, captured the essence of the problem perfectly in a passage from the book.
“Poor black Baltimoreans, [Brown] said, were largely consigned to communities with lead poisoning, violence, and poor schools. ‘It’s not just that black and white people aren’t living together,’ he said. ‘Racial segregation is an economic structure that penalizes people who live in black communities that are disinvested and redlined. So as we say Black Lives Matter, we also have to say Black Neighborhoods Matter.’”
Lanahan considers himself an unlikely person to have delved into the thorny issues surrounding race in America.
Growing up in Bel Air, Maryland, “I just didn’t connect with the world. It was 95 percent white. I went to public schools and then Catholic high school. I went to college in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t have any idea what I wanted to do.”
After graduating from St. Mary’s College in rural southern Maryland, he moved to Washington where he became an analyst for the American Institutes for Research. (It was during this time that he earned his master’s degree in sociology from AU.) When he was 25, he moved to Baltimore to be closer to a woman he was dating. His relationship with her fizzled, but his love for the city endured.
A singer-songwriter who has recorded albums and played with a band called Disappearing Ink, Lanahan started an after-school music program at an elementary school in the Barclay neighborhood. He dug Baltimore’s arts and music scenes, and its overall “weirdness,” but it did not take long for him to notice something else about his new hometown.
“Segregation and inequality were everywhere,” he says.
To gain experience for his music program, he shadowed the directors of Kids on the Hill, an after-school arts program in economically depressed Reservoir Hill. In the van that brought the children home in the evening, he marveled at how different his world was from impoverished areas like West Baltimore.
In 2005, Lanahan enrolled at Columbia Journalism School, where he met his wife, Andrea Appleton. He returned to Baltimore in 2009 to work for the public radio station WYPR as a producer of Maryland Morning.
It was there that he was struck by an idea that changed the course of his life.
“Race and class seemed to be the backstory to everything we covered in Baltimore,” he says. “I felt like we had a very polite way of talking about it around here, off in our separate worlds. I wanted to do a series about regional inequality. Not just look at the city’s problems, but the whole region and how the suburbs contribute to what’s going on in the city. I wanted to try to talk about it in this really structural way, very directly, every Friday for a year.”
The Lines Between Us debuted in 2012. Lanahan launched the 50-episode radio series with an essay.
“I had just had my first kid, and—breaking news—he’s going to be a white man one day,” he says of the message of that piece. “He’s in the first cohort of babies that is majority minority in America, yet somehow I don’t think that’s going to be a disadvantage for him. I still think that when he’s a grown-up, being a white man will probably be an advantage.”
Each week, the series examined issues of race and class in the Baltimore region. Housing was a frequent topic, as was employment, criminal justice, and education.
“It was a pretty remarkable thing to pull off,” says Bruce Wallace, who preceded Lanahan as senior producer at Maryland Morning and now produces Radiotopia’s Ear Hustle. “First, just the sheer feat of putting out a story on a given subject—any subject—every week for a year is pretty crazy. But to do that with a subject this complicated was really impressive. I think it was a combination of Lawrence’s skills with complex policy issues and data, his ability to find moving human stories among policy and data, and his long history with the region he was covering. Maybe equally important was his awareness of what he didn’t know. He was very thoughtful and intentional about putting together a group of subject matter experts and community members to advise him.”
The Lines Between Us won Columbia Journalism School’s duPont Award in 2014 and left an impression on its audience.
“Even though the series stopped airing about eight years ago, I still meet people who reference it,” says Jamyla Krempel, a member of the award-winning production team. “I think listeners connected with it because many people, even those who grew up in Baltimore, were not familiar with the city’s history of segregation. Information about redlining, blockbusting, and housing covenants wasn’t taught in classrooms or widely discussed in public spaces, so a lot of people—me included—were learning, in-depth, about the many local examples of structural and institutional racism for the first time.”
Even after 50 episodes, Lanahan knew there was more to untangle.
“I ended the series on a question,” he says. “What tools do local, state, and federal governments have to dismantle the drivers of structural inequality?”
His own curiosity about the answer would lead him to his next big project.
After leaving WYPR in 2013, Lanahan did a piece for NPR’s Morning Edition, taught at Goucher College, and reported for Al-Jazeera America, where one of his stories focused on the government’s release of a draft regulatory rule clarifying the definition of “affirmatively furthering fair housing.” As part of the piece, he profiled a woman who had used a housing voucher to move from blighted West Baltimore to relatively wealthier and safer Columbia, Maryland.
Nicole Smith’s quest to leave her city neighborhood for a suburban one where she believed she and her son’s chances for success were far greater became half the narrative for Lanahan’s book, which was published in May 2019. The other main character was a man named Mark Lange, whose journey led him in the opposite direction: from a leafy, almost all-white suburban enclave to the West Baltimore neighborhood of Sandtown.
The two provided the perfect vehicles for Lanahan to dive into the history of the city—particularly as it relates to public housing. The result is an informative yet engaging book that demonstrates how Baltimore and cities like it became—and remain—segregated.
“Structural racism is a law that says landlords can just not even consider applications from people with Section 8 vouchers,” Lanahan says. “Out-and-out bigotry and white supremacy is when someone tries to change that law and death threats start coming.”
Lanahan began to flesh out the idea for the book in March 2015. One month later, Freddie Gray died in police custody and Baltimore burned.
“That was the holy s*** moment,” he says. “That’s the climax of the story I tell. All the stuff I’ve reported on had so much to do with why that happened.”
Aside from drawing in readers by chronicling Smith’s and Lange’s personal struggles, Lanahan examines Thompson v. HUD, a landmark civil rights case filed by the Maryland ACLU in 1995 that has—painfully slowly—improved the plight of people in US public housing. He also reports from the front lines of the unrest that swept through Baltimore following Gray’s death. In defiance of a curfew put in place following the looting, arson, and violence, protesters assembled throughout the city. Lanahan details how in the mostly white neighborhood of Hampden police repeatedly—and politely—asked protesters to disperse, while in the mostly black enclave of Pennsylvania and West North Avenues, protesters were met with pepper spray.
Lanahan, who lives in the racially diverse community of Hamilton with his wife and their two children, still loves Baltimore, warts and all. He is not sure how much of an impact his work has made on others, but he knows the effect it’s had on him.
“It’s cliché but true: I feel so much freer for having challenged myself to understand some of this stuff and understand my own flaws and vulnerabilities,” he says. “You have to make yourself really vulnerable as a white person to engage with this stuff. I’ve seen this city change so much in the past five years. Some of it’s terrible. In some places, the city is absolutely falling apart. But I’m hopeful for Baltimore.”
Hopeful that the lines between us might one day be erased.
Along Color Lines
From 1970 to 2010, the number of hypersegregated cities in America—those in which black residents are isolated and highly concentrated, their neighborhoods clustered together in the urban core—was cut in half to 21.
So stubborn and systemic is Baltimore’s racial divide, however, that it has remained unchanged for more than a century.
Dubbed the “black butterfly” by Lawrence Brown for the winged shape African American communities take as they fan out across the Baltimore’s eastern and western halves, these neighborhoods receive one-quarter the investment of predominantly white tracts, according to a 2019 report from the Urban Institute, a DC-based think tank. Capital flows are an important measure of a city’s vitality, determining if residents have access to quality schools, grocery stores, green spaces, and public transportation—or whether their communities are marred by pawn shops, foreclosures, and zero-tolerance policing practices.
The Baltimore City Council planted the seeds of division in 1911, when they passed the nation’s first segregation ordinance aimed at African Americans. When the US Supreme Court struck down a similar Kentucky law six years later, Baltimore mayor James Preston ordered city housing inspectors to instead slap anyone who sold or rented property in white neighborhoods to black people with code violations. Redlining and restrictive covenants—clauses in deeds that prohibited the transfer of property to African Americans—further solidified Charm City’s color lines.
“Racial divisions this stark are not inevitable,” the Urban Institute report states. “They are still felt today in part because of the enormous effort that went into circumscribing opportunity by race and geography.” –AF
Excerpt from The Lines Between Us by Lawrence Lanahan
Nicole smith sat in her living room and flipped through the afternoon’s television talk shows.
A thin, easygoing twenty-five-year-old with warm dark eyes, Nicole savored the rare peace and quiet in the house. She was enrolled at Baltimore City Community College, but she didn’t have class this day. Her younger sister was not at home. Her mother was out running errands. Her son, Joe, was at the after-school program at his elementary school a few blocks away.
Outside on this winter afternoon in 2007, the sky was gray, the air was cold, and on the ground lay the remnant of a typical Baltimore “wintry mix”: a frustrating slush that turns the color of ash when it hits the street and piles up alongside the curb, Styrofoam cups and plastic miniatures of vodka protruding from it.
From her living room window, Nicole saw students walking past brick rowhouses with missing steps and boarded-up windows. Across the street, the corner “package goods” liquor store with a little bar in the back—a staple along the major east-west North Avenue corridor—did steady business.
Around 4:30 p.m., Nicole’s mother, Melinda, came through the door. She stayed long enough to say hello, and then left to run more errands.
After Melinda walked out the door, Nicole heard what sounded like a gunshot from out in front of the house.
Then four more: pop-pop-pop-pop.
Despite its grime and abandonment, this neighborhood had been a step up for the Smiths. Nicole, her mother, and her two younger sisters had lived in some of the most violent parts of West Baltimore, including Murphy Homes, a notorious public housing high-rise. Their new neighborhood still made the news for poverty, drug dealing, and violence, but trouble seemed to elude the Smiths here. People called them “the Huxtables” after the family on The Cosby Show. Nicole’s father had left when she was three, but her mother still ran a tight ship. Melinda hadn’t tolerated cigarettes or cursing. She knew who the girls’ friends were and where they hung out. Even the roughest neighbors left the Smiths alone. Sometimes they sat on the Smiths’ steps, but they moved on when someone came out the door—a sign of respect.
Melinda had purchased the rowhouse for $16,000 in the mid-1990s when Nicole was in middle school. It was the first home she’d ever owned. After lining up a mortgage through the previous owner for almost no money down and $219 per month, Melinda moved her family into the spacious home. It was fifteen feet across and three windows wide in front (many Baltimore rowhouses are only two windows wide). Just three blocks away the pulsing crossroads of West Baltimore—Pennsylvania Avenue and North Avenue—offered a library, a CVS pharmacy, and a subway stop. “Formstone,” the faux-stone overlay that defined Baltimore’s housing stock after World War II, covered the front of Melinda’s house. (In the 1990s, you could tell a gentrifying neighborhood by the crews peeling off stone.) Melinda refinanced, and then renovated the house, including the wood floors and the green walls in the living room where Nicole was watching television.
Nicole felt that the neighborhood had deteriorated in the twelve years since their arrival. Frequent commotion and nighttime fights erupted around the bar across the street. The cops and corner boys regularly faced off up and down the block. One time a cop threw a suspect on the hood of Nicole’s car, leaving a big dent. (Nicole was ready to give the cop an earful. Melinda had to talk her down.) A neighborhood troublemaker once slashed Nicole’s car tire. A few years earlier, Nicole had watched from the window with her young son in her arms as someone jumped out of a car and shot a man.
But nothing had hit this close to home. After she heard the gunshots, Nicole ran to the door in a panic. As she scanned up and down the block for her mother, she saw someone run out of the corner bar. She picked up the landline and called her mother’s cell phone, but no one answered. Then she noticed that her mother’s car was no longer parked on the street. A sense of relief washed over Nicole as she realized her mother must have already driven away.
Then the police knocked. Someone had been fatally shot in the head inside the bar, and the police were canvassing the block for witnesses.
“Did you hear the shots or see anything?” an officer asked.
“I heard shots,” Nicole said, “and then someone came running out of the bar.”
“We might have to get you down to the station to question you,” the officer said.
Nicole blanched. She wished the police could just use her answers without making her testify. “No, don’t come back and ask me nothing,” she said. “I don’t want to be part of that—I’m not going to no police station or court!”
The police moved on, and after about an hour, Melinda came back through the door. Normalcy returned—at least what was normal for this part of town. But the incident remained with Nicole. She wanted out.
Nicole’s entire family had long entertained thoughts of living out “in the country,” as Baltimoreans referred to the suburbs beyond the city line, but her mother had fallen behind on payments for the house. Melinda wasn’t likely to go anywhere—at least willingly.
A few years earlier, Nicole’s sister Jessica had gotten pregnant, dropped out of college, and moved home. When Jessica’s baby was born, three-year-old Joe, who had been in his own room, crammed into a bedroom with Nicole and her other sister, Kelly. Jessica and her son took over Joe’s old room.
Nicole dreamed of an apartment for just Joe and herself. Columbia, a planned community thirty miles away, had a good reputation, particularly when it came to its schools. (At now six-year-old Joe’s West Baltimore elementary school, fourth and fifth graders had jumped him and taken his hat and gloves.) Searching online, Nicole found some apartments in a part of Columbia called Running Brook for $800 to $900 a month. Nicole had been working at a Safeway supermarket for a few years, making what she considered to be good money, but it wasn’t enough to move to Columbia.
Nicole longed to be independent, but it was hard to make it very far. She was close to her mother and sisters, and she had missed them during her three semesters at West Virginia State University. West Baltimore, not West Virginia, was what she knew, and with her job and the boy to take care of, it was all she could afford right now.
Every effort Nicole took to get out seems to be met with an obstacle. She enrolled at Baltimore City Community College, hoping to transfer to a four-year college and become a teacher, but BCCC administration kept placing her in classes that didn’t count toward her degree. She put in an application to the Housing Authority of Baltimore City for a rental unit in public housing or a “Section 8” voucher, named for a federal program under which low-income households paid 30 percent of their income toward a rental in the private market and the government paid the rest. A voucher offered the possibility of moving outside of the city. The housing authority’s waiting list, however, included nearly thirty thousand people. When her aunt told her about special vouchers you could use in the county, she applied but was rejected.
Still, Nicole kept dreaming of getting herself and Joe out of the house and out of the neighborhood and into a community with safe streets and good schools.
It was just a matter of how.
Copyright © 2019. Published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission.