Lawrence Lanahan and The Lines Between Us

Stylized black and white drawing of typical Baltimore rowhouses frame the title.

By Holly L.

Journalist Lawrence Lanahan’s 2019 book The Lines Between Us: Two Families and a Quest to Cross Baltimore’s Racial Divide opens with two epigraphs:

It’s in the way their curtains open and close.

“Respectable Street,” XTC

I don’t even have to do nothing to you.

“Big Brother,” Stevie Wonder

The first line comes from English post-punk band XTC’s 1981 song about what songwriter and frontman Andy Partridge considered “the hypocrisy of living in a so-called respectable neighborhood. It’s all talk behind twitching curtains.” The second lyric is from a track from Stevie Wonder’s 1972 album Talking Book. In the song, Wonder takes the white establishment (Big Brother) to task for only coming to the ghetto “to visit me ‘round election time.” He continues his indictment – “I don’t even have to do nothin’ to you” because, from offenses ranging from criminal neglect of its black citizens to having “killed all our leaders…you’ll cause your own country to fall.”

It is fitting that Lanahan chose these words and these voices to begin this story, as his narrative weaves together multiple perspectives but most closely follows the criss-crossing threads of two individuals, one black and one white.

Nicole Smith is a young black woman living with her family in a West Baltimore rowhome owned by her mother, Melinda. When we meet Nicole, she is twenty-five and is contemplating the crossing of a line—leaving her neighborhood (and family and community) behind in search of security and opportunity for herself and her six-year-old son, Joe. Though she is enrolled in Baltimore City Community College and is on a waitlist for affordable housing in the city, Nicole seems to be on an existential treadmill, running but getting nowhere fast. She’s heard of a place called Columbia, a planned community in Howard County, with a reputation for good schools, plenty of jobs, and safe streets. Could she make it there?

Mark Lange is a white man raised in the Baltimore suburbs who, after a spiritual reckoning in his late teens, embarks on a path of service informed by the teachings of Mississippi civil rights activist and Christian minister John M. Perkins, who argued that those who wanted to help communities in need must live among them. As Mark’s story begins to be told, he feels a gravitational pull from his comfortable suburban life in Bel Air toward Sandtown, a West Baltimore neighborhood where his best friend Alan Tibbels, a like-minded white Christian with a mission of racial reconciliation, relocated with his family. If he moves, would Mark prove to be just another “white savior” looking to appease his own guilt? Or would be able to form meaningful relationships and help foster change in an impoverished community?

In this meticulously researched book, Lanahan alternates the fascinating tales of Nicole and Joe with the complicated history of Baltimore’s segregation and the resulting devastating impact on its black communities. Having its genesis as a year-long multi-media series on inequality in the Baltimore area broadcast from September 28, 2012 to October 4, 2013 on WYPR, Maryland Public Radio, the depth and breadth of Lanahan’s reporting is detailed to an almost dizzying degree. But just when a reader’s brain might start to get overwhelmed by the minutiae of historical detail (as mine sometimes did), my attention would come swiftly back into focus as the humanity of Nicole and Mark’s stories propelled me through the book. The Lines Between Us should be required reading for anyone who wishes to understand the institutional forces that shape inequality in our region and for those whose understanding of their neighbor might require them to cross a line. And isn’t that most of us?

Join us: Author Works with Lawrence Lanahan
Wednesday, January 12 from 7 – 8:30 pm
In person, HCLS Central Branch
Register at bit.ly/3pFTq3y

To learn more about the historical policies of redlining, visit the interactive exhibit currently at Central Branch. Undesign the Redline explores the history of structural racism and inequality, how these designs compounded each other from 1938 Redlining maps until today, and the national and local impacts. Join a guided tour on Wednesdays at 11 am and Saturdays at 2 pm.

Holly L. is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Miller Branch. She enjoys knitting and appreciates an audiobook with a good narrator.