Big Fish Lawrence Lanahan on Journalism, the City, and “The Lines Between Us”

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Freelance radio and print journalist Lawrence Lanahan, senior producer of Maryland Morning from 2010-2013 was the project leader for “The Lines Between Us,” WYPR’s an ambitious year-long project about inequality, race, class, and community in Baltimore. The series recently won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University award – the broadcast journalism equivalent of a Pulitzer.

“The Lines Between Us,” was lauded by Columbia University as an “exploration of housing, education, jobs, history and social networks – described not only by the experts but by those who earn their expertise through lived experience – this series performed a real service to the people of Baltimore.”

Along with being rising star in journalism (“not a growth industry” he says to anyone considering it for a career; it’s more of a calling) Lanahan is a new father, and a musician. His first album in ten years drops this summer, and its going to be soulful. Can anyone say trifecta?

Give this man a microphone.

When did Baltimore become home?

I grew up in Harford County and went to college in Southern Maryland. I lived in and around Washington, D.C. after college, but when I was out and about in Baltimore, it just seemed so much more interesting than Washington. In January 2001, I made the move. I’ve lived several places but no place fits me like Baltimore.

How did The Lines Between Us get its start?

For over five years, I’ve been grasping toward some way to synthesize my sociology background—especially my focus on social stratification — with my desire to report and tell stories. And I want to tell stories about the dynamics beneath the surface that keep perpetuating these separate worlds we tend to live in.

That’s only part of the answer, though. In 2001, I was planning to start an after-school music program in Baltimore. One day while I was shadowing Rebecca Yenawine, who ran a program called Kids on the Hill, I rode in the van while one of her colleagues dropped kids off at their homes. As we pulled up to a curb in West Baltimore, I saw this guy in really horrible shape: seemingly drug-addled, leaning and weaving, his clothes a mess. I felt bad that we were dropping this little girl off on this guy’s block. She gets out of the van, and he follows her—now I’m worried. Then she walks into a house, and he walks in behind her. He lives there, too. I realized the great distance between her existence and mine, despite my living a mile or two away.

WYPR helped me raise the money for The Lines Between Us and when we had enough to get started, we just went for it.

Has the work changed how you interact with your neighbors, reach across neighborhood lines?

It’s introduced me to a lot of people from all across the city with all kinds of backgrounds, and I try to stay in touch with them. I also try to find for my family and me places to spend time that are meant for the whole community: the Woodlawn library or the Y in Waverly.

What’s  the city’s most under-appreciated asset?

People who aren’t in school or in the workforce. There’s so much untapped talent in this city that we treat as a threat. Lionel Foster makes that point nicely here:http://www.linesbetweenus.org/our-stories/episode-14-who-you-know. You can meet some “unappreciated assets” here in our “Portraits of Reentry”:http://www.linesbetweenus.org/your-stories.

Instead of people who don’t know Baltimore filling in the blank with “The Wire,” what would you replace it with instead?

Tough one. The oyster bar at Faidley’s?

What does your typical day look like?

Is it Friday? I watch my 20-month-old son on Fridays, so you’ll find me at Village Learning Place in the morning for Mother Goose story time, and somewhere else fun in the afternoon—a playground, a library, a park.

Three days a week, my wife and I take our son to daycare, then head into a workspace we share—we’re both freelance journalists—wedged into a corner of a jeweler’s studio. Maybe I’m writing a story pitch while she’s got the headset on interviewing someone, or I’m writing a script for a radio piece while she’s making travel plans for a reporting fellowship. Often, we edit each other’s work, which is a huge help.

Do you think the universal experience of parenting  blurs some of the lines between us?

Honestly I think parenting more often aggravates the lines between us. It makes us protective, and some people see a choice between the child’s interest and the greater good. If young middle or upper class families are even willing to live in the city in the first place, they often leave when their children get to be 3 or 4 because they’re afraid of the schools. However, young children are naturally inclusive and draw the parents together with them, so parenting is a good entryway to community building.

Music can likewise draw people together, but it remains at the superficial level unless those connections deepen once the tune is over.

 Who are your musical influences?

Man. First I have to say that there’s a difference between what someone listens to a lot and his influences. If you look at my iPhone right now, it’s got albums from Nas, Wire, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, This Heat, Sam Rivers, Miles Davis, Madvillain, and The Buzzcocks.

But the record I’m putting out this summer won’t sound like any of that. I wanted to mix a romantic jazz sound (think Chet Baker) with noisy guitar pop (think Sonic Youth). Like, what if Robyn Hitchcock did a sped-up version of “Lush Life”? I also wanted the record to sound like Baltimore, so there are local influences: guitar pop like The Jennifers, interesting jazz-influenced arrangements like Lafayette Gilchrist and the New Volcanoes, and that world of jazz, out-jazz, and free improv that you can find at the Windup Space, Red Room, and High Zero. I also picked players who would bring their own influence and leave their own imprint. You’ll hear ex-Jennifers bassist Joe Tropea, Red Room veteran Bob Wagner on drums, and contributions from Baltimore jazz veterans John Dierker and Chris Pumphrey. I’m also influenced by teachers I’ve studied with: jazz guitarist Carl Filipiak and composer Judah Adashi.

What would you like to be doing in ten years?

I’ll be happy if I’m reporting, and making music, and feeling rooted in my community.



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