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WYPR's 'Out of the Blocks' shares Baltimoreans' stories block by block

Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick are the hosts and creators of the "Out of the Blocks" broadcasts that explore different blocks throughout the city by interviewing nearly everyone who lives on the block and giving them a chance to tell their story. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video)

In Baltimore, the streets are brimming with untold stories, and Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick, producers of the WYPR documentary series "Out of the Blocks," have been on a quest to give residents and business owners a chance to share them, block by block.

With the slogan "One hour of radio. One city block. Everybody's story," Henkin, a producer for the public radio station, and Patrick, a music producer, composed a series of audio mosaics, combining dozens of stories and sounds of several city blocks into hourlong broadcasts.

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But these aren't your typical man-on-the-street interviews. Said Patrick, 43: "It's more like art on the radio."

What was launched as a special edition of the station's onetime program "The Signal" has become a stand-alone show, airing periodically on 88.1 FM since October 2015. It tells stories of hardship, success, loss, family and culture from business owners, workers and residents. The season's stories span six blocks, including 4700 Eastern Ave., noted for its vibrant Greek and Latino communities, and 4700 Liberty Heights Ave., in an African-American neighborhood.

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The producers will host a sold-out event Wednesday at Maryland Institute College of Art, featuring a multimedia presentation, excerpts from the show and a Q&A with guests from each block.

When Henkin, 42, conceived of the show, he sought out Patrick, once a guest on WYPR, for the musical aspects, Henkin said. He envisioned playing his music behind the stories, but Patrick would go on to create a unique soundtrack for every episode.

"To me, the Holy Grail has always been trying to find stories that I didn't even know existed," Henkin said. "You're meeting people on their own turf, on their own terms, so you end up with these interesting tours of sound as well as voices."

Many of the blocks featured on the program are vibrant but fall "between the cracks when it comes to media coverage," Patrick said.

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The project had few rules.

"I guess we're not and can't be with this project in the business of investigative journalism so much as we are oral historians," Henkin said.

"We take people at their word. ... We let them speak their own truths in their own voices."

He asked subjects their name and where they lived, then improvised a conversation. But getting permission to interview some who were recorder-shy required more time, Henkin said.

The producers kept coming back, spending at least a month in each place. They interviewed about 35 people and collected around 25 hours of audio on each block.

"Once people realize that you're not there to sell them something — that you really are this guy that, for some reason, shows up day after day on [their] block and has no agenda but to give [them] a chance to share the stories of [their] lives — once people realize that, they love to tell their stories," Henkin said.

Patrick took portraits of interviewees, putting a face to every voice, and used sounds from the block — door chimes, a barber cutting hair, cars rushing by — to compose his scores for each episode.

Tymekia Spellman, who owns the salon Flawless Hair on Liberty Heights Avenue, said Henkin and Patrick embraced the neighborhood, interviewing people from all walks of life — drug dealers, shop owners, mothers.

"The neighborhood isn't the greatest," Spellman said, but noted that Henkin and Patrick "weren't fearful at all."

"They talked to everybody. ... They wanted to know how our lives were as a business owner, as a resident."

The 39-year-old mother of three, who has been doing hair since she was 12, shared her story. The happiest moments in her life were the births of her children, she told them; the darkest was her own childhood. Spellman revealed to the producers that she had been physically and sexually abused as a child.

"My childhood was horrible, very horrible, so I want my children to get the best out of theirs," she told them.

Spellman said she has come to terms with her story. She's shared it again with people who have reached out to her since hearing her on the radio.

When Hampden resident Isaac Childress, 26, first heard his voice on the radio, he said he was a bit embarrassed.

Childress grew up near the 6300 block of Reisterstown Road and worked at a pizza place there at the time of his interview for an episode on that block. He told the producers about the divide between the black community and the tight-knit Orthodox Jewish community he belonged to.

"There was a wall on this block," said Childress, who says he has since left the Orthodox faith.

He felt the divide and wanted to engage with other cultures and communities, but he felt constrained by his religion. At times, he said, it seemed inescapable.

"You stay in good graces with the heads. They got you taken care of," he said, but there was a fear of leaving.

"They threaten to cut off you spiritually," he told producers.

After the episode aired, Childress talked to people about his views on the community. From those he knew in the Orthodox community, there was largely silence, he said.

Still, "I get really enthusiastic about my role in [the program], but in reality, the project was so much bigger than any one person," he said.

Producers concluded the season on Sept. 20 with a focus on 600 block Deepdene Road in Roland Park, where Patrick once lived and where Henkin and his family now reside. The block is of a higher socioeconomic status than many of the others included in the series, but Henkin's hope is to break down barriers and show that intriguing stories can come from anyone, anywhere, he said.

"I hope that our episodes have presented human beings as individuals on their own terms ... and that they blow up the stereotypes that we have about them," Henkin said.

Childress believes that the stories will bring residents even closer to home.

"You can say, 'Oh, yeah, I love my city,' and know nothing about it,'" Childress said. But after listening to an episode of "Out of the Blocks," "you're one block stronger than you were before."

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'Out of the Blocks'

To hear episodes, go to wypr.org/outoftheblocks

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