Years ago when I was living in Chicago I read There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz. Up to that point, Chicago had been my happy college home. The Chicago I had grown to love carried its own energetic pulse with its winking, open-windowed restaurants, beckoning beer gardens, star-lit nights at Wrigley, and constant comforting rumble of the El. Navigating the Loop and northern neighborhoods both day and night, I believed Chicago to be the friendliest city in the world and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
But after my literary introduction to young Lafayette and Pharoah in There Are No Children Here, my view of the city took a different turn. Not worse, just different. Realizing these young boys lived mere miles from my Lincoln Park playground left me unable to total the sum of my advantages. How had I been riding the El over the projects for years without truly thinking about the people occupying them?
It is to the credit of Alex Kotlowitz that I began to think outside of my insular box. I began to tutor in Cabrini Green, and upon graduating from Loyola took a teaching job in a poor Hispanic pocket on Chicago’s West side. As I slowly peeled back the layers of my privilege, I was quickly made aware of the violence inherent in these communities. On my first day of teaching, my sweet second-grade students nonchalantly informed me that the closest neighboring school wouldn’t be starting until the following day. Why? Because a body had been found in the parking lot and needed to be taped off as a crime scene. I was stunned, but based on reaction this event seemed a matter of course rather than surprise.
Regardless, I continued to love and live in Chicago for ten more years. Though I still had my fun it came with a deeper understanding of my dual surroundings; I had managed to work Kotlowitz’s story into my frame of reference. Now, ironically, I write this from my home in Michigan, which sits within the very same borders of my youth a mere twenty minutes from Detroit. And as I have settled into a quieter appreciation of suburban life, Alex Kotlowitz is still hard at work.
With the arrival of my most recent issue of Granta, Mr. Kotlowitz continues his attempt to create some understanding of the incomprehensible. His Granta contribution “Khalid” is a brief, heartbreaking work which looks at the people behind the violence that continues to puncture the heart of Chicago. It is a work that translates to any major American city that suffers the pointless murder of its youth. So, as I busy myself with errands and quick trips to Target, it is with sheer admiration that I once again read the work of Mr. Kotlowitz; a man who has valiantly dedicated himself to revealing humanity beneath the gross racial and social discrepancies of our times.
Other works by Alex Kotlowitz
-Post by Megan Shaffer