Alex Kotlowitz, There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America (Nan A. Talese, 1991)
Reissued by Anchor in paperback in 1992.
Alex Kotlowitz, who had been writing on urban affairs for the Wall Street Journal, met Lafayette and Pharoah Rivers while writing the text for a friend's photo essay on children in poverty. Over the next four years he would spend time "just hanging out" with the boys, dramatizing their struggles with the overwhelming and seemingly meaningless violence around them. The resulting book was a national bestseller and won glowing reviews for its empathy and reportorial force. There Are No Children Here is a meticulously constructed glimpse of life in Chicago's housing projects through the eyes of two boys who, like us, can't seem to make sense of the violence around them.
The power of Kotlowitz's book is his ability to sketch lives and characters into the cold facts of urban decay. It had been well-established, when Children was published, that the public housing projects of Chicago were seriously violent and run-down. But Kotlowitz's narrative leaves us with indelible images to back these facts up: the bathroom faucet that shoots water day and night, the bloodstain in the stairwell outside of the boys' apartment, the death of Lafayette's beloved friend at the hands of police, the basement full of decomposing animal carcasses. Through it all, we identify with Pharoah's sorely tested innocence and the earnest uncertainty of Lafayette - too responsible, too young.
The one distraction in an otherwise gripping book is Kotlowitz's invisibility in the narrative. The reader is often left wondering how the reporter managed to capture scenes with such detail. Was he there? How did his presence affect his subjects? If he wasn't there, then how did he get such telling details? These concerns are cleared up in a final "Note on Reporting Method," but the uncertainty up to that point can sometimes distract from the power of his story.
Kotlowitz's book became a touchstone for people concerned with poverty issues; reviewers alternately laid blame for the situation on a callous Reagan-era notion of "welfare cheats," dissolving family values across society, or nihilism and callousness in the people in charge of welfare policy. Kotlowitz wisely avoids these sweeping questions, focusing on the microcosmic struggle of two boys trying to break free of the sinister trap that is the modern ghetto. Through their story, he characterizes the forces that conspire to keep them there, and gives us glimmers of hope for how they might overcome them. Kotlowitz's moving account remains a modern masterpiece of urban studies.
University of Oregon interview with Kotlowitz
Children, Youth and Environments essay by Kotlowitz
The Story Behind the Story by Kotlowitz
Random House interview with Kotlowitz
The Nation review of There Are No Children Here
Developerís website for renovated Henry Horner Homes
Profile of Henry Horner Homes
Chicago Housing Authority Website