This story was published in partnership with the Trace.
In 1991, Alex Kotlowitz published his first book, There Are No Children Here—a penetrating account of two young brothers growing up in a West Chicago housing project. Since then, he has filed numerous dispatches from neighborhoods struggling with poverty and gun violence. Kotlowitz also co-produced The Interrupters, a documentary that aired on PBS’s Frontline about a violence prevention group working with people likely to retaliate and beseeching them to put down their guns. In Harper High School, one of several radio documentaries Kotlowitz helped report for “This American Life,” he chronicled five months at a school where 29 current students and recent graduates were shot.
This week, Kotlowitz is releasing his fourth book: An American Summer, Love and Death in Chicago, his first since There Are No Children Here to deal directly with life in Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Though the city’s landscape has evolved—the housing projects he wrote about nearly 30 years ago have been razed—Kotlowitz says that what strikes him most is the persistence of the violence.
An American Summer tells the stories of people who commit shootings, people struck by bullets, and people who bear witness to violence on a regular basis. Kotlowitz spoke with The Trace about his book.
Ann Givens: Can you describe the book in your own words?
Alex Kotlowitz: I wanted to write a book that would, as intimately as I could, get at what the violence does in shaping who we are and how we come to think of ourselves. And ask the questions that we don’t ask. We ask questions in the wake of shootings like Parkland and Newtown, but we don’t ask in the wake of the shootings in places like Chicago.
So the long and short of it is the book for me is a collection of these deeply intimate, somewhat surprising stories about people emerging from the violence and trying to reckon with it.
When did you start looking for these anecdotes and how did you find your characters?
I decided to write this book in May of 2013. I thought naively that if I wrote about a summer I could get the reporting done in six months and get the book done in a year and a half … I spent that first summer looking for stories. For example, I spent evenings with Jimmy Lee at his small juke joint on the West Side, I embedded with a homicide unit, I did everything I could to get out into the neighborhoods and find stories.
But there were other stories that I had to make sense of as I went along. Like the story of Ashara, which is not her real name. What interested me initially was these two brothers, one of whom had been in and out of the system, he had served a prison sentence, and the other worked for the post office and was this really good young man. It was a story about these two brothers who couldn’t have been more different. As I was reporting, I learned about this young woman who had been a friend of one of theirs from childhood. And when I met her I was so taken with her and so taken with her own struggles and her own journey that it ended up being a story really about her.
You’ve been covering Chicago’s violent neighborhoods for 25 years. How has the city and gun violence in the city changed since then, and how has it not changed?
I wrote my first pieces for the [Wall Street] Journal in 1987, so actually it’s been 30 years. It’s interesting. There’s this sense that the violence now is as bad as it’s ever been. But when There are No Children Here came out in 1991 we had [about] 950 homicides in the city. It’s just astonishing to imagine. Which is [roughly] twice what it is today.
So much of the violence then was occurring in the confines of public housing. It was really out of sight, out of mind. It wasn’t that the city didn’t know about it, but it wasn’t really touching anybody outside public housing. So, sadly, people didn’t care.
The other part of it was so much of it was over drug turf. The gangs were so hierarchical. In fact I remember when I was working on There Are No Children Here we would usually get warning that there was about to be a gunfight, so it gave people time for people to take cover. It was that kind of organized battle.
I think what’s changed now—one, the public housing has come down, so you don’t have that kind of isolation of the violence that you had back then. Violence is also now no longer over drug turf, it’s often over just petty disputes. The violence feels much more random and subsequently much more threatening.
The other thing that’s changed is, I don’t fully understand why, but back then when we had really high rates of violence the police were pretty good about solving cases. Now only one out of four murders are solved by the police. And one out of ten shootings. You’ve got a pretty good chance of getting away with murder. It’s one of the reasons why relations between the police and communities of color are so frayed, is because the police have been unable—and it’s not entirely their fault—to do this kind of fundamental task.
You talk about the difficulty police have solving cases in the chapter about Ramaine. Can you tell a little bit about his story and why you chose it?
Ramaine is out one evening with his girlfriend cleaning out a friend’s car. A teenager drives by on a bicycle, presumably aiming at Ramaine’s friend, and Ramaine gets shot in the back. And Ramaine can identify the shooter.
What often happens in the city is when people get shot, they’re unwilling to come forward; they’re unwilling to testify…. But Ramaine actually IDs this kid. He does the right thing. And then a year later he’s walking in a park on a Saturday afternoon and a young man walks up behind him and shoots him in the back of the head five times. And there are all these people around the park and witnesses and nobody’s willing to come forward.
For a couple years I tried to get in touch with the detective who was leading the case. Finally, I got the department to let me meet with him if I didn’t identify him. We met for coffee, and I just really liked him. He said this had nothing to do with the “no snitch” culture. This had everything to do with people being afraid. He couldn’t get witnesses from the park to testify because they were afraid of what might happen to them. And all they had to do was look at what happened to Ramaine.
Do you think the case of Laquan McDonald, who was shot and killed by a police officer in 2014, played a role in more recent violence in the city?
No. Listen, people living in these communities, there’s a lot of resentment that’s built up. But it’s not only at the police. It’s also at the incredible inequity that exists not only here but in virtually every city. All you have to do is walk out of your house in Englewood and look at the beautiful gleaming downtown skyline and realize what’s not yours. So no I don’t think the violence is the result of Laquan McDonald.
I can point to half a dozen times at least over the past 15–20 years when we’ve had these moments in the city where we’ve thought, OK, this is the moment where everything is going to change. It’s usually in the aftermath of a horrific shooting of a kid. The city is flooded with national and international press and there are all these cries of, “Can’t go on anymore.” And here we are. It’s maddening.
The one thing that I get really agitated about is how little things have changed in many of these neighborhoods. We are a deeply segregated city, not by accident, most of the violence occurs in deeply impoverished places. Places where there’s little sense of future, of opportunity, of hope. It seems to me the most fundamental and most urgent thing we can do is try to find a way to rebuild and fortify these communities.
Is there anything I didn’t ask about that you want to say?
Running through many of the stories is this notion of forgiveness. For many of the people in the book it’s this effort to forgive themselves and the people around them. I was just kind of inspired by this capacity of people to forgive.
And I think the other part for me is the fact that in the end I realized I was writing about all these people who were still standing. Kind of standing erect in this world that is slumping around them. And many of them are not only moving on, they are moving on with force.