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Alex Kotlowitz, Part 2

9 May 2009 One Comment

As promised, here is the second part of our interview with journalist and author Alex Kotlowitz, who is speaking Monday in Cleveland

RW: Something I’ve always enjoyed most about your books and articles is that they are just very frank about addressing race and racial tensions, something that can be difficult to talk about write about. Have you found this a challenging topic to address? How have you gotten people to open up and discuss it?
AK: “It is challenging to address and I don’t feel, to be honest with you, I have been completely successful. The Cleveland story in some ways is a great example of where you know, I fail. I don’t talk at all about race in that story, but it’s clear that the communities that are the hardest hit in Cleveland are communities of minorities. And so it does sort of beg the question, What’s going on?

Race is a really tough issue. Even though we just elected our first African American president, race is still a really difficult thing to talk about. I guess the only way to wrestle with it is to wrestle with it as directly as you can

But to go back to There Are No Children Here, when I finished that book and you know, all the sort of accolades poured in, and I began to sort of reflect on my experience and I realized that nowhere in the book do I talk about race.…And yet, in that neighborhood, it is all about race. And that led very directly, to my second book, The Other Side of the River, where I really wanted to try to deal with race in a much more forthright manner.

And it wasn’t easy. You know, it was much easier to get African Americans to talk about race than it was whites. Not surprisingly, because I think for most whites, they don’t see race, that it really matters anymore. One of the tough things as a storyteller writing about race is you know, so much of the story of race today is the absence of any conversation. So writing about absence is really, really tough as a writer. I’m talking about more how I’ve struggled with it I guess, than how I’ve succeeded with it. But I do struggle with it a lot…

This country has such amnesia when it comes to its history, and in order to talk about race in this country, you’ve got to be able to talk about history. And I’m not talking about long-ago history, I’m just talking about the past 40 or 50 years.”

RW: Have you read any good or interesting books lately that you would like to recommend or share?
AK: “Yes, I read a book that is not coming out until September, by a friend, Tracy Kidder, Strength in What Remains. And I also just read Ha Jin’s book, A Free Life.
And a book I am reading now, which is an astonishing piece of journalism is Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side, about what lead us to torture.”

RW: Let’s talk a little bit about your recent article about Cleveland. How did you hear about the foreclosure crisis in Cleveland?
AK: “You can’t get up in this country in the morning without hearing about the foreclosure crisis. Right after the collapse on Wall Street, you heard all these grim thoughts from the newscasters about Wall Street and Main Street and I got to wondering what did it really mean to the fabric of our communities, and the fabric of a city. And so I called my editor at The New York Times Magazine, and said ‘Look, I’d really like to do a story that looks at it from the ground up…’

I was initially looking at California, at all these places that were very hard hit, but …I wasn’t finding a lot of push back. I felt like I really wanted to not do a story on victims. I felt like we had heard a lot about families that got foreclosed upon. So I started looking in my own backyard, the Midwest.”

RW: What made you want to write about what is happening in Cleveland?
AK: “Initially what drew me to Cleveland frankly, is I heard about  [Cuyahoga County Treasurer] Jim Rokakis. So I called Jim and that is what brought me out to Cleveland. …Cleveland got hit very early, so they were also much further along, in a good way and a bad way.  The bad way obviously, is that the foreclosure crisis has hit Cleveland like I said, unlike most other places. It was hit so hard and it was hit so early. But it’s also been enough times that people have begun to figure out ways to push back, and that’s really what interested me.”

RW: Can you give us a little bit of a preview as to what you plan to talk about on Monday night?
AK: “I don’t think there is anything earth-shattering that I have to say on Monday, so much of it appears in that story. But part of it is I want to talk about, as a storyteller, I heard from some people after the Cleveland story came out, ‘How can you do another slam on Cleveland?’

But for me, the very act of telling the story is an act of hope. It’s interesting, because when I look at Cleveland in my time in Cleveland, and I saw incredible devastation. I mean, I was, slack-jawed, to be honest with you, my first visit out there. But I came away with a sense of exhilaration, a sense of excitement having spent time with [Housing court] Judge Pianka, and [Councilman] Tony Brancatelli, [County Treasurer] Jim Rokakis, [Councilman] Jay Westbrook, and others. The sense of, ‘We may be up against a lot, but we are figuring out ways to push back.’

I also want to talk too about the importance of empathy, both as a storyteller and why it is important for a city as an institution for public officials to think about empathy, which is really all about trying to understand what it means to be in the shoes of someone else…. A woman who lived across from a vacant house where crack addicts had moved and had cut out a slit in the blinds and they stare at her early in the morning, and she’s understandably terrified. And she called her alderman, and she called the police, the head commander, of that district whose name escapes me at the moment. And in a city, this is not a small town, the commander took it on himself her on a fairly regular basis. And to me, that was just an incredible act of empathy. I mean, he imagined what it must be like to be this woman. And so he was calling both to check in on her, and also to reassure her that there are others watching out for her as well.”

-KG