Rust Wire was thrilled to be able to interview Alex Kotlowitz, one of our nation’s best journalists about urban issues and problems. Kotlowitz will be speaking Monday at Cleveland State’s Levin College Forum. Kotlowitz penned the New York Times story “All Boarded Up,’ about foreclosure in Cleveland’s Slavic Village neighborhood. He also authored “There are no Children Here,” the story of two boys growing up in one of Chicago’s toughest housing projects. Here’s the first part of our conversation:
RW: How did you become interested in writing about cities and their problems? Did you make a conscious decision that this was a topic what you were interested in? Or did you just gradually fall start writing about it?
AK: “I guess when people ask me what sort of holds my various writings together, I don’t know that I would say they are all about cities. I feel like for me, there are two things thematic in my work. One is it tends to be about people along the margins, people who are often outsiders by race, class, geography, religion, circumstance, whatever the reason. And also so much of my writing is about fissures in the American landscape and how people contend with those cracks. Again, whether it is over race, or class, or religion or politics. There’s no question that much of my writing takes place in cities, but not all of it by any means….
I’m a city boy. I grew up in New York and I live in Chicago. That’s what I know best. What I love about a place like Chicago, or a place like Cleveland, is that cities are filled with all these messy vitalities. And there’s something exhilarating about being in an urban setting.”
RW: You’ve written a lot about Chicago. What do you think is Chicago’s most pressing problem and how would you solve it?
AK: “I think its most pressing problem – at the moment- is the economy. It is what is occurring in places like Chicago and Cleveland. And I think what we are also seeing going on, what part of this populist backlash is about, is that for a long time now, we’ve had this growing divide between those who have and those who don’t. And we are seeing that widen in these times…In Chicago, or Cleveland, or anywhere, there is really a growing divide between those who have and those who don’t. And I think that part of what this backlash is about, about the pay on Wall Street and the bonuses, is that something seems to be askew in the financial landscape.”
RW: Are you familiar with the HBO television series ‘The Wire?”
AK: “Yes, [Wire creator] David Simon is a good friend of mine.”
RW: We here at Rust Wire are pretty much obsessed with that show. What did you like or dislike about it and its portrayal of Baltimore and other cities?
AK: “I think it’s the best thing that’s ever been on television. It’s just extraordinary. It feels more truthful that anything on TV, that’s for sure. I feel like know that terrain very well and yet I watch The Wire somewhat in awe because I see things that I haven’t even seen. …It has made me sit up and look and some of my own reporting differently. The Wire is again, about the messy vitalities of the city, what’s working and what isn’t working.
What David tried to do in that, and I think he is successful, is look at all these institutions, whether it be the corner, whether it be City Hall, whether it be the newspaper, whether it be the longshoreman, look at all those institutions and how they interact with each other, some more successfully than others.
For me, The Wire is about our inability to wrestle with people unlike ourselves…It’s the uncanny ability in this country to turn our collective heads from that which discomforts, and The Wire sits up and forces you to take notice. I’m just in awe of that show.”
RW: I want to ask you a little bit about your 1991 book There Are No Children Here, which chronicles the lives of two young boys living in the Henry Horner Homes, a public housing project in Chicago.
When I was a newspaper reporter covering public housing in Toledo, the director of the housing authority once told me that it was an important book for her, she had read it more than once and it was a very influential book.
What was the main thing you were trying to show? How do you think the book influenced our national conversation about public housing?
AK: “It’s funny, even though it is situated in public housing, I think of it more as a book about poverty in this country, whether it is in public housing or not. I mean Chicago now has gotten rid of most of its public housing, all of those problems I wrote about though are still with us.…At best, I hoped to do one of two things. One is to provide an aperture onto a corner of this country that we haven’t paid much attention to, a structure we wouldn’t have otherwise have reason to visit…
I like to think that There Are No Children Here really got people …to sit up and take notice. That is the essential job of a storyteller. I don’t deal with policy issues in the book, though I think they are sort of implicit. The book has been embraced by people on both ends of the political spectrum. And I think that is how the story is, and how people read stories. They take from it what they have and what they will. So, my hope is that whether it was Jack Kemp at HUD, or the head of the public housing authority in Toledo or a mayor somewhere, that the book just makes them look differently at those neighborhoods in their cities.”
RW: You kind of already touched on this, but since the time when you wrote the book, much of the public housing in Chicago and in many other cities has been totally overhauled. They’ve gotten rid of the high rises and gone to small, mixed-income developments. What do you make of these changes? Are they positive for the residents? Or for the neighborhoods?
AK: “Look, the bottom line is I think public housing in this country was an abject failure. And anybody who spent any time in public housing in Chicago would tell you …these things needed to be torn down a long time ago. And the idea of creating some kind of mixed-income development for me feels like the right direction…
What concerns me, certainly in a place like Chicago, is that there is certainly not going to be enough housing to house all those people, families that have been displaced. My fear is that the poor are being shunted further aside, and in places like Chicago we are replicating what happened in Western Europe, where the very poor kind of ring the city, almost like a wreath. In Western Europe, it is the new immigrants, in a place like Chicago it is African Americans and Latinos.
So that is a concern of mine. And also too, I think if you tear down public housing, I think there is a general notion out there that somehow squalor is going out of fashion and nothing could be further from the truth.”
RW: Also, are you still are you still in touch with Lafeyette and Pharoah, the two boys you wrote about in There Are No Children Here?
AK: “I am. And as you can imagine, I get asked this question a lot, about what happened to them, so I have to be a little circumspect….When I was working on the book, it was so clear that I was there to tell their story, and share it in this very public manner. We are in contact at least once a week, and I don’t want to betray their confidence. At some point I hope to write a book about these intervening years.
The family did move out of public housing right after the book came out, and Pharoah did graduate from high school and briefly attended college. Lafeyette about five years ago did marry a long-time sweetheart, but it has been a real struggle for both of them.”
RW: Do the Henry Horner Homes still exist?
AK: “No, Horner Homes preceded the other transformation projects in Chicago because there was a lawsuit brought by tenants. So they were torn down reasonably early and now it’s the one mixed-income development in the city that seems to be working.”
We’ll be posting the rest of the interview soon. And if you liked what Alex Kotlowitz had to say (or even if you didn’t), you’ll have the chance to listen to him in person. He’s speaking at 4 p.m. Monday at Cleveland State University’s Glickman-Miller Hall, 1717 Euclid Avenue.