It’s unusual, with the velocity of books being published these days, when a new release is met with the pomp and circumstance of a literary happening. More unusual when that book concerns a topic as weighty and nuanced as urban gun violence. And more unusual still when that book exceeds expectations. Alex Kotlowitz spent five years working on “An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago,” and his long and illustrious career as a reporter—in newspapers, books, radio and film—foreshadowed what, finally, we would read. His 1992 book, “There Are No Children Here,” in which he followed a family residing in the Henry Horner Homes, received widespread praise on its way to being recognized as one of the most important books of the twentieth century. His subsequent books and articles, as well as radio features and a documentary film, continued his pursuit of stories centered around people living in impoverished circumstances. And though Kotlowitz has investigated and reported on a variety of places, Chicago is his primary canvas, and the place he returns to with his new book.
The Paul D’Amato photo on the dust jacket of “An American Summer” features a solitary black man, young, naked from the waist up, head bowed, the water on the horizon appearing almost like a sunburst. Why this image for this book?
I know the terrain can be grim, but as the subtitle suggests, I found a lot of love in these stories. I was looking for an image that felt both celebratory and contemplative. When I came across this image, I was so struck by it. A young man standing in a spray of water. It’s an image that expresses both joy and reflection. I love the image. And what’s more, it so beautifully evokes summer.
“I feel like I’ve been working my way to this book for a long while.” This, from your prelude. Explain.
When I began work on “There Are No Children Here,” I felt this sense of shame. How could I not know? The projects I spent time in were just a couple of miles from my office downtown. That shame turned into anger. How is it that people can live in such distressing conditions in what is the world’s most prosperous nation? I was also knocked off balance by the violence—and over the years have been both confounded and unsettled by its stubborn persistence. A number of the children I met working on “There Are No Children Here” have since been killed. People have shrugged off the impact of the violence, both on the spirit of individuals as well as on the spirit of community. It’s a myth that people get accustomed to it or hardened to it or numb to it. Nothing could be further from the truth. The violence gets in your bones. It comes to shape you, and you work really hard not to let it define you.
“Everything and nothing remains the same.” This, from the end of the book. Englewood, North Lawndale, West Pullman: violence in these places, you point out, does not cause the outrage of a school shooting like Newtown, even though the situations, over time, are deadlier. In telling these stories, is it possible you’ve humanized the dire reality of life in these neighborhoods, perhaps to those on the outside who’ve been able to just avert their eyes?
It’s this great American paradox: we like to think we’re all in this together and yet we lead incredibly disconnected lives, especially when it comes to race. One characteristic you find in cities wracked by violence—Baltimore, St. Louis, New Orleans, I could go on—is that they’re deeply segregated places. It’s really easy to live in Chicago and not be impacted by the violence, not to know anyone who’s been affected by it. It’s notable to me that after the tragedies in Newtown and then in Parkland we were asking all the right questions. How do people move on after bearing the weight of this tragedy? How does a community move on? We’re not asking these questions in corners of our cities where the carnage has become almost routine. In some ways this book is an effort to ask those questions. I was looking for stories that would upend what I thought I knew and what readers thought they knew. On a more fundamental level, I wanted to provide these full, rich, nuanced portraits of people who have gotten short shrift over the years in reporting on these neighborhoods and in reporting on the violence.
You organize the narrative chronologically, over the course of one summer, the summer of 2013. This arrangement suggests that the stories you’ve chosen to tell are representative of the continuous violence, the neverending fear, associated with Chicago’s worst neighborhoods. It’s almost as if the stories you tell flatline into the future, and the past.
My notion was to take this one summer and let it serve as the scaffolding for the book. I knew that if I was going to capture the breadth of the violence, I had to tell multiple stories. I chose this one summer, 2013, arbitrarily, and I had this idea that I’d be able to report the book over the course of six months or so. I was so naïve. I quickly realized that many of the stories I landed on were unfurling in front of me, going far beyond the summer. And so I ended up spending the better part of three years reporting these stories which, as they unfolded, revealed so much more about the people I was writing about. When I sat down to write, I had this dilemma. How to constrain the book to the summer, and yet follow these stories well beyond. Short of writing an epilogue—which would’ve been half the book—I was stuck.
At one point, my friend Chris Ware said, “Just sit down and tell the stories.” It was such a simple piece of advice, but oh my God, so helpful. In the book, you enter a date during the summer, and the story begins on that day and then you come to learn the backstory, all that got us to that moment. Here’s where it gets tricky. Some stories move forward in time, sometimes by a couple of years, and then you’re drawn back into the summer. It’s almost like with each tale, you’re entering a portal where you move backward and forward in time. I think it works—I hope it works—but it does require some temporal imagination on the part of the reader.
There are a number of instances in which you, as the author, step outside the narrative structure to explain the nature of your participation in the story. What made you choose to acknowledge your presence in the narrative, unlike many other narrative nonfiction books in which the author takes exceptional measures to remain a bystander, if not entirely absent?
I’ve been working my way to this book for a long time. It feels personal. I’ve felt like I’ve earned this moment where I could reflect on what I’m seeing. Also, there’s no single protagonist, and so my presence provides a kind of loose narrative thread. There are moments in the book where I’m speaking directly to the reader, almost like I’m having a conversation with them, and that no doubt comes from my time doing stories for “This American Life.” Writing for radio is so conversational. I needed to be careful not to overdo that in the book, but there are these moments when I felt like I needed to be direct with the reader, like in the prelude when I make clear that this is not a book about public policy.
I thought that sort of honesty was important, and it would have been a lesser book without it. You are, it seems to me, part of these stories. Do you consider the ramifications of your relationships to the subjects on the story?
Working on a book like this, I get to know people intimately. It’s one of the perks about this work, that you spend time with people, and many of them become a part of your life, and I feel that my life and my family’s life is so much richer for that.
Jimmie Lee’s social club, Night Prowler, is a place in which the “original gangsters” hang out. You describe the neighborhood as “rough,” which is probably an understatement. Yet there you are, and it’s hardly the only rough or uncomfortable place in which you go to pursue these stories. A couple of things here. One, that access seems to me absolutely essential to your ability to tell these stories. How does it come about that you find yourself sitting in a place like the Night Prowler—are you asking for this, or do the subjects initiate these meetings?
A combination of both. I wrote about Jimmie Lee in “There Are No Children Here,” though I never met him while working on that book. By the time I wanted to interview him, he was in prison. On the advice of his lawyer, he declined my request for an interview, which was probably good advice. I met him for the first time eight years ago. At first, it was awkward. He came up and introduced himself. He told me, “Alex, I want just one thing.” He wanted a signed copy of “There are No Children Here.” He thought I had gotten it right. We became friends. He had this private club, and he invited me there. It was a quiet place. Old-timers would play cards, hang out and drink beer; he had a flatscreen TV and I would go over there and watch sports. Or I’d sit at the bar with Jimmie, and we’d just talk. It felt like such a privilege to be invited in.
Two, I assume that you are often the only white person in many situations. Does this work for or against you, in terms of your ability to gain trust, and unravel the many layers of story, to get to something like the truth?
Given what I do, wherever I go, I am an outsider, whether it’s because of race or class or politics or religion or gender or circumstance. It’s the nature of what I do. Certainly, while working on “An American Summer,” I was an outsider both by race and by class. The advantage of being an outsider is that you see things others don’t see and ask questions that others have stopped asking. But there are, of course, disadvantages, too. I’m writing about people whose lives are in some ways very different from my own. And the challenge, of course, is that as best I can I try to stand in their shoes. I work toward finding empathy. I may get close, but I know that I’ll never fully get there. I try to capture people in all their richness and fullness, recognizing the particulars of their character and of their circumstance.
As an outsider, I need to gain people’s trust. After all, I’m asking them to entrust me with their story. I try to be as direct and honest and straightforward as I can about my intentions and about how I operate. I’m also in a position where I can show them previous work, to give them a sense of what I’m after. And I spend a lot of time with people. How better to get to know them? Marcelo, for example, I visited every Sunday afternoon for a year-and-a-half. He was under house arrest, so I always knew where to find him. We’d have lunch, play chess and then talk. I so relished those Sundays. It takes time to get to know people. And it takes time for them to get to know me.
Jimmie Lee brings us full circle from “There Are No Children Here” to “An American Summer.” He provides a connective thread, as does Pharoah, whom you discuss in the new book’s prelude. A quarter-century has passed, and through Jimmie Lee we see the changes in his life. But what of the conditions that produced Jimmie Lee? How different is Chicago now than then?
Here’s what’s different, and it’s not insignificant: the public housing high-rises are all gone. Talk about out of sight, out of mind. When “There Are No Children” came out there were 927 murders, twice what it is today. Those projects were so isolated from the rest of the city. My God, nobody—and I mean nobody—was paying any attention. In 1999, the city announced they were coming down. And I think anyone who had spent any time in the projects would tell you they should’ve come down a long time ago. But it was a missed opportunity. They did the easy part real quick, tearing down the buildings. The intent was to rebuild communities that were mixed income, but there was no conversation about rebuilding communities integrated by race. The matter of racial integration was completely absent from the public discourse around the razing of the public housing high-rises. And so the high-rises came down, but neighborhoods like Englewood, North Lawndale, West Garfield Park, they feel just as distressed now, if not more so, than they did twenty-five years ago. The story I always tell is that a number of years ago I screened “The Interrupters” at Danville prison. After the screening, I took questions from inmates there. I remember the first two men to ask questions. One was from a guy who’d been in prison twenty-three years, and the other a gentleman who’d been there for nineteen years. Both were near tears. Both had grown up in Englewood, and they couldn’t believe how much worse their neighborhood looked in the film than when they last lived there.
In fact, this book seems like a culmination of much of your work over the past several decades: The Harper High School feature on “This American Life”; “The Interrupters”; “There Are No Children Here”; some of your journalistic pieces…Characters and settings and situations recur here in “An American Summer.” Was this by design, or is it a byproduct of your immersion in the subjects that these stories became part of this new story?
It was a byproduct. After reporting the Harper High series for “This American Life” and after working on “The Interrupters,” I was still trying to make sense of all this. At Harper I was privy to this beautiful and touching relationship between Thomas and his social worker Anita. Working on “The Interrupters,” I came to know Eddie and thought there was so much more to his story still to tell. This book leaned some on reporting I’ve done in recent years, but for the most part, the reporting for “An American Summer” was done specifically for the book, reporting on stories I came across during the course of that summer.
“Block of Death,” 70th Place. Mount Hope Cemetery, where police search cars before they enter due to the extremely common nature of the violence and retaliation. Harper High handing out honorary diplomas to Shakaki and other slain students. Police tape floating around and sticking to the neighborhoods. These descriptions, these images, not only give context but place readers in these unfamiliar settings. What was the process of you acclimating yourself to these places so that you were able to bring them to those readers who perhaps have never set foot there?
I’ve been reporting from these communities for thirty years now, and so I’ve accumulated all this experience. There’s an old adage about storytelling: “God is in the details.” I look for these moments that illuminate what I’m seeing. The cemetery where cars are getting searched: how does this speak to who we are? The police tape: it’s almost like party tape left after a party, you see it everywhere in summer. I’m looking for those details that surprise me and hopefully surprise my readers as well. I look for things that knock me off balance, that upend what I think I know.
An aspect of “An American Summer” that is unique and I think telling is your insistence on representing all sides of the violence. Why is it important to you that readers see all these dimensions?
Because there is no one story out there. The numbers are staggering. In Chicago during the twenty years between 1990 and 2010, we’ve had 14,033 people killed, and another roughly 60,000 wounded by gunfire. I wanted to understand the impact of that violence from all perspectives: young and old, victims, perpetrators, grieving parents, survivors, witnesses, the police, social workers. It’s an acknowledgement that the violence has these long-reaching tentacles. Moreover, I wanted to make clear that there’s no single story. You hear about somebody like Eddie who took somebody’s life when he was eighteen: you think you know the shape of his journey, you think you know his story, but you don’t know it at all. Eddie, who I so deeply admire, runs probably the most creative violence-prevention program in the city. Or take Marcelo, who at the age of sixteen is shot and then one weekend robs people of cell phones. You think you know the shape of his narrative, but you’ll be knocked off balance by his journey. I know I was. That’s what I was trying to do: upend what people think they know.
Alex Kotlowitz will be awarded the Harold Washington Literary Award on June 6 and will speak at the Printers Row Lit Fest that weekend.
“An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago”
By Alex Kotlowitz
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 287 pages, $27.95
Donald G. Evans is the author of three books, most recently the story collection An Off-White Christmas, and Founding Executive Director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.