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Does your home have a lock on your door, a telephone and working appliances and plumbing? Do you dodge bullets in your sleep, have 13 people living in one apartment or wash your dishes in the bathtub because the kitchen sink hasn’t worked for months? Do you wash your clothes in the bathtub because the laundry room is too dangerous to do your washing? Do you live in an environment with no role models, where the gangs control everything and you can’t trust anyone? You may think these are strange questions for people who live in America in the late 20th century, but some people’s answers to these questions may be very different from yours. Those people are the one’s living in the “other America”. Alex Kotlowitz tells us “the story of two boys growing up in the other America” in his book There Are No Children Here.
The “other America” Kotlowitz describes in his book is the public housing complex at Henry Horner Homes in Chicago. By following the lives of two boys, Lafeyette and Pharoah Rivers, we are exposed to the misfortunes, turmoil and death that their lives are filled with.
Lafeyette and Pharoah are faced with many hardships in their day to day activities. Their apartment, the once beautiful complex, now has broken appliances, poor plumbing, horrible security and from the basement come smells that one housing manager described as “foul odors” that “no equipment presently in use by staff could be used to withstand the odor beyond a minute” (p. 240). The boys wake up every morning in this horrible public housing that would most likely be condemned if it was located in any decent neighborhood. Lafeyette and Pharoah get ready for school, usually putting on clothes which have been washed the night before in the bath tub, and then leave for school. Pharoah, who loves school, is always in a hurry to get there, leaving the apartment before anyone else. School is the one place for Pharoah to stand out and get away from the neighborhood for a while. He even attended a summer school program that was supported by the University of Illinois. Lafeyette, on the other hand, isn’t into school very much; which explains why he has such a large number of tardies. Both boys are always careful as they walk through the streets to school to be alert for gunfire, they don’t want to die young like so many friends of theirs.
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Once they arrive at Henry Suder Elementary, Lafeyette, Pharoah and their fellow students receive an unequal education compared to those children attending private or white schools. Most of the children at Suder are behind for their age, according to state testing. The fact that there are too many children in one classroom is a major problem. The budget for the school is not large enough to provide the adequate number of teachers to give each child the help they need. It is difficult to find individuals who want to teach at a facility where their desk and window are separated by a column to shield them against stray bullets or where they will be mugged going to their vehicles at the end of the day.
Education is the only hope and way out of the projects for the children and their chances are being taken away due to the violence in the neighborhood and the lack of funding. At Crane High School, a local school, “about half the entering freshmen never makes it through the senior year” (p. 128).
This lack of education will just keep them in the terrible environment of the projects and sooner or later most of them will start selling drugs, joining gangs or stealing.
The lack of role models, especially male role models, is an issue the boys face everyday. It is “estimated 85% of the households at Horner are headed by women” (p.65). The children in this neighborhood hardly ever see men taking responsibility for their actions. Most of the men are in gangs or in jail. The only other males they come into contact with are most likely police officers, which is usually not a good confrontation. “As early as 1968, the Kerner Commission, appointed by President Johnson to explore the problems facing the nation’s inner cities, characterized the relationship between the armed authorities and the black community nationwide as “explosive”” (p. 162). It is clear that this “explosive” relationship makes it difficult for young people to trust police officers and almost impossible to think of them as role models.
Lafeyette and Pharoah looked at their cousin Dawn, who was the first in their generation to finish high school, as their role model. They were so proud of her and wanted to get a diploma just like her. The excitement wore off when Dawn never moved out of the projects and got a steady job.
Another person the boys looked up to was Craig, at least until he was killed by a police officer who mistook him for a gang member. Craig was going to be a radio broadcaster and he always told the kids to finish school. He was of the few men in the neighborhood who was trying to make something of himself legally. He was a good role model for the children, but as in many cases, he didn’t get a chance to finish growing up and get out of the projects before he was killed.
Gangs, drugs and violence have consumed the streets of Horner Homes. It is no longer a happy place with fresh paint on the walls. Instead it is a dirty, unhappy place where the children grow up so fast, that is if they’re not killed. The children in the projects see more death and crime at the age of six than the average person sees in a lifetime.
Most of us can not imagine living in the America that Kotlowitz describes in his ethnography, but through him we see the issues that are prevalent in the low-income areas. He shows that some of the population try to get out of the poverty they live in through education and staying out of trouble, while others just accept it and in some cases make it worse through violence and gangs. Unlike the author of Slim’s Table, Mitchel Dunieier, he doesn’t use one incident to stereotype the whole community. For instance, Kotlowitz told the audience about drug addicted mothers who abandoned their children, but also showed throughout the book how hard LaJoe, Lafeyette and Pharoah’s mother, tried to provide a good life for her children. I think he proved that this neighborhood, like any other, is filled with good and bad people.
I, personally, think this is a more accurate overview of a low-income neighborhood than some authors provide in their studies.
I don’t think Kotlowitz offers any actual solutions, but throughout the book it is apparent that many parts of the system don’t work for many of the people of Horner Homes. The lack of resources which these people are provided (poor education, inadequate housing, lack of employment options, rehabilitation centers) can provide some answers but mostly it is due to the choices an individual makes and what is accepted within this community.
These problems are deep-rooted within the community and involve many outside sources. Kotlowitz is aware of this and I think he knows that there are no quick solutions for the residents of Horner Homes. He sees that educating children in private school may help children eventually get out of the projects. He provides this opportunity for Pharoah and Lafeyette, by paying for them to attend private school. Kotlowitz realizes that this doesn’t take away all of the troubles the boys are faced with in their day to day lives, but it’s a start to the life they one day hope to have.
Kotlowitz, Alex. There are no children here. New York: Doubleday. 1991.