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To most living in the Henry Horner Homes, life often seems to be more of a curse than a gift. The people of this public housing project only experience the briefest moments of joy before the reality of their lives comes rushing back to them. This book chronicles the lives of two boys, Lafeyette, 10, and Pharoah, 7, from the summer of 1985 to the fall of 1989. Though the boys are young, author Alex Kotlowitz adeptly conveys that these children are not children at all. They have not been allowed to live the carefree lives that most of us living outside of the projects did. Instead, very early on they became aware of their hardships and had to learn to deal with them. In their short lives, they have been to more funerals than weddings and this has simultaneously crushed their spirits and hardened them.
The environment in which these boys live is one of violence, drugs and poverty. Their housing is less than optimal, as the bathtub faucet cannot be shut off, the oven and kitchen sink are broken, and the plumbing is often out of order. Gang activity rules these Chicago housing projects. This book gives a keen insight to someone on the outside on how intense the violence there is.
Bullets riddle through the night, and frequently into the apartments. Facing each new day with the fear that your life could be taken away in a second, by one of many acts of gang violence, leaves the residents feeling hopelessly insecure. Throughout the book, Lafeyette and Pharoah voice a strong desire to get out of the projects. However, a solution as to how this might be accomplished is never discussed. The family is dependent on welfare, so there is no extra money to be saved for alternative residence. For the time being, Lafeyette and Pharoah make a conscious decision to lay low and keep away form gangs and drugs so they do not become a part of the life that keeps them down.
Lafeyette and Pharoah make insightful comments about how people get sucked into gang-life. They, like many other children and adults, are caught in the middle of despising gang activity, but still understanding the reasons people are involved in it. There are not many examples of tangible incentives to stay out, but to join means that you will have power, protection and money.
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Even though gang mentality is crooked to those of us on the outside, it is necessary to those inside. When you are the cause of the violence and destruction around you, you are no longer afraid of it. Most teens at the crossroads of staying in school or becoming part of a gang have lost their lust for life. To them, just being a part of something bigger that oneself gives one a purpose for life.
The actual account of living on welfare also helps to make this book enlightening to those interested in the welfare program in the US. The family in this book is strikingly poor. After rent is paid and food is bought to last the entire month, there is little if any money left over to buy extras like toothpaste or shoes. It is glaringly apparent that this family is not taking advantage of the system, but barely making due. Without the welfare check, the family would be without food and living on the street. It is not feasible for the boys’ mother, LaJoe, to get a job because she has so many children to take care of and has very limited job skills. In addition to Lafeyette and Pharoah, the boys’ mother has five other children. Her oldest daughter is addicted to drugs and LaJoe raises her two children, her other son is in and out of jail, and she has a set of triplets under the age of five. In these projects, even if LaJoe did have the opportunity to get a job, there are very few opportunities for employment. The stores in the neighborhood are mom and pop owned and there is no need for outside employment. Without transportation, it is impossible to get out of the neighborhood to find employment elsewhere.
Most importantly, as in this case, there are no programs in place for childcare while the person on welfare tries to get a job.
Pharoah, the younger of the two boys, has a more hopeful attitude and a brighter outlook for his future. At times, he is able to let himself feel free of his hardships and allow himself to be a child. He understands the importance of school and prides himself on his good attendance record and status as one of the best spellers in his class. While he is a sensitive kid with a stuttering problem (intensified during periods of high violence), school becomes his safe haven and source of strength and confidence. I felt the pride he felt for himself when he achieved second place in the school spelling bee and again when he was accepted into an academic summer school program on the U of I campus. I feel his dreams to graduate high school and go on to college are noble. In this environment, children start out on much less than equal playing field when compared to kids from another area outside of the inner city. He does not have a strong example in his life to show him the rewards and dignity that come with hard work, but he manages to do it for himself. The only real role model he has to emulate is his cousin Dawn who graduates from Crane, the toughest high school in the city, (after having given birth to four children).
Though Kotlowitz does not interject his own opinion as to what may be a solution to life in the projects, he does make arrangements that Pharoah and Lafeyette will attend a private school across town. As I did, he seems to come to the conclusion that the most helpful benefit for these children (and all youth in the ghetto) is to show them a better life through education. Because of a serious lack in funding for educational resources and a good staff (that will endure the conditions of the inner city schools) kids are not aptly shown what opportunities await them outside of the projects.
Near the end of the book, Lafeyette is beginning to get sucked into the ghetto thug life. He is entering his teen years and becoming more and more numb to life. As a younger child, he had a drive to stay levelheaded and fend off the ways of his environment. He didn’t even want to have friends, because they might try to steer him in a dangerous direction. He instead had only “acquaintances.” At the funeral of an “acquaintance,” a boy of his own age, Lafeyette didn’t cry, but took the pain and confusion on as an everyday part of his life.
In addition to a lack of school resources, role models are few and far between in the projects. Lafeyette especially seems as though he would derive many benefits from a positive male role model. Although the children are lucky to have such a devoted mother, they would most definitely benefit from the supervision and guidance of a father figure. Though the boys' father is also the father of all seven children, he plays a very small role in their lives.
He had a good job with the city for several years, but like so many men in the neighborhood, he fell victim to heroine and alcohol. The children do not have much respect for him because he has left their mother dependent on welfare. They do not seem to look up to him or love him at all, but do see him as yet another reason to stay away from drugs.
Lafeyette assumes a very grown up, father-like role. He feels responsibility for his mother and younger siblings. He obviously craves routine and structure in his life. He finds solace in chores such as cleaning and making sure the others do theirs. He outwardly shows disdain for his older siblings whom have gotten involved with drugs or jail or that bring their children/ boyfriends/ girlfriends into his mother’s home, so that she can take care of them.
Lafeyette experiences moments of pure joy in the few instances of community togetherness in his life. He enjoys these at Boys Club events or the spontaneous dance parties dee-jayed by his older friend, high-school graduate, Craig. Lafeyette seems to find a positive influence in this older boy and attaches himself to him. Craig would set up his equipment outside on nice days and all neighbors, young and old, would come out to dance and let loose. Lafeyette is devastated later when Craig, wrongfully identified by police officers as a weapon-toting gang member, is shot and killed. He internalizes his pain and outwardly shows confusion about the importance (if any) of life, school, friendship, and responsibility.
With the death of Craig, his vision seems to blur across the line of right and wrong. He had looked up to Craig, and now his example was gone. He becomes emotionless and all sense of his childhood is gone. His need for a strong support system, and role models, starts to drive him into detrimental behavior. He gets involved with a pre-teen starter gang, known as the 4 Corner Hustlers, and is accused of breaking into a truck.
Alex Kotlowitz does a tremendous job of letting the reader into life in the Chicago projects. After reading this book, I know that these young children are lovable, smart, and funny and have too many unfair factors working against them. With this account, I have gained new insight that there are thousands of other children across the country just like them, living in the same environment. He gives an objective account of these boys’ lives and always leaves out his own personal thoughts and commentary. Even after caring enough about these boys to follow their lives for four years, he still does not have solution to make everything better for them. He does think that giving them the opportunity for a better education is the first step, however, and I think that this is the most important. With the attention that Kotlowitz gave to Lafayette's friend Craig, I think that he also saw what a difference a positive male influence would make on the boys.