Book Review — There Are No Children Here by Alan Kotlowitz

I am pleased with myself.  I finished two books already this month!  While the book that I just finished might qualify as a somewhat “easy read,” it was beneficial to me in opening my eyes to a very different life than my own.  The book was There Are No Children Here by Alan Kotlowitz.

I found this book on a college bound non-fiction reading list, and thought I could read it even though I am not college bound.  Growing up and living in semi-rural Utah for my entire life, I have never personally seen the environment this book is written about.  In fact, I had never even seen pictures of this environment until I spent time researching Chicago’s housing projects on the Internet.  What I read and saw was horrifying, even though it appears that those projects are in the process of changing.

The book follows two young boys, the youngest a third-grader, and their family for several years as they attempt to lead a somewhat normal life growing up in Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes.  This project consisted of 15 story high-rises, and other buildings totaling about 1600 units.  These were large apartments with up to 5 bedrooms built for low-income families with many children.  The original units were built for $17,000 per unit, leading to very cheap construction.  The walls were painted cinder block, and the closets did not have doors.  The cheap construction was the least of the problem in these projects however.

The Rivers family, described in the book, has lived in Henry Horner Homes since the mother’s childhood.  When her family first moved into the projects, the neighborhood was not so bad.  They were able to play outside, and her family was excited about having plenty of space in the apartment.  The funds were not available for upkeep of the apartments however, so the tenants just kept getting poorer and poorer—anyone who had the funds would move to a better area.  Soon, all of the tenants were unemployed, on public assistance.  The area became dominated by gangs and drug dealers, and the violence started.

The most terrifying part of the book is the description of the violence surrounding these children from the very beginning of their lives.  They are accustomed to gang shootings within and outside the buildings, knowing where to go in the building to be safest from stray bullets, and ready to drop to the ground outside to protect themselves when bullets are flying.  They have seen people beat up and shot by police and gang members.  They are not shocked by these things, it is a customary part of their world.  Even the very young teenagers – as young as 11 years old—are not only becoming part of established gangs, but working together in violence to establish new gangs.

Another area of this book that shocked me was the casual view of teenage pregnancy.  All of LaJoe Rivers’ older 3 children had children of their own, even though the one of them (Terence) was barely 18.  Her niece, who was graduating high school, had 5 children by the time she was 19.  No one seemed to think anything was odd, or harmful in that situation.  Instead, they applauded the young father who did a few odd jobs and took care of the children so that his children’s mother could finish high school.  Did no one understand that this was perpetuating poverty?

According to the research I did on the internet, including this article from the New York Times, as the Chicago Housing Authority began to tear down these buildings and move people out of the projects, many people protested against moving, claiming the projects as their heritage.  The problem has ultimately been very difficult to solve, because funding is not available to make a complete fix, and just tearing down the projects does not give people any place to go, work to do, or education or lifestyle changes.

I am glad to have read this book.  It helps me to be grateful for the place we live and the conditions we live in.  I shudder to think of raising my children in such a place, and hope that someday all children will be raised in safety and peace.  May it come soon.

Part of homeschool is teaching ourselves.  Teaching ourselves is opening ourselves to new experiences, and this book did that for me.  It was not a pleasant experience, but I did learn from it.  Is there a book you would recommend as highlighting a part of life many of us will not likely experience?  Please leave me a comment.

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