An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago, by Alex Kotlowitz (Nan A. Talese, 304 pp., $27.95)
Chicago has become an international byword for violence. Since 1990, murders in the city have claimed more American lives than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined—and most go unsolved. Yet sensationalistic reporting tends to treat Chicago’s violence as a remote spectacle, like wars in distant countries. Local media, like now-closed DNAInfo, sometimes look closely at the communities affected by violence, but national and global coverage has often been lacking.
Alex Kotlowitz, author of the 1992 bestseller about Chicago’s housing projects, There Are No Children Here, reexamines the city a generation later in his new work, An American Summer. Kotlowitz spent the summer of 2013 reporting on the lives of those affected by Chicago’s rampant violence. Though its key events took place several years ago, the book feels fresh, as though it were describing recent events.
The stories Kotlowitz tells are harrowing. Without passing judgment or attempting grand explanations, he describes how violence traumatizes people and damages neighborhoods. Far from being hardened and desensitized by violence, the individuals we meet are permanently scarred. Mothers of dead children struggle to heal. Lisa Daniels knew that her troubled 25-year-old son, Darren, killed in a drug deal, was headed for a bad end; she worried about him constantly. A devout Christian who believes that her son could easily have been the perpetrator instead of the victim, she forgives his killer and even advocates leniency for him in court. But she retains a deep sense of shame, feeling that she failed her son.
Others fare worse. “One young mother I met told me she cuts herself,” Kotlowitz writes. “One mother I know held her seven-year-old daughter as she died in her arms, and in her closet she keeps her daughter’s bloodied clothes in a plastic bag, a kind of talisman. Another had her son’s EKG record, his last heartbeats, tattooed on her forearm. Still another propped against her fireplace a life-sized cardboard likeness of her son.”
Roel Villareal is paralyzed after being shot in the neck while selling drugs. Jimmy Allen gets shot after he and some friends are robbed during a dice game and go looking for revenge. Marcelo Sanchez also plotted revenge after being shot, which left him with severe anxiety. Trying to avoid killing or being killed, he moves into Mercy Home for Boys and Girls at the urging of his older brother, Elio. Yet, on a visit home, Marcelo commits aggravated battery and robbery and goes to jail.
Kotlowitz never hides the fact that the victims of violence are frequently perpetrators of it in other circumstances, though he also makes clear that, for some, avoiding trouble requires something like a miracle. Chicago is no longer dominated by large-scale, hierarchical gangs, as it was when Kotlowitz published There Are No Children Here. Instead, gangs are organized block by block; police estimate that the city has 625 different gangs or cliques. “It became virtually impossible not to be associated with one group or another, simply because of where you lived,” Kotlowitz writes. Few people who haven’t experienced it themselves can understand what it means to live in a neighborhood saturated with death, he suggests. “The acronym RIP—rest in peace—is everywhere. It’s penned on the sheets of posterboard hanging by these makeshift memorials. It’s tattooed on people’s bodies. Painted on the walls of apartments. Scrawled on the side of buildings. Embossed on T-shirts and jackets. It’s as if these communities are piecing together the equivalent of a war memorial.”
Largely avoiding the search for blame, Kotlowitz lets his stories speak for themselves. Only near the end does he venture into fault-finding, and then only superficially, in a chapter recounting Senator Mark Kirk’s tour of the South Side with Representative Bobby Rush, in which Kirk walks back his naïve idea simply to arrest all the members of the Ganger Disciples. Perhaps Kotlowitz anticipates criticism from critics on the left for failing to place blame where they think it belongs.
Having spent so much time in these neighborhoods, Kotlowitz understands that there are no easy answers. “Let me tell you what this book isn’t,” he writes in the introduction. “It’s not a policy map or a critique. It’s not about what works or what doesn’t work. Anyone who tells you they know is lying . . . What works? After twenty years of funerals and hospital visits, I don’t feel like I’m much closer to knowing.” Yet he provides a powerful testament to the lives and communities affected by violence during another deadly summer in Chicago.
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