Alex Kotlowitz on ‘An American Summer’ and Violence in Chicago
A grieving mother. A man overcoming his sins. An overnight crime reporter. A teenager who changes his life around – before his life even begins.
Those are just some of the people whose stories are told in Alex Kotlowitz’s new book “An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago.” The stories take place over the course of one summer in the city, and reflect on how violence has impacted each person differently.
Below, a Q&A with Kotlowitz, whose book “There Are No Children Here” was released in 1992.
This is your second book about poverty and violence in Chicago. Why another after “There Are No Children Here”?
For me, “There Are No Children” is really about the profound poverty in this country, and I think this book is kind of a bookend to that. One of the most distressed things of the past 25 years for me is this stubborn persistence of the violence – not only in Chicago, but in other cities around the country as well. I feel like we haven’t really acknowledged and understood how the violence comes to shape people’s lives. I wanted to write a deeply personal and intimate book about that through the stories, and that’s what I found as my forum.
You write that you didn’t want to this book to be a manual on public policy. Why did you choose to write about violence the way you did?
I didn’t want to write about public policy. For one, it’s not my forte, but also I felt like we haven’t figured this out and so whatever I wrote would feel outdated in a year or two, and I really wanted to write a book. I feel strongly about the power of story and the power of narrative, and I wanted to find stories that would not only kind of knock me off balance, but knock readers off balance as well, stories that are going to upend what we think we already know.
One of the things for me that’s striking is I do feel like there’s still kind of grimness when we talk about violence, and that somehow people manage to move on or have been accustomed to it or are hardened to it. Yet, I know from my experience that for people in the city, violence comes to shape them. It gets in their bones, and that’s really what I wanted to try to get at in this book.
The stories take place over the summer of 2013. Why do you focus on that particular summer?
That was a completely arbitrary summer. This book comes in at May 2013, and I just jumped in and thought, “This is the summer I choose to do it.” Ironically, it wasn’t a particularly bad summer. Though having said that, the violence felt – in the middle of it – just relentless. At the end of the summer, there was this kind of declaration by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and by then-Chicago Police Department Superintendent Garry McCarthy that put out this kind of “mission accomplished” message because the numbers seemed to be going down. And then, three months later, there was an awful shooting in the Back of the Yards. And three years later, the numbers jumped to levels that haven’t been seen in 20-some years.
A lot has changed between 1992 and 2013. Summarize the biggest differences between then and now, as they relate to your book?
One is that public housing units have come down, as a result of the Plan for Transformation. And so one of the things that was clear to me once it came down was that violence was considerably worse in 1991, when “There Are No Children Here” came out. That year, there were 950 homicide, and yet it feels more intense now than it did in 1991. I think much of the reason is because back then, so much of the violence happened in public housing, so it was really out of sight, out of mind. Now it feels much more out in the open.
The other thing has kind of happened is this kind of unintended consequence of public policy, which is that in the late 1990s there was this concerted effort to kind of cut the head off of the snake and arrest and convict all these gang leaders, which we did. The consequence of that was the gangs were very well organized around the drug trade, so now we have an estimated 600-700 cliques or crews that are spread from block to block. So the violence feels much more random and arbitrary now than it did back then.
And finally, the other thing I would say, the thing that hasn’t changed is how distressed these communities are. That for me is one of the most sobering parts. Despite the fact that we tore down public housing, these are communities that are as distressed now as they were before, maybe even more so now.
What do you hope readers take away from your book?
I am a storyteller, and I tell stories because what I think stories do is they bring us to places we otherwise wouldn’t go. So on one level, I hope this book gets people to journey into these communities and come to understand what’s going on. I hope readers understand these people and what they’ve been through and to come away with this sense of respect, if not admiration, for them.
And the other thing that stories do is they make us feel less alone. There’s a line in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” that goes, “But this too is true: stories can save us.” I think what’s meant by that is that stories make you feel less alone. It gives some voice to what you’ve experienced.
One of the things that I will say about the violence in Chicago and elsewhere is that people hold tightly to their stories. It just burns inside them because people are not only unable or unwilling to talk about it, but there’s some sense of discouragement from talking about it because there’s this fear that they’ll somehow be drawn to the crime on hand. And I saw this in all the people I spoke to. For many of them, it was the first time they ever talked about this moment in their lives.
This Q&A has been edited for clarity.