Alex Kotlowitz was a freelance journalist. In 1985 a friend came to him and asked him to write a text for a photo essay he was doing on (children living in poverty) for a Chicago magazine. That is when he met the Rivers brothers, Lafeyette, age ten, and Pharoah age seven. He spent only a few hours with them interviewing for the photo essay. Lafeyette had an impact on Kotlowitz. When asked what he wanted to be, Lafeyette responded with If I grow up, I’d like to be a bus driver. Meaning, at ten years old, he wasn’t sure if he’d make it to adulthood. In 1988 Kotlowitz suggested to the boys’ mother, LaJoe, the idea of writing a book about Pharoah, Lafeyette and the other children in the neighborhood. LaJoe liked the idea. However, she then said, But you know, there are no children here. They’ve seen too much to be children.
Alex Kotlowitz entitled his book, There Are No Children Here. It is a story of two brothers growing up in a housing project of Chicago. By the author following the boys throughout their day to day lives, we, the readers, are also enveloped in the boys’ surroundings. We learn about their everyday lives, from how they pick out their clothes, to how they wash them. We go to school with them and we play with them. Throughout the book, we are much like flies on the wall. We see and feel everything the boys’ go through at Henry Horner Homes, the project where they live.
LaJoe moved into the Henry Horner Homes in 1956 with her mother and father. Back then it was a beautiful place. There was a green, grass baseball diamond, which was regularly mowed. For the children there was a playground with swings and jungle gyms. The bricks were smooth, the windows were shimmering, and the walls were freshly painted white. The adolescents joined boys and girls clubs, marching bands, and other constructive organizations.
Now things are different. The remnants of grass are dry brown patches, mostly dirt. Where there was once a playground, there is now a shooting. The bricks are now worn and tattered. The windows are either translucent or broken. And the walls are no longer white, rather a dull, yellowish color. Worst of all, instead of joining boys and girls clubs, the adolescents joined gangs.
At the Henry Horner Homes, it was the Conservative Vice Lords that reigned. Led by Jimmie Lee, the gang was in charge of the project. Lafeyette and Pharoah knew all about Jimmie Lee. They knew to keep their distance, but Lee was not solely a villain. To outsiders he was merely a criminal, involved in drug-traffic, home invasions of dope flats, and other crimes. To the residents of the project, Lee was respected out of more than just fear. He never let young teens join his gang. He spoke to kids against gangs and drugs. He would put food on tables for families in need. He would shoe the children with torn shoes. Even a police officer referred to Lee as a gentleman. He had a love for children and really helped the kids at Henry Horner Homes.
On the other hand, the kids who did join Jimmie Lee’s army, had another fate. Bird Leg, (a.k.a. Calvin Robinson) was a mentor for Lafeyette. He looked up to Bird Leg and tagged along with him for a while. Eventually, Bird Leg joined the Conservative Vice Lords. It wasn’t long before he was shot point blank through the chest by rival gang members. Calvin died in front of the Henry Horner Homes. In broad daylight, another one of Lafeyette and Pharoah’s friends had been murdered.
Lafeyette and Pharoah had a long and windy road ahead of them. Considering their demographics they were faced with serious challenges. Lafeyette and Pharoah had almost opposite personalities. Lafeyette slowly began to live a life he vowed to never live. He began following in the footsteps of his older brother Terrence. It started with petty theft and shoplifting, stealing candy and the like. Eventually Lafeyette broke into a car. Pharoah succeeded in school. He was an excellent student, he had admirable study skills, and thrived in spelling. He even placed in a spelling bee. Later, Kotlowitz sent and paid for the two brothers to attend a private school called Providence-St. Mel. Pharoah is flourishing there. He enjoys having two hours of homework every night. He started out behind in math and reading and is slowly catching up. His daydreaming and forgetfulness sometimes interferes with his success. He also has trouble making it to school on time. Despite the challenges he faces today, he is now on a straight path for prosperity.
Lafeyette on the other hand encountered much difficulty at the new school. He found himself unable to keep up with the required work and later returned to public school. Though he left after less than a year, he learned quite a bit from St. Mel’s. He learned how to be a good student, and how to focus on his studies. He also learned to ask for help, something that was particularly difficult for him. He played hookey and smoked pot when he returned to public school. That seems to be the extent of it though. He graduated from the eighth grade. He seemed truly happy and expressed love and gratitude towards his mother and friends.
This book was truly an eye-opener. There is not a plot, nor a real story line, it is simply ‘a day in the life of’ type of story. It is more like ‘a few years in the lives of’ in this case. I would recommend this book for anyone who wishes to expand their knowledge of life and culture beyond the sheltered land of San Luis Obispo.