Alex Kotlowitz, Chicago’s most important storyteller

Alex Kotlowitz. Photo by Lucas Kotlowitz.

Alex Kotlowitz may be the most important storyteller in Chicago today. Best known for his 1991 best-selling There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up In The Other America which told the story of Lafeyette and Pharoah, two boys trying to survive growing up in Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes. The book went on to win the Carl Sandburg Literary Award, was selected as one of the most important books of the twentieth century by The New York Public Library and is still taught in high schools and colleges across the country today. 

Like Sandburg, Kotlowitz, is a writer born and raised outside of Chicago [in his case, New York City] but synonymous with the city on which most of his work has focused. And like another great Chicago storyteller, the late Studs Terkel, Kotlowitz focuses his attention on those in the margins of society, giving voice to the voiceless through various mediums — first as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal; later with various publications including The New York Times Magazine, Chicago Tribune, Rolling Stone and The New Yorker; to his radio work on NPR’s This American Life and his film work with Steve James on The Interrupters.

Kotlowitz, a writer-in-residence and senior lecturer at Northwestern University since 1999, is currently working to finish a book which deals with violence in Chicago in the summer of 2013, which he says feels in some ways like a book-end to There Are No Children Here

The Chicago Ambassador recently met with Kotlowitz at his Oak Park home where he talked about his masterpiece, his  current book, his frustration with the ongoing violence in Chicago, and more.

Interviewed by Bob Chiarito for The Chicago Ambassador.

CA) Since you wrote There Are No Children Here in 1991, shootings and homicides have remained a large problem for Chicago. Do you think it’s something we have to just accept? 

KOTLOWITZ) Absolutely not. But I worry that in some ways we have. There are a couple things that are worth noting. When I wrote There Are No Children Here, it came out in 1991, the number of homicides were roughly 950 a year. It’s now about half that so we’ve actually made some progress. But it’s still extraordinarily high, and the thing that I don’t fully understand is that it feels just as intense now as it did back then. The landscape has changed some, too. The African American gangs aren’t as organized and hierarchical as they once were so some of the shooting feels more random and arbitrary. But that aside, 450 murders is unacceptable. When you think about it, the numbers are staggering: over the past fifteen years roughly 8,800 people killed and another 36,000 wounded by gunfire. How do you make sense of that?

CA) I covered homicides for the City News Bureau of Chicago in the 1990s and the numbers were a lot higher than today. But I don’t think numbers matter to someone whose relative just got shot.

KOTLOWITZ)  Right, and remember these shootings happen in such a concentrated part of the city. It’s not really 450 murders a year in the city of Chicago. It’s 450 murders in a very concentrated part of the city, in particular neighborhoods. And if you live in those neighborhoods it’s virtually impossible to be untouched by the violence.

CA) It seems like incidents like the Tyshawn Lee killing might not of happened in the 1990s because of what you said about the gangs having a hierarchical structure back then as opposed to now.

KOTLOWITZ) I don’t know about that. For whatever reason Chicago has been the epicenter of these horrible killings of and by kids going back to Yummy Sandifer in the early 1990s to the dropping of Eric Morse at the Ida B. Wells housing project [1994] to the shooting of Dantrell Davis, Hadiya Pendleton [2013]… It’s feels like, as Yogi Berra said, ‘It’s deja vu all over again’ and I’m not sure what in the end it’ll take to completely unsettle this city. I feel very strongly that we have completely underestimated the effect of the violence on the spirit of individuals in these neighborhoods. It’s  devastating.

CA) What do you mean when you say ‘unsettle’ the city?

KOTLOWITZ) I mean, when there is an incident like Tyshawn Lee or Hadiya Pendleton or the Cornell Square Park shootings a couple years ago, the city leaders tell us that this can’t happen again and here we are year after year.

CA) Do you think Chicago is unique in this compared to other big cities?

KOTLOWITZ)  You know, the anomalies are really New York and Los Angeles. For reasons that no one can fully explain, the violence has gone down in these two cities considerably. Chicago is more typical for American cities.  As many shootings as Chicago has, it isn’t even in the top 15 of the most violent cities in the country.

CA) But we have this reputation again like we did in the 1930s.

KOTLOWITZ)  What’s going on today is very different. The 1930s was about gangsters warring over prohibition.  Look, what’s happening today has everything to do with the unspoken intersection of race and poverty. If you look at where the shootings happen in Chicago today, they’re all in deeply distressed communities.

Kotlowitz's most famous book was selected as one of the most important books of the twentieth century by The New York Public Library .

Kotlowitz’s most famous book was selected as one of the most important books of the twentieth century by The New York Public Library .

CA) I know it’s a complicated issue and the reasons are complex with a lot of shades of gray, but if I was to make an appointment to talk to you in 20 years, what do you think needs to be done between now and then to reduce the numbers again?

KOTLOWITZ)  I wish I had  all the answers. I will tell you that there are a couple things. One, and this is something that I’ve come to relatively recently, within the last five years: I do feel very strongly that there has to be some kind of significant gun control. The number of guns that we pull off the streets in Chicago every year is astonishingly high. Anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 per year. It’s this constant river of weapons. If you could take the guns out of the equation you’d reduce the violence considerably. I also think we need to look at  ways to rebuild these communities. I know this all sounds so glib at this point but we’re talking about communities where kids don’t feel there’s much sense of a future, where they’ve lost  hope. What’s more, we haven’t dealt with the trauma that these kids and their families experience.  We’ve made the mistake in the city of putting the onus on the police. The police, by definition, are reactive. We need to figure out what we can do on the front end.

CA) One thing I find interesting is a short article you wrote about the danger of the single narrative — of assuming people have a single narrative. How important is it to come into an interview or project with an open mind?

KOTLOWITZ) For me, what I love to do and probably the only thing I know how to do well is to tell stories. There’s such  power in narrative, in telling stories, especially true stories. It’s a way to get people to think about things that they would have never considered and to meet people they would otherwise have no reason to meet. As somebody who tells stories, more specifically other people’s stories, the thing that is most important to me is honesty. Honest to what you see and hear. Sometimes that means getting knocked off balance and having my assumptions challenged.

CA) Can you think of an example where you were taken by surprise?

KOTLOWITZ) When I was working on The Interrupters, the three main characters in the film — Cobe, Eddie and Ameena — each of them had a long, storied history on the streets. If you had asked me when I first met them I would have said these were people who had changed, that these were individuals who had discovered something new about themselves. But over time I came to realize that it wasn’t so much that they had changed, but rather that they had figured out who they really are. To me that was almost an epiphany. It’s not that they changed, but rather they discovered their true selves.

Another example: some years ago I contacted my editor at The New York Times Magazine about writing on the immigration debate. This was a time when immigration reform looked imminent.  I suggested that I go to Carpentersville,  a community about 40 miles from here. In the town, there was a vigorous debate going on about immigration. At least I thought it was a debate.  Some city council members were trying to make English the official language of the village and to also make it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to find work or rent apartments. I hoped by spending time there I could sharpen my own feelings about immigration reform. But I quickly learned there was very little conversation in the town.  Rather, it felt like an attack, on the town’s changing demographics. It felt ugly and raw. I spent 12 weeks in that community and by the end of my time there I could  feel the tension.  In that moment, I realized that so much of the ‘debate’ over immigration reform really has to do with this visceral discomfort with others, with people who look or speak differently, people who feel unfamiliar. It left me deeply disturbed – and saddened.

CA) Steve James is famous for spending a lot of time with his subjects, years in some cases. I know you spent two years on There Are No Children Here. How do you stay separate so that you don’t blur the line and compromise your journalistic objectivity?

KOTLOWITZ) The line gets blurred and it gets blurred very quickly. I worked at The Wall Street Journal and you’re told of the need to be objective, but over the years I’ve come to realize — and excuse my language here — that objectivity  is bullshit. We can’t ask that of ourselves. We all come to the world with our own set of experiences and our own set of assumptions and the best that we can ask of ourselves is that we are willing to question ourselves and challenge ourselves at every bend. I think really what we mean when we talk about being objective is being fair and accurate and honest to what you see and hear.  The other part of it is that  I end up spending months, sometimes years with the people I’m writing about — and it’s impossible given that time together not to build relationships. They may be complicated relationships but it’s not that you want to remain distant, but rather — and this is the tough part — you want to be as honest as you can to what you see and hear and that can at times be hard, especially if you get close to people. As a practical matter, when I do sit down to write, as I am now on my current book, I actually  put an arms distance between myself and the people that I’m writing about. I have to because I don’t want to write for them. I want to write for my readers.

CA) Was The Interrupters your first film experience?

KOTLOWITZ) No, in the 1980s I actually produced short 10-15 minute documentaries for The MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour and in the early 2000s I worked as a correspondent for a Frontline documentary. The Interrupters, though, was my most ambitious film, no question about it. Steve [James] and I are longtime friends and we had been trying to figure out something to do together. We had wanted to do a dramatic narrative but after writing a piece for the New York Times Magazine on the interrupters, I wondered whether this wasn’t material better suited for film. The thing I love about film  is that it’s collaborative. Writing can be such an isolating experience.

CA) But print is still —

KOTLOWITZ) That’s my home, that’s my love.

CA) You’ve also done a decent amount of radio work —

KOTLOWITZ) I love radio. First of all, there is an immediate intimacy about radio that you don’t find in any medium. Just by the nature of radio, you can be in your car with the voices of these people, and they become immediate acquaintances. It feels so intimate. What’s more, in radio, in public radio, you won’t find a more loyal audience. There’s a kind of renaissance going on in radio, especially when it comes to non-fiction storytelling. A large part of it is because of what Ira [Glass] has done with This American Life. The show is a thing of beauty.

CA) Are you still doing radio?

KOTLOWITZ) I’m not now because I’m working on my book but I’m sure I’ll go back at some point.

CA) Any plans for more film work?

KOTLOWITZ) I have a screenplay out in the world. It’s a dramatic narrative. Maybe I’ll do another documentary, but after working on The Interrupters and doing some stories for This American Life, I was determined to get back to my writing.

CA) Without spilling the beans about the screenplay, does it have anything to do with Chicago?

KOTLOWITZ) No, I co-wrote it with somebody in New York and it’s based on a story I  wrote for The New Yorker “The Trenchcoat Robbers.” It’s  about a couple bank robbers from Kansas City who were at it for 15 years. They were the best ever, so good that no one knew who they were. They committed two robberies a year, and with such precision and success. The screenplay is  the story of how they got caught. They were in their 50s and ready to hang it up and of course they didn’t know how to lead a regular life. …We’re trying to get a cast at the moment.

CA) The book you are working on now is the story of one summer in Chicago?

KOTLOWITZ) Yes. I’m back with my editor from my first two books, Nan Talese, who I love — and it’s a book about the summer of 2013 in Chicago. To be honest it’s an arbitrary summer.  I needed some way to contain the book and structure it. So it’s a collection of stories from that summer. Some of the stories I had already been acquainted with and some of the stories emerged from that summer. They’re about how people emerge from the violence and how they make sense of it and come to terms with it. If, in fact, they do.

CA) How far along are you?

KOTLOWITZ) I’m working hard to get it done.

CA) Have you come up with a title for it?

KOTLOWITZ) The working title is One Summer.

CA) Do you have an anticipated publishing date?

KOTLOWITZ) I’m hesitant to say.

CA) Sometime in 2016?

KOTLOWITZ) 2016 or early 2017.

CA) How long have you been working on it?

KOTLOWITZ) Since that summer, so 2 and a half years. It’s a collection of stories.  There’s no one central character so it’s been a lot to juggle in my head.

CA) Who would you say is leading the way for change in Chicago? It seems that sometimes voices are silent.

KOTLOWITZ) We are at an extraordinary time in the city given all that’s taken place in the last month or so There are reasons to be distressed. The Laquan McDonald video was a wake-up call for this city, but I think it’s fair to ask, Where has everyone been? Including those in my own profession.  Having said that, this is a moment where maybe we’ll see some change.

CA) It’s interesting that you said that about the journalists. That story originally was reported as a routine police shooting, if there is such a thing, but it wasn’t really questioned. Jamie Kalven, who I  recently interviewed, who is not a part of the press corps covering crime here was the person who brought that video to light. Also, although there may be questions about the Homan Square stories, it was The Guardian, an English paper, that wrote about that. It’s kind of disheartening that the Chicago press didn’t break these stories.

KOTLOWITZ) I’ve been in journalism for 40 years now and have seen the best of times and the worst of times. Like many in my profession, I’m worried about that the future holds. The immediate threat to journalism is locally, whether it’s Chicago or some other city or town.  We are seeing newspapers  begin to shrivel and die. It’s a real threat to our democracy In Chicago for example, I’m not sure if the Sun-Times will make it. I’m not sure in what form The Tribune will make it. So where does that leave us? I’m talking to people now about what can we do to fill that gap, a gap that will only get bigger in the coming years.

CA) What do you mean?

KOTLOWITZ) Well the Sun-Times is a skeleton of what it once was. So is The ChicagoTribune. They just gave buyouts to 50 reporters and editors. What is going to fill that hole? …It’s a real concern to me and it’s one of the things I want to focus on once I get this book done. Chicago seems to be the perfect laboratory to try to grapple with what lies ahead for local journalism.

CA) I do think outfits like DNAInfo are doing a good job.

KOTLOWITZ) Yes. I go there every day but they do no investigative work.

CA) It’s tough. There aren’t many people out there with the time and passion to do it for free like we are doing here.

KOTLOWITZ) And you shouldn’t be asked to, nobody should be asked to do it for free.

CA) Do you have a daily routine?

KOTLOWITZ) I wish I had more of a routine. I work better in the morning so I wake up early, go for a run and then help get my son off to school. I try to spend 3 to 4 hours writing. I still have some reporting to do for the book, which has proven to be tougher than I anticipated. I’m still filling in some holes on a couple of the stories. I do worry sometimes about being pigeon-holed, that all I write about is poverty and violence. But this book feels necessary, feels a part of me. In some ways, it feels like a book end to There Are No Children Here.

CA) How much of your motivation is to tell a good story versus to cause change?

KOTLOWITZ) As a storyteller my ambitions are relatively modest. I just hope to get people to think about themselves and the world just a little bit differently. If it does more than that I feel really fortunate.

CA) I know two English teacher friends who have taught There Are No Children Here to their students —

KOTLOWITZ) One of the most rewarding things having written that book is that it’s still read and that I hear from people all the time that it small ways and large it’s changed their lives. I just glow when I hear that. But if I was expecting that with everything I did, I’d be a mess. So again, I just want to tell a good story. Sometimes it’s out of anger or frustration as is the case with the book I’m working on now or it’s just a hell of a great narrative, like the story about the two bank robbers.


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3 Responses to “Alex Kotlowitz, Chicago’s most important storyteller”

  1. Rus Bradburd on his book ‘All the Dreams We’ve Dreamed’ and the gun violence nightmare that continues in Chicago | The Chicago Ambassador

    […] Bradburd, who still teaches writing classes in New Mexico State’s MFA program, lives in his hometown of Chicago during the summers. It was in Chicago where the two men rekindled their relationship, with Bradburd initially trying to get others to write about Harrington’s story in order to help him earn money for his medical expenses. After a couple reporters wrote stories, Bradburd was starting to hit a wall, until meeting with writer Alex Kotlowitz.  […]


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