Mention Chicago, and many people quickly flash to murder and machine guns against a glittering skyline. The city’s reputation was built around Al Capone, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and movies like The Untouchables (1987). Today, the image of a Chicago gangster is of a teenage member of a street gang. In the mind’s eye of America, he is probably African American or Latino, not bootlegging liquor during Prohibition, but selling drugs on street corners and shooting rivals to protect his territory.
Though Chicago can definitely be a dangerous city, it isn’t actually the murder capital of the United States, and neither statistics nor movies tell the whole story. If you’re not living there, it’s easy to forget the real people involved: those who are committing and being harmed by the violence, as well as those trying to stop it. Journalist Alex Kotlowitz delves into the issue in his new nonfiction book, An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago (Doubleday).
“Almost all the stories are about people emerging from violence and trying to reckon with it,” he said. “What was in some ways inspiring was that everyone was somehow managing to stand erect in this world that’s slumping around them.”
Many of the people Kotlowitz interviewed live or grew up in Englewood, the neighborhood where Spike Lee set Chi-Raq, his 2015 movie-musical about urban violence. It is a neighborhood beset by intergenerational poverty and the desperation that comes with it. There are gangs and drugs — and there are families trying to survive. The stories in An American Summer are anchored in the summer of 2013, but they unspool backward and forward in time. He uses last names with some subjects, while others are identified only by their first names.
Among them is Thomas. When we meet him, he has recently completed his junior year at William Rainey Harper High School. The previous summer, his best friend was shot and killed in front of him. It was only the latest in a string of shootings that Thomas had witnessed. The first was when he was ten and he saw another friend killed by errant gunfire at her birthday party. A few years later, his older brother Leon was shot and paralyzed when they were together.
“One of the myths we have about people like Thomas,” Kotlowitz said, “is that they get accustomed to it, numb to it, or hardened to it. I don’t think we’ve even begun to fathom what it does to the individual spirit [and] the spirit of community.”
Another figure in the book is Anita Stewart, Thomas’ guidance counselor. Anita takes Thomas, a quiet, defensive kid, under her wing. She grew up in Englewood, too, and recognizes something in him. Kotlowitz writes that Anita “knows firsthand how in the wake of trauma all hell can break loose in your heart, so that love and fury and sadness get so stirred together it can be hard to figure out how you’re really feeling, hard to figure out who you really are.”
Now a senior lecturer and writer-in-residence at Northwestern University, Kotlowitz’s career as a journalist is impressive: A former staff writer at The Wall Street Journal, his work has appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine, on NPR and PBS. The New York Public Library named Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America (1991) one of the 150 most important books of the twentieth century. He has also won an Emmy, two Peabodys, two Columbia duPonts, a George Polk Award, and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.
He spent almost three years reporting An American Summer: interviewing teenagers whose crimes were recent; old-timers trying to avoid the streets and make amends for their former selves; and family members who have lost loved ones. He follows some people’s stories extensively, while other subjects blend together like a Greek chorus of suffering and resilience. Some of the older men who used to oversee huge drug empires now run social clubs and hold safe evening and holiday events for children.
“These men are proof that there can be a second act in life,” Kotlowitz said.
And then there are the mothers, like Lisa Daniels, who lost her son and descended into depression even as she tried to find his killer. She represents hundreds like her, mothers whose innocent (and less-than-innocent) children got caught in the crossfire or who were ensnared at tender ages by a criminal culture that is nearly impossible to resist. “I could tell story after story like this, of mothers who drift on a sea of heartache, without oars and without destination,” Kotlowitz writes in the midst of a chapter about the loss these women have experienced. One young mother told him she cuts herself, while another keeps the bloodied clothing her daughter died in. “Another had her son’s EKG record, his last heartbeat, tattooed on her forearm.”
Kotlowitz said he is driven by the fundamental belief that life should be fair. “Most of my work is about moments or places where life doesn’t seem fair at all. I’m often writing about things that leave me angry, and the challenge for me as a storyteller is to not let that anger seep into the prose, so that readers can find their own way.” He said that it was a fair question to ask him how, as an aging white man, he managed to get so many people to be so open with him.
“It’s incumbent that I’m open and candid and direct with them about what I’m doing. There are people in the book who I interviewed 30 or 35 times over three years, people I got to know really well. Bottom line, everybody has their own reasons for sharing their stories. Sometimes it’s because they want to right a wrong. Sometimes it’s because their stories bring attention to their situation or the situation in their community. Sometimes it’s because no one has ever come and asked them about themselves.” ◀
An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago, by Alex Kotlowitz, is published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 282 pages, $27.95.