Written by Alex Kotlowitz, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, the book There Are No Children There follows two boys' activities around the Henry Horner Homes, a low-income public housing project in Chicago, Illinois. The book covers the time period from the summer of 1987 through September, 1989, and follows the protagonists, Lafeyette Rivers (nearly 12 years old) and Pharoah Rivers (nine years old). This is not an ordinary American neighborhood. It is a heavy gang area, a war zone where shootings are commonplace, drugs are a catalyst for crime and death seems to lurk around every corner. This paper will review the book chronologically through five chapters then provide a closer critique of LaJoe Rivers, the mother of the protagonists.
The average American comes home from work in the evening, opens a refreshing cold drink, gets comfortable on the couch and turns on the evening news. One of the stories on the nightly news brings high definition scenes from the most recent gang violence in Chicago's near west side. The average American grabs the remote control and turns to something more pleasant, a reality cooking show or maybe Oprah. Americans that are not living in or near big city ghettos are understandably reluctant to be hit in the face with the daily dose of bad news involving drugs, violence, gangs, killings and poverty. But for those unfortunate enough to live in the "projects" in Chicago's inner city cannot simply change channels. They are locked in, stuck, and the scene they see every day.
The Literature / Critiques
According to New York City lawyer Adam Walinsky, visiting the Chicago ghetto known as the Henry Horner Homes "What it's Like To Be In Hell" (Walinsky, 1987, p. 1). Walinsky has published a piece in The New York Times using "What It's Like To Be In Hell" as his title. Walinsky describes the Henry Horner Homes as nineteen 10-story buildings, built with housing money from the federal government. Known as "projects," the Chicago Housing Authority and many manage these buildings if not most of the windows are smashed and have been replaced by "plastic sheeting," Walinsky writes. The gangs that control the neighborhood -- including the Blackstone Rangers, who have been in this part of Chicago for 30 years -- engage in what Walinsky calls "regular and constant warfare for control of the drug and vice trades" (p. 1).
The Rangers are well armed -- they have pistols, rifles, automatic weapons and they even use an "occasional grenade," Walinsky explains. The Rangers and other gangs recruit children down to the age of 8, muggings are just part of life for the stressed-out residents, fifteen-year-old girls are "recruited for prostitution," and beatings and killings are "common," according to Walinsky. The families that live in the Henry Horner Homes have to walk a long way to buy groceries because there are no stores in this ghetto. Cashing welfare checks is a challenge because the nearest bank is downtown.
People could move out of their apartments but according to Walinsky's article, the only way a tenant can be placed in another project is by bribing the housing officials. The only way to get repairs done is, again, to bribe housing officials, Walinsky asserts in his article. One woman quoted by Walinsky said she had her front door "smashed by an intruder." She asked for a replacement and the housing authority spokesperson said, "Move your icebox in front of the door" (Walinsky, p. 1).
This is the inner city setting in which Kotlowitz has written his book. The themes in this book are all too familiar to people who live in the violent inner city, and they are quite grim. Living in a veritable war zone is the norm for Pharoah and Lafeyette. For these young men saying they are "at risk" is a gross understatement. There is also poverty as a theme in this book, racism, and violence. It is an extremely well written book. The descriptive narrative is so excellent it brings the reader into each scene.
Chapters One & Two
Lafeyette and Pharoah are making their way on some railroad tracks; along with their younger cousin Porkchop and James Howard, a good friend of Lafeyette. This is a nice break from the ghetto because there are wildflowers, birds, butterflies, and the boys are hoping to catch themselves a garter snake. Pharoah loves this tranquility. That's the good news. The bad news is that the boys recall the death of their friend William, who died a violent death in their violent community.
In chapter Two the author describes LaJoe in detail, setting the stage for readers understanding what a mother goes through in a community like this. LaJoe's husband, the biological father of all her children (including her four-year-old triplets) but he has only a passing interest in his children, and shows up occasionally. LaJoe was a beautiful woman and still has quite a bit of beauty and charm because she hasn't become overweight, but the strain of raising eight children in a war zone shows.
The author covers the history of how the high-rise projects were developed and how controversial the political situation was at that time. It was more like "urban separation" to put Blacks who were in the low-income category into a neighborhood. It was only one of 19 public housing projects in Chicago but it became notorious for violence and stagnation. Was that horrid smell the result of dead fetuses? In this chapter LaJoe takes a stand against allowing Lafeyette to be security for the boys playing basketball. She is a strong mother, a survivor, and readers come to like and respect her.
Chapter Four -- Five
Readers are introduced to Jimmie Lee, the evil head of a gang called the Conservative Vice Lords; they kill and maim when Jimmie tells them too. This is the realism that the author brings to this book, because Lee is a bad person but he has his good side. Paradoxes abound in the Henry Horner project. In fact Lafeyette had witnessed someone being killed when he was only ten years old. The dead person bled to death right outside the Rivers' apartment and his blood was still there years later. Good descriptions of what the gangs wear and what they do in these chapters. Bird Leg is a kind person that finds food for stray dogs. The kid was shot one time and his mother moves the family away but Bird Leg comes back for visits. When Bird Leg is shot, he is buried in a new jogging suit, because those were his wishes. The senseless killing is so commonplace that funerals and burials are part of the culture.
Chapters Six -- Seven -- Eight -- Nine - Ten
Increasingly the boys in LaJoe's family and their friends try to understand the violence. There are many passages in these chapters beyond just violence and fear that allow the reader to see the big picture. Racism, for example, is present. A study shows that teacher salaries in the Black community are only 85% of what white teachers receive. The school board president makes classroom policies that are obviously racially motivated, adding to the overall injustice of the situation. It is hard for a reader to imagine being in a classroom and hearing shotgun blasts echoing off the walls outside, but this is the reality of Henry Horner. When LaJoe's oldest, LaShawn, moved back into the apartment with her boyfriend (and his brother and two young children), it was an outrageously jammed apartment. But for LaJoe, as a caring, loving mother, "she had only to look around her to see what might happen if she didn't give her grown children shelter" (p. 79).
All the news about school is not totally depressing in this book; at Henry Suder Elementary School there is a great principal named Brenda Daigre. Pharoah has a teacher (Ms. Barone) who has to spend her own money on her classroom because of the city's tight budgets when it comes to African-American schools and other needs. Readers learn how intelligent and creative Pharaoh is, in writing, spelling, and problem solving. One of LaJoe's sons, Terence Rivers, is arrested for armed robbery. LaJoe asks the police not to snap on the handcuffs in front of her two young boys but they do anyway. This is a symbolic part of the ninth chapter. When the cuffs "clicked" behind Terence's back, his head "dropped as if it had been held up by a string" (p. 92). In fact the entire neighborhood was being held together as if by a string.
Chapters Eleven, Twelve, Thirteen, Fourteen
When the family visits Terence in the Cook County Jail, it showed the family loved him and yet there was great tension. Still, Terence lectured Lafeyette: "…stay in school and do something positive… I don't want you to follow my footprints… You'll be better than me" (p. 109). This scene also showed how…