Review: An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz


My Interest:

Most of my father’s childhood summers were spent in Rogers Park [Chicago]. His cousin was a Benedictine at St. Scholastica and taught at Cabrini Green. My parents lived in the neighborhood, too, after they left college. My grandparents eventually settled in Evanston. I was born at a southside hospital and my family then lived in Park Forest–one of the first venues in this book. (Although the author cannot pronounce it, saying instead Park FAR-est). MY grandfather died at St. James Hospital in Chicago Heights. Chicago has always been part of me in a way.

When the author’s book There Are No Children Here came out in the early 90’s, I devoured it and moved on to the documentary Hoop Dreams and into the works of Jonathon Kozol. More than anything, these books and the documentary awakened in me a knowledge of choices and of how incredibly difficult it is to break out of such lives.

What Hillbilly Elergy is doing for the white, rural opioid problem, these books and documentary (and Oprah’s movie of There Are No Children Here) tried to do for urban poverty and the senseless violence that comes with it.

The Book

To me this was a book of nonfiction short stories. Each little ensemble of characters comprised a family, each setting a neighborhood, each leading character a victim in an insane cycle that none could break.

What is it in systemic, multigenerational poverty that “breeds” violence? That brings out the worst? Is it the sense of powerlessness? Of being forgotten or overlooked? Of being made to feel less than?

Many of the young people in this book had “such promise.” Yet most suffered at some level from the effects of the violence and despair surrounding them just like children in a refugee camp, except these teens were growing up in a city with a Gold Coast and the Million Dollar Mile–not in a squalid tent city in some underdeveloped nation.

What Spoke to Me

Lisa was one of the mothers. She never admitted to anyone in her family what her son went thru. Because we share a name and some of the same feelings of shame from the same sort of events, I really held to her story. I wanted to call her and talk to her. To commiserate with her. To tell her it was ok to love and adore her son in spite of the choices he made. I wanted to be there for her.

Then there was the young woman, so typical of the first generation college students I work with daily, who earned a scholarship to a prestigious Historically Black College and followed it up with a dream internship on an NPR program. She did not know where the UN was and used the wrong there/their/they’re in writing for the show. She did not have the cultural literacy or the emotional strength to shrug them off and turn it all into a joke, as a white sorority girl would have effortlessly done. She retreated to her old life instead. This is a scene that breaks my heart over and over both in thinking about the book and in my work life.

My Thoughts

This is a story, like Elegy, of rampant, multigenerational, poverty, of life in a mandated underclass from which few, no matter how intelligent or how motivated, find their way out. Throughout the book, just as I did with Elegy, I wondered what would happen if we dropped people into new lives the way Hurrican Katrina did to many New Orleans residents? Many of the people in these vignettes did well in school, went on to college or could have.

What if we had given that young woman a chance to move for free to a new life in a new city where she would have a job appropriate to her education? What if that young man had been given an intervention instead of a sentence, finished at the prominent high school, gone on to a Jesuit college and then been helped to relocate for a real career? What influence could those two have wielded in their extended families, in their new and old communities that could have shaped another life–even just one, toward true success?

We’ll never know.

America and the Poor

As a nation, we still see poverty as a choice though no one has ever chosen to be born poor. We despise the poor. We still think Horatio Alger had it right–work hard and you will be successful.  That does, rarely, still, happen. But mostly the road out of poverty, like the road to hell is often paved with suspect intentions and in this country, we have paved the yellow brick road of bad ideas.

We’ve built high rise housing projects cut off from people who are employed or from employers making upward mobility nearly impossible. We destroyed cohesive neighborhoods built around a church, a school and a set of morals to warehouse people in the cheapest way possible. We’ve given cash payments to mothers who must divorce their husbands to get help or lie about him being out of the family or even deny knowing who their child’s father was, causing the growth of a culture of fatherlessness.

We’ve bussed children to “good” schools and to “bad,” only to create more private schools to escape to from either. In Chicago and its southern suburbs, Catholic school is the only hope. We’ve let scam for-profit “colleges” and “career schools” rob people of any chance of real education but left them saddled with a nightmare of student loan debt.

We’ve helped generations of REAL refugees come here but then dumped them into intentionally created ethnic communities where no one can find employment outside the group due to substandard English skills. We’ve done trade deals with the devil that stopped most manufacturing in this country and created loopholes to increase corporate profits that let employers ship living wage-paying jobs overseas. These, not fast food or call centers, were the ticket out of poverty, the key to integration of new immigrants who aspired to move beyond an ethnic neighborhood on their living wage earned in a factory or steel mill. These jobs were the source of dignity, of community, of neighborhoods that were worth living in, of schools that worked. Where are today’s equivalents?

We constantly set up failure with every government program. We consistently reinforce our hatred of the poor. This was seen over and over in this book, as welll as in past books such as There Are No Children, or Jonothan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities or his Rachel and Her Children (a book which DID do some good) and in Hillbilly Elegy.

I don’t have the solution. I wish I did.

An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlwitz

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