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There Are No Children Here [Book Review]

There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz follows the lives of a family living in Chicago’s Henry Horner housing projects for two years in the 1980s. The book’s title comes from a quote attributed to LaJoe Rivers, the mother of the two boys, Lafeyette and Pharaoh, who are the main characters of There Are No Children Here. She expressed the idea that growing up in such a harsh environment has exposed the kids to so much and thus they are no longer children as they’ve lost their innocence.

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Show Notes

Kotlowitz explains that his hope for There Are No Children Here is that in telling the story of this underserved community through children, people might take notice. People tend to be more sympathetic towards children and in focusing on them rather than adults people might pay more attention or be more concerned. Sadly, There Are No Children Here starts with a boy who at the age of 10-years-old has already accepted the possibility that he might not reach adulthood.

I appreciate the author’s sensitivity and conscientiousness in recognizing that these are still children regardless of where or how they’re growing up. And thus they deserve the community protection and concern that all children should receive.

I’ve never been to Chicago and planned to visit for the first time this summer before Covid-19 ruined my plans. It always seemed like a city that I would like and felt a special fondness for the city because the media seems to pick on it due to its problems with violence. Violence in communities tends to be a symptom of poverty and/or other social and economic issues. I knew of some of Chicago’s housing projects but hadn’t heard of the Henry Horner housing projects. It’s clarified that there are worse neighborhoods in Chicago but the author focuses on this community because of its history as once being a wealthy area in the city.

I love books like this that tell the history of a community or organization through the story of an individual or group of people. Chicago is one of America’s cities that lost a lot of manufacturing jobs. At the time There Are No Children Here was published, the community’s estimated unemployment rate stood at about 20% and it might have been higher. This surely had a huge impact on the neighborhood as it likely increased poverty rates and also affected the way people felt about themselves.

The decline of the neighborhood as a result of a lack of resources is an example of the effects of Patrick Moynihan’s benign neglect ideology put into effect. Horner was developed as housing for people with low incomes but was initially a decent place to live. Or at least it was a step up from housing that low-income families could find elsewhere in the city. The idea of providing low-income public housing was admirable but racism, classism, and selfishness got in the way of it becoming a true reality. To begin with, the housing complex was not being developed in the manner that it should have been which left the path open for it to more easily decline over time.

The neighborhood had two clinics that were financially unstable putting them at risk of having to close. Living in a large city there is usually some kind of public hospital. But public hospitals can be severely underfunded and neglected while being expected to serve large amounts of people with very little resources. The lack of access to healthcare and likely family planning had an impact on the community.

A population that could be considered a small city on its own lives within the densely-packed neighborhood of the Horner Homes. At the time, it was estimated that within the community, thousands of people lived below the poverty line. It’s crazy how often a city’s busy business district or wealthy areas are just a short distance away physically from its poor neighborhoods while being miles away economically and with regards to resources.

LaJoe blames the neighborhood’s decline on a change in the residents and the introduction of drugs. I agree to a degree but it seems more likely that the loss of hope left the people feeling desperate and some turn to drugs to numb their feelings and concerns. Others take advantage of the situation by selling drugs to financially better themselves at the expense of others’ lives. And still, others turned to violence as a means of releasing whatever tensions they had inside.

I initially assumed that LaJoe was struggling because she had all of these kids (eight in total, possibly with different men) and when the relationships didn’t work out the men abandoned her and their children. This was an incorrect assumption for which I apologize. And actuality the children came from what at first glance should have been a solid family structure. LaJoe had been married to the children’s father, Paul, for 17 years. All the kids have the same dad, their parents were married but because the father wasn’t actively present in the way the family needed him, they struggled.

Because Paul was physically present at times but primarily absent in any meaningful way, LaJoe turned Lafeyette into her quasi-husband. Keep in mind that this is a preteen boy, a child, but he’s being burdened with the responsibilities of a grown man. It’s fine to ask the kids to pitch in around the house by helping with chores or having the older kids walk the younger kids the short distance to and from school. But it’s something else to ask this child, who is already shouldering the burdens of living in this neighborhood, to also bear the stress of his mother’s worries about bills, finances, and the family’s survival. It plays into this erroneous idea of when there is no adult male present a male child becomes “the man of the house”. Lafeyette is a child and for as long as possible should be allowed to be one.

Throughout There Are No Children Here, there are instances of Lafeyette seeming incredibly stressed out and in some situations, he internalizes his feelings because he’s unable or unwilling to share them. He pens in his feelings and then has these explosions when stressed where he lashes out violently at the other children. It’s unhealthy in a young child but can be dangerous for both him and those around him as he gets older. It’s one in a string of examples of the people within There Are No Children Here using unhealthy means to manage the incredibly stressful situations they face in everyday life.

Many of the community’s residents are fatalists because they are surrounded by violence and despair with no clear path out. The kids and LaJoe worry about the likelihood of them surviving to adulthood. LaJoe goes so far as to take out burial insurance for the five youngest kids. On the one hand, I feel like that $80 a month for a family that is struggling financially could be impactful if used elsewhere. But I also understand the unfortunate reality of not wanting to also deal with financial worries should one of the children pass away. Consider that when children are born in some families they begin setting aside money to pay for them to attend college. Yet, in this environment, your mother sets aside money for your possible burial.

There Are No Children Here tells a story of this family but also the development and evolution of the city’s housing projects. I found the chapter about public housing to be very interesting. I previously read and heard bits and pieces about what went wrong. But it was engrossing to read a detailed account of how things went awry.

I’ve seen pictures of project buildings and their Interiors and was familiar with them being poorly maintained and damaged by neglect, residents, and gangs. Yet it took on a new perspective when I learned that the buildings were poorly constructed to begin with and they were built in areas that were already struggling because White politicians didn’t want the people that would have inhabited them living in their neighborhoods. Thus what should have been a step up for the new residents was designed from the outset to be more of a lateral move.

Another thing that Chicago is known for (or at least that I know about Chicago) is that there are gangs. Much as in LA, gangs started as just small neighborhood cliques, some with social justice aims but devolved into violence once they got involved with selling drugs and other criminal activity. As young males growing up in the neighborhood, Lafeyette and his friends not only have to fear being caught in the crossfire of gang violence but getting caught up in the gangs themselves. Though it’s somewhat refreshing that most of the boys try to stay away from the gangs as they recognize that they will cause more problems for them rather than offering solutions.

I appreciate the concept of these young people organizing within their community but couldn’t get with them using that power to further victimize their neighbors. The crazy thing is that some Chicago gangs gained legitimacy by working with the government and other organizations. And these solid organizational structures allowed the games to maintain a stronghold over their neighborhoods. I’ve always assumed that as with other major cities Chicago had been overrun by crack but the author explains that this wasn’t the case. To maintain their domination and prevent the proliferation of independent hustlers, the idea is presented that gangs helped to keep crack from taking over the city as it had done to others.

I grew up in Brooklyn during a time when it was still overall a fairly rough place. And sure I’ve heard stories of the craziness of the 80s and saw a few people get stabbed or shot but these weren’t frequent occurrences. I’ve never experienced having to duck for cover on my way home from school or having to drop to the ground in my home to avoid stray bullets. The neighborhood these kids are live in sounds like a war zone.

Pharaoh is my favorite out of the book’s main characters but I was also fond of his friend Rickey who seemed to be struggling while putting on a front of having it all together. In some ways, the two are incredibly different but they also seem to be reflections of each other. They’re both tender children growing up in an incredibly harsh environment.

Pharaoh fiercely holds on to his innocence and childhood as a means of pushing away the overwhelming problems and issues that plague him and his community. He is committed to school and steadfast about keeping out of trouble by avoiding any interactions with the neighborhood gangs. Also, unlike the other neighborhood boys, Pharaoh refuses to fight for any reason.

Rickey on the other hand immerses himself in the neighborhood’s violence as he prepares himself for manhood and begins shedding the open tenderness of a child. Unlike Pharoah, Rickey can’t read very well and struggles in school but he excels on the street. Feeling a deep sense of loss following the death of another young man to whom he was very close he turns his grief into a driving rage that seems to only be released by moments of violence.

Questioning people’s lives and parenting choices is a touchy subject but it’s a huge part of There Are No Children Here so I think it’s open for discussion.LaJoe and Paul met while in the teens and LaJoe gave birth to their first child when she was 14-years-old and their second at 15-years-old.

The problem with teens is that quite often they’re not fully considering all the possible consequences of their actions. There are multiple examples in There Are No Children Here of teens having no stable source of income yet having multiple children before the age of 20. If you are already struggling as a child how much easier will life get if you add a child or several children of your own to the mix? I think because so many people in the community are living for the here-and-now out of fear they can die any moment there’s no real thought or planning for the future.

If it’s hard for adults in the neighborhood to find jobs to support themselves, how well will a teen fare with finding work to support themselves and a child? The environment normalizes struggling and blinds the residents to lifestyle changes that might not completely resolve their problems but could help them move things in the right direction.

To be clear I’m not saying that the people in There Are No Children Here shouldn’t have children or that poor people, in general, shouldn’t have children. But having children, especially multiple children in your teens while your financial situation is precarious will only make things more difficult. There’s likely never a perfect time to have children but I think waiting until you’re relatively stable could make things easier for a lot of people. Granted I think some of this is a factor of the time during which There Are No Children Here was written as teen pregnancy rates have since thankfully dropped but I think it’s still a relevant thing to discuss.

LaJoe and Paul have a cluster of three children which become their set of older kids. But there are problems already present at the time these kids are born. Paul impregnated LaJoe twice but then got cold feet about getting married. When LaJoe gives birth to their third child, Paul has an outside son with another woman within a few days of the birth. Granted this is a two-parent household but the foundation is shaky.

Paul is fortunate enough unlike other Horner residents to be able to obtain well-paying city jobs. And it seems like for a time he might have been a reasonably good provider. But Paul is already an alcoholic by the time they do manage to get married. And his relatively high salary is all for naught as he begins using drugs and his habit eats up the money that could be life-transforming for his family. Going on to have another five children amid a crumbling marriage probably wasn’t the best choice. But it likely would have been manageable if Paul was meaningfully present for his family.

LaJoe seems to be a good person who undoubtedly loves her children. But at the same time, she seems incredibly passive to the point where she’s unwilling to advocate for herself or the children. She is compassionate which is a good trait to have but her concern for others enables their poor decision. Lafeyette was a bit too manish at times but somebody needed to instill some sense of order in the house.

During the time covered by There Are No Children Here, the three older kids are in their late teens to early twenties but they’re a bit of a mess. We get a bit of insight into one of the older kids, Terrence, but I wish we had a chance to learn more about the development of all three. It’s interesting to view their lifestyles and personalities against the younger kids. The older kids and Paul are not pulling their weight in the household but LaJoe is still there to offer support and shelter when needed. It’s obvious that she has way too many responsibilities but she also doesn’t take accountability for some of the decisions she’s made.

LaJoe doesn’t work but it’s not because she doesn’t want to work. She applies for but is unable to find a job. Yet Paul gets great jobs but because of his addiction doesn’t help his family. In some instances, I felt that LaJoe enabled the kids but didn’t support them in the ways that would ensure their future success. For example, Lafeyette doesn’t apply himself in school but he’s a smart boy and wishes that his mother would push him more. LaJoe blurs the line between being a parent and a friend of her kids. She loves them but doesn’t balance that love with the structure and discipline that kids need to thrive. I liked LaJoe and hoped that things would work out for her and the kids but was frustrated at points where it felt like she wasn’t pushing hard enough or in the way that was needed.

Initially, I didn’t like Paul at all as I felt that he dropped the ball and contributed to a lot of the family’s problems. But people are complex and I felt the author made a wise choice to seek out Paul to learn more about him. I’ll admit that in reading books it can be easy to overlook that these are real people and in that, I can be quick to judge. Getting a better sense of Paul didn’t excuse his actions but did offer an explanation. He felt like he failed his family (and in some ways he certainly had) and that shame burdened him. Coupled with issues from his childhood, Paul sought means to escape and found solace for his feelings in drugs and alcohol.

I found myself at times rushing to judge the poor decisions of the adults while sympathizing with the kids. But that’s one of the brilliant things about There Are No Children Here, the kids draw you in. And if you put aside your preconceived ideas and open your mind to hearing someone else’s story without judgment you’ll feel compassion for the adults as well.

We as a society must take notice of places where “there are no children” because they’ve been called on far too early to carry and bear witness to experiences that shouldn’t even be had by adults. These social environments stifle the flame of innocence in children causing them to develop into shell-shocked adults. If we can feel enough compassion to want to make these neighborhoods safe places where children can thrive we should also care as much for the adults because these children will grow up one day. And in places where there are no children, the future (and likely the past) won’t be too bright for adults either.

I highly recommend reading There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz as it’s a great story about the Rivers family living in the Henry Horner housing projects during the 1980s. But it also provides a great history of the issues and problems that continue to plague Chicago even in the present. There Are No Children Here offers specific insight into how public housing, gangs, education inequality, gentrification, and a host of other issues have specifically affected this neighborhood in Chicago. But those insights can also be useful for more broadly analyzing issues of poverty and violence in other parts of the country.

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