The West side of Chicago, Harlem, Watts, and almost any major city in the U.S., What do all of these areas have in common? These areas, along with many others have become mine fields for the explosive issues of race, values, and community responsibility, led by the plight of the urban underclass. Issues such as violent crime, social separation, welfare dependence, drug wars, and unemployment all play a major role in the plight of American inner-city life. Alex Kotlowitz’s book, confronts America’s devastated urban life; a most painful issue in America. Kotlowitz traces the lives of two black boys; 10-year-old Lafayette, and 7 year old Pharaoh, as they struggle to beat the odds growing up in one of Chicago’s worst housing projects. Their family includes a welfare dependent mother, an alcoholic-drug using father, an older sister, an older brother, and younger triplets.
Kotlowitz describes the horrors of an ill-maintained housing project completely taken over by gangs, where murders and shootings are an everyday thing. He succeeds at putting a face on the people trapped inside the housing projects with virtually no hope of escape. One can truly feel a sense of great loss for the family, and a great deal of hope for the two young boys. You can truly feel yourself hoping that things will work out for them, and you can really feel like you know these young men on a personal basis.
All through their lives Pharaoh and Lafayette are surrounded by violence and poverty. Their neighborhood had no banks, no public libraries no movie theatres, no skating rinks or bowling allies. Drug abuse was so rampant that the drug lords literally kept shop in an abandoned building in the projects, and shooting was everywhere. Also, there were no drug rehabilitation programs or centers to help combat the problem. Police feared going into the ghetto out of a fear for their own safety. The book follows Pharaoh and Lafayette over a two year period in which they struggle with school, attempt to resist the lure of gangs, mourn the death of close friends, and still find the courage to search for a quiet inner peace, that most people take for granted.
Kotlowitz portrays what life is like at the bottom, and the little hope there is for the poor which makes it virtually impossible for the young lives in the ghetto to grow up. Also at the same time Kotlowitz wants the reader to know that not all hope is lost, but something must be done before hope is truly lost. The mother was portrayed as a woman who lacked self-esteem, and was not prepared to enter the job market. She had no skills, and was completely dependant on welfare. She also liked to gamble, and sometimes actually won. The biggest and most pervasive problem of the young children’s lives was the dominance of the gangs at Henry Horner Homes. The gangs were dedicated to violence, and children were compelled to join for their own safety. The gangs in the Homes were of a retreatist sort, in that they focused mainly on drugs, and their gang related activities, and would use whatever force necessary to keep their activities afloat. Drugs were a part of the boys every day life, and brutal drugs wars surrounded their apartment.
With the gangs so close to home, the children had a constant fear of death. The violence never let up. The children lost many friends to either drugs or the gangs. When they lost a friend, they felt sorrow for a while, but reality would set in, and they knew that it was an every day part of their life. It was these feelings that made the Rivers children hesitant to get close to anyone. If they did not get close, they would not feel the loss as much. It made them feel that there was no way out, and death was their unyielding fate. Their feelings of loss also caused them to have a tremendous distrust in the police. In a way they looked to the police for guidance, but at the same time did not trust them. Residents of the homes felt stuck in the middle between the drug gangs and the police.
The cops came and went, but the gang members were there 24 hours a day. Few residents would call 911 for fear that the gangs would discovered that they snitched. The older children had gotten into trouble with the police, and the oldest boy had served time. The oldest girl worked on and off as a prostitute when she needed the money. The family was almost relieved when the oldest boy; Terence was sentence to prison because he was deeply involved with the gangs, and prison would at least keep him off the street, and hopefully save his life. Kotlowitz wants people to know how devastating life is in the ghetto.
With that sentiment in mind he quotes a presidential commission as saying; The sheer scale of such projects…is stultifying to the human spirit. Administration is heavy handed. The child caught in such a social environment is living almost in a concentration camp from which he has little chance of escape (p259) These poor living conditions do not go unnoticed, however little is done to improve their conditions. A person in authority really has to care to turn things around. Then when a person of authority finally did care, the money was not there to provide the services necessary.
Vincent Lane was appointed the new chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority. He decided to reclaim the buildings. With the help of 60 Chicago policemen, officials went from building to building looking for drugs and weapons. The problem was that Lane was only one person, and could not change the projects overnight, but he gave the people a reason to hope. I could not even imagine how hard a life these people live. You cannot help but feel you want to help the boys out, and yet, not enough people seem to care when there are so many others in the same position as Pharaoh and Lafayette.
Yet all these hardships and obstacle we are left with the tumultuous question of what can we do that will work. Inevitably there is no single answer but many small ones to a huge problem dealing with Americas youth. This book shows great significance in dealing with the youth of America, how can you expect a kid to grow to be an upstanding citizen when all he sees his entire life is everything but an upstanding citizen. Even if his will and personality are strong enough to get him by without a positive role model, then what