When Alex Kotlowitz’s book There Are No Children Here first came out in 1992, the United States was facing unprecedented violence. Homicides in the nation’s largest cities were at an all-time high — triggered by gangs and a drug trade that dominated many of the country’s poorest neighborhoods. His book was set in the Henry Horner Homes, a public housing project on the west side of Chicago.
But much has changed over the last decades. The Henry Horner Homes, as well as many other public housing projects in Chicago, were torn down. The gangs that once ruled these areas were similarly demolished — as gang leaders were jailed with hefty sentences. While violence decreased, it didn’t vanish.
Kotlowitz’s newest book is called An American Summer: Love and death in Chicago. It tells 14 stories about loss, family, and survival in a city that continues to be wracked by gun violence. Kotlowitz says gun violence has moved from insular housing projects to neighborhood streets, and as gang leaders were locked up, gangs split into smaller cliques with less-defined leadership and structure.
"The violence feels more arbitrary, it feels more petty ... and it feels much more unpredictable," he says.
Many people living in neighborhoods plagued by gun violence show signs of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) — except the trauma never ends.
"There’s nothing post about it because they experience the violence, they lose a loved one, they’re a witness to an act of brutality and yet there’s no safety — there’s no place of respite. They are still looking over their shoulder for what’s going to happen next," Kotlowitz explains.
Although many of the experiences described in An American Summer are common in areas where gun violence is pervasive, Kotlowitz says that talking about these experiences — and the trauma they cause — is often discouraged. As the book explores, talking about a shooting can cause mistrust in neighborhoods where the lines between victim and perpetrator are often blurred, and that mistrust can be deadly.
"For many of the people I spent time with, it was the first time they spoke about their loss, about what they were going through. I mean, there's this kind of utter sense of loneliness, and that grief — that trauma — can take a toll on individuals," Kotlowitz says.