‘There are no children here’ | TREMG Book Review

By Larry Johnson

Like many of you, I’ve spent the past three months or so quarantined by COVID-19.

One thing I’ve done to pass the time is to read, which I do a lot, anyway. And I’ve picked up some books I’d been meaning to read for years and never had quite gotten to.

One of those books was “There are no Children Here,” by Alex Kotlowitz. If you’re looking for something to read during your down time, I would recommend it.

The book is the product of time Kotlowitz spent over three years with an African-American family who lived at Henry Horner Homes in Chicago. If you’re unfamiliar with Henry Horner Homes, you may have heard of Cabrini Green, another high-density housing project where African Americans were (from my perspective) segregated and warehoused.

At Henry Horner, construction was sloppy, corruption pervasive, services spotty, and design and functionality poor. Gang activity was common.

Kotlowitz, who worked for mainstream publications like The Wall Street Journal, sometimes sticks a little too much with the objective “just the facts” style of those papers. He’s not a bloodless writer, though, and there are broad hints that he was more involved with a couple of the kids than he lets on in the book.

The boys are brothers Lafayette and Pharoah. You’d know them by type — Lafayette is the hyper-responsible older brother to several other children, and Pharoah is sensitive, creative, and a worrier who often says “I’m too little to understand that” when confronted with one incident of violence or another.

What’s more than a little troubling about reading the book now is how little so many things have changed in nearly 30 years. Henry Horner Homes are gone, but plenty of severe social problems remain, and that makes the book worth reading as both a reminder and a motivator.

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