There Are No Children Here - If I Grow Up
"If I grow up, I'd like to be a bus driver." If -- not when. Sentiments like this echo hauntingly through the pages of Alex Kotlowitz's account of his two-year documentation of the lives of two brothers, Lafeyette and Pharoah Rivers. The boys are afforded little happiness and too much grief, trying to survive from day to day in their appartment at the crime-ridden Henry Horner Homes housing project on the outskirts of Chicago. When Kotlowitz approached the boys' mother, LaJoe, about writing the book about her children, she agreed with him, but felt the need to set him straight. "But you know, there are no chlidren here. They've seen too much to be children," LaJoe told Kotlowitz.
Lajoe moved to Horner when she was a young girl with her family of thirteen. The family had been living in a flat above a church that lacked adequate heating and frequently rang of organ music from the church below. Hearing of the newly finshed public housing projects for financially disadvantaged families, LaJoe's parents packed up the family and moved to one of the new buildings. When the family first arrived in their new home, they could not believe their eyes. It looked like a palace. Outside there were yellow flowers and lamp posts. The exterior of the building was made of sturdy, dark-red brick. Inside, the walls were a pristine white, with shiney linoleum floors. A new range and refrigerator awaited in the kitchen. It seemed like a dream to them -- until it all came crashing down.
One of Lajoe's sisters was found strangled in the family's bathtub. Then, upon hearing the news of his sisters death, one of Lajoe's brothers had a heart attack and died. LaJoe's parents packed up soon after this. But, LaJoe decided to stay, moving to an apartment not far from the one where she grew up. She said she could not imagine that things could get any better than they were, and she surely could not predict the sharp decline in quality of living that would follow in the next fifteen years.
Fifteen years later the apartments were overheated to swealtering proportions in the winter. LaJoe's oven rarely worked. The bathtub would not shut off and constantly gushed scalding hot water. One of the toilets emitted an unbearable stench, as did the kitchen sink later. The children routinely shletered themselves from gang gunfire.
Fifteen years of neglect by the Chicago Housing Authority was to blame for the state of disrepair in Horner. An employee for CHA toured Horner, finding incomprehensible signs of neglect and mismanagement in the basements of the housing projects. Over 2,000 never-been-used ranges and refrigerators, some still in cartons, were found rusting away in pools of water. Dead animals, piles of human and animal excrement, used female sanitation devices and puddles of urine in the basement accounted for the stench in LaJoe's apartment, one floor above the mess. The CHA employee sent out memos...