There Are No Children Here

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

People in Henry Horner—like those in many other projects in Chicago and in many other inner-city areas—feel abandoned. The elevators in their buildings rarely work. They keep their televisions on twenty-four hours a day to discourage prowlers. Few have telephones with which to report the crimes that occur daily around them. School is not seen as important; half the freshmen at the local high school will not make it through their senior year.

The Horner Homes are near both Hull House—which the social reformer Jane Addams began in 1889 as one of the first settlement houses in the United States and the apartment where Fred Hampton and another Black Panther were killed by police. This geographical history describes graphically what has happened to American cities, pulled apart by poverty and violence, in the twentieth century.

The area is patrolled by police but controlled by the Conservative Vice Lords, a gang run by a man named Jimmie Lee, who makes between $50,000 and $100,000 a week in drug business. Battles with rival drug gangs are common, although the deaths they produce are rarely reported in Chicago’s news media. The relentless neighborhood violence is the one constant in this world:

By season’s end, the police would record that one person every three days had been beaten, shot at, or stabbed at Horner. In just one week, they confiscated twenty-two guns and 330 grams of cocaine. Most of the violence that summer was related to drugs.

This is the world in which Lafeyette and Pharoah Rivers and their family are trying to live—or survive—and this is the world that Alex Kotlowitz depicts so poignantly in his book. Kotlowitz takes his title from LaJoe Rivers, the boys’ mother, who tells him, “you know, there are no children here. They’ve seen too much to be children.” Kotlowitz’s statistics support her:

One of every five children in the United States lives in poverty—an estimated twelve million children, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. In cities like Chicago, the rate is considerably higher: one of every three children.… By the time they enter adolescence, they have contended with more terror than most of us confront in a lifetime. They have had to make choices that most experienced and educated adults would find difficult. They have lived with fear and witnessed death. Some of them have lashed out. They have joined gangs, sold drugs, and, in some cases, inflicted pain on others.

It is a world, as Kotlowitz writes, that “hungrily devoured its children.” LaJoe Rivers takes out $80-per-month burial insurance for her children. In a neighborhood torn by the twin threats of drugs and gangs, she is only being practical.

There Are No Children Here recreates crucial scenes in several years in the lives of two of Chicago’s innocent victims, Lafeyette and Pharoah Rivers, as they navigate the rapids of their young lives in the violent world of an inner-city housing project. Most of the people who will read Kotlowitz’s book have never experienced these conditions, and for them the work might just as well be fiction. Violence erupts around the family almost daily: An argument breaks out between two neighbors in their apartment and almost becomes another shootout; a surprise birthday party for Pharoah is interrupted when a shooting erupts in the next building. The people here live in constant danger of death by violence.

Through these two years, readers watch Lafeyette and Pharoah struggling to grow up. Lafeyette is a boy mature beyond his years who attempts to take the place of the absent father and who helps to raise his younger brother, and the still-younger triplets, but who has his own problems. Bird Leg, a friend of his, is shot and killed by a rival gang member in August of 1987; when another family friend is shot and killed, the boys refuse to attend the burial. The next year, Craig Davis, a talented young neighbor, is shot and killed by the police, who apparently mistake him for someone else. Lafeyette becomes moodier and more cynical; he is not capable of handling the responsibilities that have been thrust upon him. “Shutting out the past was perhaps the only way he could go forward or at least manage the present.” At the end, he has been arrested for breaking into a truck (he maintains his innocence throughout) and is given a year’s probation.

His brother Pharoah does better in school and is more motivated to succeed. One of the dramatic high points of the book comes when he wins second place in...

(The entire section is 1862 words.)