The buildings at the Henry Horner Homes public housing complex, which children call “the projects” and Pharoah nicknames “the graveyard,” are so poorly constructed and run-down that, in the absence of functioning light bulbs, residents are forced to carry flashlights to walk through the corridors during the day.
Pharoah and Lafeyette’s run-down housing complex highlights the city’s lack of care toward such neighborhoods, where residents are forced to handle large-scale problems on their own. It seems unjust that innocent children such as Pharoah should be forced to live in such an environment, riddled with danger and death.
Danger, at Horner, might arise within one’s building, and is also most likely to arise in the summer. One June day, on Lafeyette’s twelfth birthday, the young boy and his nine-year-old cousin, Dede, are walking around their neighborhood to spend the eight dollars Lafeyette received for his birthday, when gunfire erupts suddenly. The two children fall to the ground, and Lafeyette covers Dede’s head with his jacket, thus keeping the young girl from running off in the open, which is dangerous when gangs are fighting. When the shooting subsides, the two of them walk home carefully, only to realize that Lafeyette has only fifty cents left, having lost the rest of the money in their hurried escape.
The seemingly absurd association between violence and summertime suggests that violence at Horner does follow certain patterns, which can be analyzed from an objective perspective, but also that it is inherently absurd and arbitrary in the way it affects individual lives for no apparent reason. In this case, violence forces two children to lose all of their precious change, even though they have done nothing wrong. Lafeyette’s protection of Dede shows that he is accustomed to violence and committed to helping others in critical times.
In such a violent neighborhood, Lafeyette and Pharoah depend on their mother, LaJoe, for comfort stability, and LaJoe, in turn, depends on them. Known for her warmhearted nature, LaJoe has welcomed so many children in her home over the years that many young people in the neighborhood still consider her their mother. However, even LaJoe has recently become overwhelmed by the stress of living at Horner. Like the many women who, by the age of forty, are grandmothers (and sometimes, great-grandmothers), LaJoe is worn out from caring for so many people—her husband, her children, and grandchildren. While she has maintained the beauty of her youth, her body has been affected by fatigue, and she looks both physically and spiritually exhausted.
At Horner, family and the neighborhood are not fully separable. While Lafeyette and Pharoah clearly love their mother, part of their strong attachment to her stems from the chaotic nature of the neighborhood. Family provides not only love, but also much-needed stability, a respite from the violent outside world. In turn, part of LaJoe’s fatigue can be understood from the perspective of the neighborhood, since the reason she is forced to take care of so many people is because of social problems in the neighborhood, such as insecurity and the prevalence of single-mother families.
LaJoe has witnessed the neighborhood’s decline over the decades, as white families left urban life for the suburbs, and middle-class blacks soon followed suit, seeking safer living conditions. Most businesses also left, and the decline in manufacturing jobs has left more than one in five people at Horner jobless. While other urban communities might be poorer, Horner has become famous because of how visible its decline has been, given that the neighborhood was once so wealthy, dynamic, and full of commercial activity. LaJoe laments everything that the neighborhood lacks, from public libraries and skating rinks to clinics, homeless shelters, and rehabilitation centers, despite widespread drug abuse. Despite their proximity to downtown Chicago, Horner residents feel that the city has completely abandoned them.
Kotlowitz places LaJoe’s family situation in a larger context. In this way, her story functions as an expression of her personal choices and life experiences, but also as a reflection of large-scale, social and economic changes that have affected the neighborhood and other urban areas across the country. Broad social changes such as “white flight” (the migration of white families to suburbs) and economic decline have led to the current situation at Horner—and, therefore, have contributed to the current situation of the Rivers family. Individuals’ vulnerability to such large-scale, societal changes have generated resentment and a feeling of injustice among those who suffer from them most—here, Horner residents.
In addition to feeling abandoned by local institutions, residents also feel isolated from each other. Nearly half of families don’t have a phone, and some people find themselves without any friends who might allow them to borrow theirs. Worried about insecurity, some families refuse to let their children outside to play. What has disappointed LaJoe the most, however, is her own family, which she finds she cannot fully shield from the neighborhood’s decline. Her three oldest children, LaShawn (who sometimes work as a prostitute to support her drug addiction), Weasel (who was incarcerated for participating in a burglary), and Terence (who began selling drugs at an early age) have all dropped out of school, been incarcerated, and had problems with drugs. Terence, though, was LaJoe’s biggest disappointment, because he was a child she had felt particularly close to.
Horner residents are trapped in a vicious cycle: insecurity breeds lack of trust among residents, but lack of trust or knowledge about other residents only breeds more fear and insecurity, as people lack the social networks necessary to solve or alleviate their problems. In addition, the neighborhood’s extreme violence makes it difficult to determine the amount of power a family has over an individual’s future. Paradoxically, violence thus forces people to turn inwards, trusting only the closest members of their family, but this does not constitute a solution, as families alone might not be capable of keeping their children away from violence.
LaJoe’s family life now revolves around her younger children. Despite being married for seventeen years, LaJoe and her husband, Paul Rivers, have long been estranged, and LaJoe now depends on her son Lafeyette to take on a fatherly role. Although Lafeyette used to be a bubbly, energetic young boy, he has begun to change. Last year, for example, he was caught stealing candy in a store. More generally, though, the responsibility he feels toward his family leads him to behave in domineering, aggressive ways—his own attempts at trying to keep his younger siblings from harm.
Lafeyette is visibly affected by the serious responsibilities he is forced to shoulder. Instead of behaving like an ordinary child, he must take on an adult role of protecting his younger siblings. His inability to do so in a calm, reasoned way shows that he is overwhelmed by this double identity—the need to protect his family like an adult and the fact that he is still a child, perhaps not yet capable of the same emotional maturity as a parent.
Very different from Lafeyette, Pharoah is also unlike most other children. He has an imaginative, loving spirit and desperately clings to his childhood, although a stutter he has recently developed reveals his fears and vulnerability. While LaJoe has promised herself to protect her sons’ childhood and to keep them from the same fate that befell her other children, the violent summer of 1987 has made her so worried for their lives that she has begun to pay burial insurance for them.
The burial insurance that LaJoe pays for serves as a reminder that, at Horner, life and death are governed by unpredictable forces—even her children, whom she loves and cares for, could die any moment. Pharoah’s emphasis on his childhood serves as his strategy to avoid thinking about adult problems—like the possibility of dying.
To alleviate LaJoe’s worries, Lafeyette knows that he must actively protect his younger siblings. However, one day after school—barely three days after the violent events on his birthday—Lafeyette almost loses Pharoah, as gunfire erupts when children are exiting school. From the apartment, Lafeyette watches his brother walk out of school, which is just one block away, but then loses sight of him. He begins to fear that Pharoah, in panic, might run straight toward the gunfire instead of doing what his mother has taught him: walking slowly to figure out where the shooting is coming from, then running. Luckily, though, Pharoah soon notices Lafeyette’s friend James running toward their building and follows him, finding safety in their apartment. Despite the severity of the shooting and the police’s presence, reporters were never able to obtain a record of the incident from the police.
Pharoah and Lafeyette’s world is governed by forces outside of their control, such as the sudden eruption of shooting. To handle such unpredictability, everyone is forced to learn survival techniques. The adoption of a pragmatic attitude toward violence—instead of Pharoah’s tendency to react to violence in a more emotional way, by ignoring it or panicking—is necessary in this chaotic world. Indeed, the police’s lack of communication suggests that residents are truly left to handle life on their own, learning not only to develop survival strategies but also to give up on the hope that their stories might be brought to public attention.