LaJoe remembers moving into the Henry Horner Homes in 1956, at the age of four, when the buildings were brand new and looked majestic to her. LaJoe’s parents, Roy and Lelia Mae Anderson, had left poverty in the South to find work in Chicago. The two of them lived in an apartment that was going to be demolished and felt lucky when they were given the opportunity to move into newly constructed public housing.
The contrast between LaJoe’s initially optimistic attitude toward the housing complex and her later sense of disappointment suggests that feelings of success are sometimes short-lived, impacted by forces beyond people’s control, such as the lack of maintenance of buildings that were initially satisfying.
The history of public housing complexes begins after World War II, when the government started building high-rise buildings to solve the housing crisis. However, powerful white politicians soon opposed building housing for the poor and for black families and led a strong opposition to the housing project. Due to such opposition and lack of space, the complexes were finally built at the outskirts of the city, thus only increasing the social and racial segregation that already existed in the city. Lack of funds also meant that the buildings were poorly designed and constructed. At Horner, the buildings have no lobbies, the trash chutes are too narrow, and the elevators break down on a regular basis. Additionally, the buildings’ design stifles communication and creates insecurity among residents.
The construction of housing complexes such as Horner reveals larger problems, such as racism, discrimination, and a refusal to help the most vulnerable members of society, such as the poor. Instead of creating a sustainable environment for its residents, the city constructed buildings that were bound to be inadequate in the long run. Therefore, the problems of violence and insecurity at Horner are not exclusively the result of economic changes or the development of gangs—which took place after the construction of Horner. Part of the issue is the housing complex itself, which is the result of bad urban planning.
On the day her family moved in, young LaJoe was mostly excited about their new apartment. At the time, children at Horner could enjoy a variety of activities in the neighborhood, joining groups such as the Girl Scouts and organizing parties in the building. In addition to this community ebullience, LaJoe and her siblings felt connected to politics. Their mother was an active member of the Democratic Party, and politicians were forced to pay attention to people’s concerns because, at the time, Horner residents were well organized and capable of fighting for their rights. When LaJoe’s family moved in, they were moved by hope and pride, trusting that they would all grow into successful individuals.
The contrast between LaJoe’s carefree childhood at Horner and Lafeyette and Pharoah’s present atmosphere of fear is striking. It highlights a generational change: while LaJoe’s parents trusted politics and collective organizations to achieve change, current Horner residents have largely given up on their own power to connect to outside institutions, because they feel isolated from each other and from local authorities. The reasons behind this shift in attitude is part of what Kotlowitz attempts to solve in this book.
Problems began in the 1970s, when funds ran out to maintain the apartment buildings. In addition, one of LaJoe’s sisters was brutally assassinated, and her brother died of a heart attack after hearing the news, which led LaJoe’s parents to move out of Horner. LaJoe decided to stay in the building, assuming that the quality of life would remain the same, instead of declining dramatically as it later did. By 1987, the situation at Horner had become so dangerous that the mayor, Jane Byrne, decided to move into Horner for three weeks to enforce order. While courageous, to many residents and observers this decision highlighted the striking alienation of the poor, mostly black residents of Horner. Chicago, Kotlowitz argues, was so segregated that such housing complexes felt as dangerous and distant to politicians, police, and reporters as a Third World Country.
The very fact that the mayor felt the need to be physically present at Horner reveals the lack of ties between the housing complex and the rest of Chicago. This isolation highlights a deep economic and social divide, as different parts of the city seem sectioned off from each other according to residents’ race and socio-economic background. Paradoxically, then, instead of building bridges between Horner and the rest of the city, the mayor’s action only emphasizes how isolated the community truly is.
During the violent summer of 1987, the Rivers children learn to play in the narrow, extremely hot hallway in their apartment during shootings, staying away from windows where stray bullets might pass through. One day, after a shooting, LaJoe, feeling particularly nervous, begins to sweep the floors. Cleaning allows her to focus her energy on a single task, serving as a distraction and an outlet for the stress of gun violence. Lafeyette offers to help and, knowing that LaJoe is only cleaning to handle her stress, tries to reassure her that no one is going to get hurt, but LaJoe merely tells him to go watch the triplets.
Lafeyette takes on an adult role when he tries to reassure his mother. He gives up his own childlike need to be reassured in order to make his mother feel better, thus proving his capacity to sacrifice himself for the well-being of his family. The children’s efforts to keep playing despite the violence reveals their desire to shield themselves (both physically and emotionally) from the world around them and to take refuge in a reality they can both control and understand: their own games.
Despite LaJoe’s frequent cleaning, the apartment remains eternally messy, due to overcrowding (eight people live there), and the lack of building maintenance and adequate infrastructure to handle people’s garbage, which causes apartments to overflow with roaches. In one of the two windowless bathrooms in the Rivers family’s apartment, one toilet smells continuously of rotting meat. In the other bathroom, hot water continuously pours out of the bathtub from a faucet that cannot close. The heating is so poorly controlled that it is more unbearably hot in the winter than it is during the hottest of summer days. Despite the cluttered, run-down aspect of the apartment, LaJoe tries to decorate it with drawings and maintain security by placing furniture against the window to protect her family from stray bullets.
LaJoe’s cleaning gives her an outlet for her stress, but also serves to make the apartment more pleasant for the entire family. Her determination to keep cleaning the apartment might not yield the expected results, but that is because of issues beyond her control. This goes to show that hard work is not always sufficient to guarantee perfect success. However, it also emphasizes the human power for resilience and persistence. Indeed, LaJoe does not give up on her goal to make the apartment more livable, since she tries to make it both a safe and comfortable space.
Even the spaces outside the buildings are in bad condition. A baseball diamond has been filled in, and the basketball court usually lacks usable rims. In addition, Lafeyette often fears playing at the court because he doesn’t want to be recruited by gangs. Both Lafeyette and his friend James fear being recruited into gangs and forced to commit violent acts, such as killing someone—which Lafeyette has heard that one of his friends had to do. James concludes that the safest strategy is to avoid making friends. Often, the children dream of living in a place without gangs, where they might enjoy nature and a peaceful life.
Lafeyette and James’s fear of being recruited by gangs highlights their understanding that a person’s bad actions, such as killing someone, are not always the result of evil will. Instead, these actions can sometimes be the result of social pressure or coercion, such as the initiation to a gang. In this way, the two boys conceive of violence as behavior caused by one’s environment, not necessarily by one’s personality. As a consequence, they give up on fun and collective activities for the sake of safety.