Daily Diary of the American Nightmare

Two months ago, the Wall Street journal published an article about Chicago whose impact surprised the author. “When I did the story, I expected a lot of local attention and, frankly, not a lot of national attention,” Alex Kotlowitz told us.

He got the opposite. His article, about the lives of children in the Henry Horner Homes, has inspired columns in the New York Times, Washington Post, and San Francisco Chronicle. The Post piece ran under the headline, “American Children in a War Zone.” Senator Bill Bradley visited several of the mothers at the project. “The questions he asked were quite provocative,” says Kotlowitz, who sat in. “I think he’s got an interest in–I hate this term–but an interest in the problems of the underclass. It was an incredibly moving session.”

Senator Daniel Moynihan sent Kotlowitz a note.

Locally, Kotlowitz stirred up hardly a thing. Joe Gardner of the CHA called Kotlowitz in and “in a kind of cathartic exercise . . . reeled off the agency’s frustration in trying to diminish the violence in the projects.” But Chicago’s media can easily ignore a Wall Street Journal story, and they did.

Last spring, Kotlowitz, who’s 32, spent two weeks “hanging out at the boys club” at the Henry Horner Homes playing basketball and “looking for the right kid.” He found him in Lafeyette Walton, who’s “right on the cusp, a really good kid but not without temptations.” The mother “knew her kids well and knew what they were going through.” The father was “sort of in and out of there.”

Kotlowitz visited the Walton family two to four times a week for three months. Then he wrote the diary of Lafeyette Walton’s summer.

It begins with Lafeyette’s 12th birthday. With $8 in his pocket, he and his eight-year-old cousin are skipping across the project to buy a pair of radio headphones. Shots ring out. Both kids hit the dirt. Lafeyette, who’s more of a veteran at this, snaps “Hold your head down,” and covers his cousin with her nylon jacket. Like GIs in no-man’s-land, they crawl home on their bellies. Lafeyette checks his pockets and all but 50 cents of his birthday money has trickled away.

The summer wears on. Three days later, a gun battle rages from the windows of facing buildings. The grade school lets out and “children pour out of the school, many of them panicking and running directly into the gunfire.”

That day, no one is hurt. But another day, “Bird Leg,” a 15-year-old Vice Lord whom Lafeyette knows, is gunned down. Before the funeral service, “Lafeyette runs his fingers along Bird Leg’s suit and then caresses his slightly puffy face. Lafeyette’s own face is impassive.” Lafeyette’s friend James says “I’m figuring to cry” and buries his head in his hat.

The next morning, a family friend is shot dead. “I ain’t going to nobody else’s funeral,” says Lafeyette. “I just don’t want to go.”

Lafeyette’s mother tells Kotlowitz that she has taken out burial insurance on all six of her children.

A recent follow-up article compared the Henry Horner Homes–“far from the worst of Chicago’s public housing projects”–to Beirut and Northern Ireland. “In Belfast, for example, the IRA ‘kneecaps’ people who have disobeyed its laws. In the projects, people are shot in the legs for disobeying the gangs’ rules.”

Kotlowitz added: “There is one major difference: In Beirut and Northern Ireland, adults–and children–can direct their anger and bitterness toward political targets, with some long-shot hope of change. In Henry Horner, no such opponent or dream exists.”

Kotlowitz understands why the local media let his story pass by. Other than reprint it, what was a Chicago paper to do? It could not be recovered for the next edition, or imitated for the Sunday after next. Furthermore, he believes that the Tribune’s “American Millstone” series covered much of the same ground.

But we have never seen the trauma of project life laid out more elegantly. It could be to Kotlowitz’s advantage that he writes for a national audience; the venue may lend an element of distance and dispassion to his work. Certainly the Journal has been good to him in his three years there. “They’ve given me a lot of freedom and been really supportive,” he told us. “And I don’t think I’m by any means the exception.”

His reporting is terrific, and something Alex Kotlowitz mentioned about himself also struck us as admirable. After a story’s written, journalist and subject usually go their separate ways. But Kotlowitz didn’t want to abandon Lafeyette Walton.

“I knew from the beginning there would be some commitment beyond the story,” Kotlowitz told us. “I couldn’t walk out of a kid’s life like that. We’ve become good friends. I’m going over there Christmas Day.”

South African Censorship: Nobody Notices

Reginald Gibbons, editor of TriQuarterly, which devoted a recent issue to South Africa, had a question. Whatever happened, he asked us, to the advisory that used to appear with newspaper stories from South Africa, the one reminding readers that censorship limited what could be told?

When the restrictions were imposed in 1986, the New York Times began running this notice: “South African press restrictions now prohibit journalists from transmitting dispatches on any security actions, protests, detentions or ‘subversive statements’ without clearance by Government censors.”

But in time the notice vanished. Gibbons wondered where it had gone.

“I was wondering that the other day myself,” said Joseph Lelyveld, foreign editor of the Times. “I can’t tell you the last time we used it.” He said the rules had not changed, although the government had stopped reviewing stories, thus turning censorship into self-censorship. “That’s why the system is so insidious,” said Lelyveld.

But he added, “The problems we face there are not unique. A correspondent in China who does certain things will be kicked out.” The array of obstacles to reporting from South Africa “is such a complex thing,” Lelyveld said, “we cannot account for it in an italicized statement. I think your colleague [Gibbons] can believe what he reads in the New York Times, but I don’t think we’re covering the whole scene. The real problem is the stories we don’t print because of no access to information.”

Howard Tyner, foreign editor of the Chicago Tribune, which never bothered with an advisory, said much the same thing. “You can get thrown out of the Soviet Union as easily as you can get thrown out of South Africa,” he said. “Our correspondent in South Africa has been told to write what he sees, to write what he hears as long as he can verify it, and not go out of his way to break the rules–pretty much the same instructions we give anywhere.”

We passed these responses along to Gibbons. “It begs the question,” he told us. “Circumstances there allow those who control information to manipulate public opinion in a way that’s really quite underhanded.”

Gibbons cited a Times story “saying Pretoria admits they have children in prison. I think that story’s more potent if the reader knows it had to pass through a government censor. And there’s no photograph because no photograph would be allowed to be sent out of the country.”

But the story had not passed through a censor! “Well, as every writer of the 20th century who’s talked about censorship has said,” Gibbons replied, echoing Lelyveld, “self-censorship is the most dangerous and insidious form.”

Clearly, the government policy is working. The Times’s John Burns, a former correspondent in Pretoria, conceded that in an arts-section article on the movie Cry Freedom:

“The film comes at an important juncture,” Burns wrote. “Censorship has drastically reduced the flow of information about what [former prime minister] Vorster . . . described as ‘the derogatory aspects’ of South African society. It is one of the few successes that the Pretoria Government has been able to claim in recent years.”

Censorship exists the world round, but it strikes us as different in South Africa. There, it’s a recent and effective government tactic, chosen at a highly volatile hour, to obscure the growing rebellion of the black majority. We see no reason not to be reminded frequently that’s so.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alex Galindo.