In his first book, There Are No Children Here, author Alex Kotlowitz painted a vivid picture of one of Chicago’s bleakest neighborhoods. Through facts, interviews, and a detailed look at life through the eyes of two boys in the Henry Horner projects (Pharoah and Lafayette Rivers), Kotlowitz called attention to issues of race, poverty, and urban policy.
Given his self-described interest in working “along the margins,” Kotlowitz might seem a strange choice to write a travel book about Chicago.
In the kitchen of the Oak Park home he shares with his wife and two children, Kotlowitz referred to Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago as “an anti-travel travel book.” Then he corrected himself. “It’s not a travel book. It’s a book about place.”Never a City So Real is the 10th title in the “Crown Journey” series, which includes works by other well-known authors with a flair for unvarnished characters. Edwidge Danticat, whose novel, The Farming of Bones, brought to life the savage killing of Haitians in the 1930s Dominican Republic, wrote After the Dance: A Walk through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti. Michael Cunningham, who vividly captured the suppressed hysteria of several suicidal characters in his novel, The Hours, authored Land’s End: A Walk in Provincetown.
Kotlowitz reacted enthusiastically when he was approached, through his agent, about contributing to the series.
“I loved the idea of a series of writers writing about place,” he said.
Kotlowitz first envisioned a story about the Upper Peninsula in Michigan”a project that would allow him to indulge his passion for canoeing. Then he got the message that Crown wanted a book about Chicago.
“My heart kind of sank,” he said.
A transplanted New Yorker, Kotlowitz came to Chicago more than 20 years ago to report on urban affairs for the Wall Street Journal. He took a leave of absence to write his first book. He met his wife, a public interest lawyer who works with immigrant children, while promoting There Are No Children Here.
Kotlowitz left the Journal in 1993 and wrote a second book. The Other Side of the River focused on the death of an African American teenage boy and the racial and economic divides of two neighboring cities: Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, Mich.
Kotlowitz’ reluctance to write about Chicago didn’t stem from any disregard for the city.
As Kotlowitz notes in Never a City So Real, the author Richard Wright once described Chicago as “the known city.” The prospect of writing about the Chicago immortalized so well by Carl Sandburg, Nelson Algren, Wright and others seemed daunting.
Kotlowitz admitted to struggling with how to approach the book. “I spent the first summer stumbling over myself,” he recalled. “Everybody had an idea.”
He found himself frequently on the receiving end of statements like, “You can’t do a book about Chicago without doing something about … .”
Ultimately, Kotlowitz saw the book as an opportunity to explore the stories he’s drawn to.
“I’m a storyteller, and so I look for good stories,” he said. “I am kind of a slave to that.”
People tell Chicago’s story
Never a City So Real is structured around a series of real-life Chicago characters, with diverse stories and settings.
“Some of [the characters] I already knew. Some of them I wanted to meet. This gave me a good excuse to spend time with them,” Kotlowitz explained.
He mentioned Ed Sadlowski as one of those characters he wanted to meet. In telling Sadlowski’s story of union activism in the steel mills of South Chicago, Kotlowitz chronicles a significant part of the city’s history and the changing economics and demographics of a neighborhood.
“Millie and Brenda” are two longtime friends who’ve provided Kotlowitz an introduction to several colorful eating establishments. He wrote about his friends and the owners of these places in the book.
“Mac Arthur’s is a place I ate at all the time,” he said. “I wasn’t sure if there was anything to write about.”
After probing the restaurant’s “very reticent” owner, Kotlowitz unearthed a story about a man who serves up second chances for his employees along with pork chops in gravy.
Ramazan Celikoski represents a third category of characters for Kotlowitz: “Some I stumbled upon.”
“I am absolutely so intrigued by Albany Park,” the author noted. “I actually was going to write about the Mexican day laborer experience.”
After spending time in the neighborhood, Kotlowitz instead zeroed in on a diner called GT’s. The owner, Celikoski, is an Albanian immigrant who grumbles about the laborers but operates his diner as almost a refuge for them.
“This is the Chicago I know and why I love this place,” Kotlowitz said. “What a cascade of stories in this place.”
Civic boosters might cringe at some of the content in Kotlowitz’ book. One chapter centers on the Criminal Courts Building and the activities of a lawyer who specializes in capital murder cases. Another highlights one man’s battles with mob-related corruption in Cicero and covers the conviction of former town president Betty Loren-Maltese. Should bouffants and heavy makeup be a permanent part of Chicago’s literary lore?
“I think that the first string of suburbs here are very much a part of Chicago,” Kotlowitz said. “Cicero looks like one more neighborhood tacked onto the city.”
Kotlowitz was less aghast at the machinations of Loren-Maltese than at the town’s notoriety for keeping out African Americans.
“For me, what I think is incredibly embarrassing and ugly is [Cicero’s] history when it comes to race. The irony now is that it’s 70 to 80 percent Hispanic,” he observed.
Oak Park gets a brief mention in the book, as Kotlowitz’ home for the past 10 years. When asked whether he knows a character who might embody Oak Park, Kotlowitz hesitated, then politely declined to name one.
“You could have a good time with Oak Park,” he remarked.
Kotlowitz did include an Oak Park story in another project he is passionate about: a three-part series of first-person narratives for National Public Radio. “Stories of Home” and “Love Stories” have already aired. “Stories of Money” will air in February and “may be the best of the three,” according to Kotlowitz.
One “Story of Home” featured “The Blue House with the Rose Window,” an Oak Park home in which three sisters treasure many memories of their late father.
Kotlowitz praised Amy Dorn, the NPR producer with whom he has worked. He’s currently working on a play inspired by the NPR stories, to be produced in May by Pegasus, and is talking to his publisher about doing a book collection of the radio stories.
“They are all about people yearning for some beauty or meaning in their lives,” he said. “I find all the stories and go out and do the interviews. Again, it’s all Chicago”kind of my canvas.”
Interestingly, Kotlowitz’s Never a City So Real has received an endorsement of sorts from a source one might expect to be among the most strident of civic boosters.
Stephanie Leese, incoming president of the Chicago chapter of the National Concierge Association, recommended it to her members as the second selection in the group’s new book club.
“I am really emphatic about education,” Leese explained. “I wanted to pick a Chicago author on a Chicago book, but not on a tourism level. His is a storytelling style. This is what we do as concierges. It’s not just directions on the ‘el,’ it’s the why’s and wherefores.
“Chicago is so vibrant,” she added. “If I can stretch my clients … they may ask me for directions, but they get the story.”
An outsider’s perspective
Reflecting on the focus of Never a City so Real and his previous work, Kotlowitz has found some common ground.
“It’s all about fissures in the American landscape,” he said.
He views his newest book as “more of a celebration”of the people,” but noted that “they are all folks who recognize the juxtaposition of power and fragility. They’re not necessarily activists. They all acknowledge those fissures. They were all outsiders in one way or another.”
A point Kotlowitz makes in his book and in person is that there is a reason Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan became successful architects in Chicago and not New York.
“It’s a city where you can thrive as an outsider,” he said. “I’ve spent much of my life thinking of myself as an outsider. I always felt like a fish out of water in New York. I always felt very self-conscious. It’s just partly me. I don’t know how to explain it.”
In the city he views as full of outsiders, Kotlowitz has not only made a home, he has found a way inside many untapped stories. How does he find the way in, with people he doesn’t know and in settings many Chicagoans never see?
“I make sure that I don’t pretend to be of that place,” Kotlowitz explained. “Occasionally people will tell me to get lost. For the most part, people are incredibly welcoming.”
Making that first contact is the part of his work Kotlowitz least enjoys.
“I’m constantly calling people out of the cold,” he said. “Inevitably, you have doors shut, literally and metaphorically.”
Kotlowitz has an easy-going manner and a self-proclaimed “terrier instinct” for tracking down a story. He respects requests for personal privacy, though he may try to create a change of heart.
He remembered it took him awhile to warm up Sadlowski, whose past struggles with alcohol are mentioned in the book.
“We spent a lot of time together. I think I earned his trust,” Kotlowitz said. “He’s really back in the saddle.”
“I loved getting to know Bob Guinan,” Kotlowitz added. “He and Ed are people who I didn’t know before but who I now consider friends.”
Guinan is one of two Chicago artists included in Never a City So Real. Milton Reed, who paints custom murals for many clients living in public housing, is the second. Reed was also featured in one of Kotlowitz’ “Stories of Home.”
“They are kind of storytellers in their own right,” Kotlowitz observed. “I share something with them.”
Though he’s well known in France, Guinan labors with little recognition at home. He continues to paint Chicago, just as Kotlowitz continues to collect stories.
Though he declined to be specific about the topic, the author admitted, “I have my claws in what I hope is going to be another book.”
Kotlowitz is also a visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame and teaches two undergraduate classes at Northwestern, including “Journalism of Empathy” within the Medill School.
He explained that the best of narrative nonfiction borrows the tools of novelists”fiction writers”with one giant exception: “Everything we write has to be authentic, genuine, real. Everything we do has to be based on fact.
“The challenge is to try to put yourself in the place of others”to put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” he continued. “You have to be careful in doing so that you not absolve people of responsibility. I always tell people I’m going to write about them in as honest a way as I can.”
The author seems to have a knack for accumulating friends along with his stories.
“I am still very much in touch with a lot of people from the first book,” he said. “I am still very close to Pharoah and Lafayette, Brenda and Millie. There’s no question that that book has been a source of a lot of friendships. A lot of those people came to our wedding.”
Kotlowitz remembered a book party in July for Never a City So Real, held at the club HotHouse.
“Mac Arthur’s provided chicken wings. Edna’s [a soul food restaurant mentioned in the book] provided meatballs. It was such a hodgepodge of people,” he said, smiling. “All of the people from the book were there, [and] a lot of other writers and filmmakers. If I was living in New York, most of my circle of friends would be writers.
“The breadth of my circle of friends is so wide and so rich here,” he added. “I feel pretty damn fortunate.” • Alex Kotlowitz will be at the Oak Park Public Library, 834 Lake St., tomorrow, Dec. 9 at 7 p.m. to read from, discuss, and sign copies of Never a City So Real. Books will be available for purchase through Barbara’s Bookstore.