By Alex Kotlowitz – This is an award-winning, almost 25-year-old book that I’ve wanted to read for a long time (thank you West Windsor Library book sale!), documenting living conditions in the Henry Horner Homes a now-demolished housing project of the notorious Chicago Housing Authority. It is credited with making a substantial contribution to reforms in public housing that have attempted to reduce the isolation of the poor, combat violence and drug abuse, and improve building maintenance and living conditions for those who remain in public housing. Chicago-based media impresario Oprah Winfrey produced a made-for-tv movie version in 1993.
The book focuses on one large family, particularly two young brothers, Lafeyette and Pharoah Rivers, ages 10 and seven at the outset, and follows their lives for three years. While Kotlowitz says he didn’t start out with the goal of public housing reform, no one who read the book—then or now—can fail to be affected by how public systems have failed so many American children. A 2011 interview with Kotlowitz revisted his experience writing this book and the subsequent fates of Pharoah and Lafeyette.
This year’s Peabody Awards recognized coverage of the continued neglect of low-income teens in WBEZ (This American Life) radio documentaries about Chicago’s Harper High School (Part 1 and Part 2) and the PBS documentary about a Washington, D.C., high school, 180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School. But, as Chicago Public Radio’s Linda Lutton said, “I would trade every prize in the world for them to live in a different reality.”