31 | An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz

Gun violence is a tricky subject– highly politicized, I feel like I hardly understand what it is like to be caught in the crossfire when you’re from a community that it plagues. When I saw this book on my local library’s audiobook selection, I was excited. Published in 2019, Kotlowitz uses an ethnographic approach to examine what life is like for a handful of people in Chicago and how their lives are shaped by gun violence. He had clearly built rapport with the main cast featured in the book, sharing their deepest fears and anxieties about what lies ahead for them. With ethnographies that deal with sticky issues, I always worry the text may feel leech-like and inappropriate, but I really respect the way Kotlowitz was able to approach the topic in a depoliticized way, not pretending to know what the magic cure is to gun violence.

One of the stories that stayed with me after reading the book was that of a young woman who grew up in the inner city. She recalled having a best friend who was a boy and a crush on her best friend’s friend from another school. As she grew up and went to high school, the boys around her began getting into serious trouble, getting shot, going to jail, and some even getting killed. They hardened and became criminals, no longer innocent kids. Her childhood best friend ended up getting pregnant at 16 and he eventually went to prison for participating in a murder attempt. As soon as she could, she left Chicago, knowing in her heart she could not stay and that the street would catch up to her. She went to college, got a job, and tried to sever the emotional ties to Chicago, distancing herself emotionally and mentally. She catches word that her childhood crush is killed in a gang shooting and tries to reconcile her upbring and where she is in that moment, college-educated and out of the nightmarish city she grew up in. It is such a tragic vignette of her life, I don’t know how she is strong enough to pick herself up and continue on.

I highly recommend this book and note to my future self, would/should read this again. It’s highly relevant and most of us are in a privileged enough position to learn as much as we can on the topic. I did not feel like this ethnography was voyeuristic or problematic in anyway; though it is obviously very unsettling content, it is important to learn how others experience life, dictated by the fear of and also status quo of gun violence.

18 | Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

One of the best ethnographies (in book form) I’ve ever read, Evicted is about a number of Milwaukee families, both African American and Caucasian, who struggle to secure and stay in housing despite serious trials. It’s 2008; some are single mothers, some are drug addicts, some are both. Some are paralyzed and live on disability, others are unemployed, some by choice, some by circumstance. Each of the stories Desmond paints are infuriating in some way or another. There’s Arlene, a single mother with her two boys who has moved a number of times in just a few months. She’s just been evicted by the landlord from her apartment because her teenage son Jori had been throwing snowballs at passing cars and the man who’s car they hit got mad and broke down their apartment door. The landlord couldn’t deal with it, kicking the family to the curb. There’s Scott, who had worked hard to become nurse but eventually loosing his nursing license after being caught stealing patients’ opioids which he both sold and used himself. Unemployed and with a new drug addiction, he wanders between shelters, rehab centers and a trailer park. Desmond includes profiles of people who are black, white, young mothers, sixty year olds and people who came from middle class backgrounds. Evicted tells the painful story of what it’s like to find, secure, and loose housing and how the cycle repeats itself squandering any semblance of hope.

On one hand, there are the systemic issues. Racism, classism, poor infrastructure and unequal investment in low-income neighborhoods, the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs, you name it and the issue is discussed in the book. These, and the profound legacies are undeniable. But I also feel that there is behavior that puts people in bad situations where they loose their job and become homeless. Conservatives have long blamed the “welfare queen” for the position she put herself in. Why does she have five children, each fathered by a different man who is absent? To be honest, I wonder that too. Arlene, for example has multiple children, with at least three men, one of whom is incarcerated because of aggravated assault. She can’t even afford to take care of herself, let alone one child… or five. I think of what most people’s thought process might be. If you can’t afford to have a child, then don’t. Either use protection, take birth control or perhaps if the situation is dire, one could have an abortion or put the child up for adoption. There’s absolutely the possibility that Arlene never had thorough sexual education in school, that she never finished high school, or had access to birth control options. But in the back of my mind I think: don’t condoms cost a few bucks and aren’t they easily available at corner stores? Most people make life decisions in accordance with their finances, bolstered by moral codes and familial or societal expectations. If I can’t afford a pair of new shoes or a fifty dollar meal, then I won’t fork over the money. If I can’t afford to have a baby, I will make sure I use protection and take other precautionary measures. But Arlene makes poor decisions on a number of occasions, buying a “fancy” meal one night of different meat cuts from the corner store and her kids new clothes and shoes when she was behind on the previous month’s rent. There are multiple occasions where people make objectively unwise financial decisions. I want to be compassionate towards people who are in need, especially when there are innocent children involved but there’s something wrong when you’re in the hole a couple hundred for rent and you put money towards a turkey dinner instead.

There’s also Vanetta, a single mother who can’t seem to find an apartment for her and her two young kids. Well, turns out she not only has prior eviction records which already makes it nearly impossible to find a landlord willing to overlook that fact, but she also has a criminal eviction, from the time when, along with her cousins and friends, she went to rob some random person on the street with a firearm to try and steal the woman’s purse. With a criminal conviction, it’s nearly impossible to rent, let alone find a job. Many homeless shelters turn her away because of her run-in with the law. I truly feel that it is Vanetta’s fault in many ways. You break the law, you deal with the consequences. It’s the same for me. I struggle to reconcile the fact that she has deepened the hole which she is in due to her own actions, but that her kids are involved and are exposed to violence, drugs, and other adverse childhood experiences because they do not have a stable home. That’s why this book is infuriating. People make their lives worse when they make bad decisions.

Moving beyond individual behaviors, the big alarm Desmond is trying to sound is the lived experience of being at the cusp of homelessness and squalid living conditions. The rental market in most American cities is already tight, with management companies buying up property, inflating property values, gentrification, continued white flight, the arrival of people from other areas and more. The minimum wage cannot support a stable life, let alone children, rent, food, a phone bill or utilities. Even if the poorest of the poor are working at a fast food joint with all the overtime hours they can possibly manage to work, they still, cannot support themselves. This is the “ideal” bind, that everyone’s working their hardest. But poverty begets poverty. Spirits are crushed, dreams eliminated. Hope lost. Desmond’s portraits show how tragic people’s lives become when they see no way out, when even serious drive or work ethic doesn’t help. If they are lucky to scrape enough cash together for a month’s rent, manipulative and extractive landlords will rent out places with serious code violations such as apartments where lead paint has been used, broken sewer lines, no running water, to name a few. Don’t even get started on how different the white and black experiences of poverty are and how big of a role racism plays in white people’s systems of rationalization. This book made me mad. Mad that so many children caught in the web will probably turn out like their parents, mad that urban governance has had very little success in designing systems and services to support vulnerable people and mad that people make poor decisions that contribute to their situation. The stories are conflicting and wrought with emotion, making me think long and hard about how most of these peoples are just political statistics, devoid of conscious and ambition.