The Layers of Chicago: Reading “An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago” in Chicago

Why I Read An American Summer

I’m a very new transplant to Chicago.

First, let me say that I absolutely love it here. Amazingly, I live in a small but affordable high rise building that looks out on Lake Michigan, and I live a 10 minutes’ walk from the beach, so I frequently head down there to decompress after work.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect. Chicago isn’t even the biggest city I’ve ever lived in: I live in Tokyo for six years. But you know, Tokyo has one reputation, and Chicago has a completely different one.

I’m old enough that I spent my early childhood watching “Good Times.” My Yankee mom hated the show for various reasons, but my easy going Southern grandma…no kidding, I had a “Memaw”…was easy going about it, and luckily, it came on when we were usually at her house.

If you don’t remember Good Times, it was a popular sitcom about a family in the Chicago projects. I really would have had no clue that such a thing even existed…and even when I watched the show, I was a bit confused about why the projects were supposed to be bad (no Internet in those days, so I just had to hold my questions).

Later, when I was older, I learned more about the whole situation, partly from the course I took called “Major Black Authors” (that’s what the course was named in the 1980’s), which, lucky for me was taught by a professor who came from Chicago where she worked with Jesse Jackson…and somehow ended up in the mountains of Virginia (I remember her telling us how she thought the White people needed to learn what she had to teach, and we did).

Years ago, (and before the movie) I read Jonathan Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here, which helped me understand what I was watching as a child on Good Times. If you hold your questions long enough, and pay attention, eventually, you will get an answer.

I saw An American Summer in one of the famous bookstores in Chicago (Women and Children First). Even in Chicago, I’m still cheap, but I already have my Chicago library card, and An American Summer was available on ebook.


Should You Read An American Summer?

Reading this book was a sort of surreal experience for me on more than one level.

What Kotlowitz Wrote

First, there is the experience of the book itself. The title, “An American Summer”, is a misnomer. If I have it straight, the idea was to write about a summer in 2013, but as Kotlowitz explains at the end, it was impossible to do justice to the stories of the people in the book…and the stories are real, as told to Kotlowitz…without going beyond the time boundaries he lays out. As you move through the book, you are going backwards and forwards in time…without much clarity, I might add, and Kotlowitz is stingy with the dates in terms of years…and also sideways as he drops in an out of the stories of a range of different people.

Bystander becomes perpetrator becomes victim…we cross over these boundaries and circle back again with little warning.

And Kotlowitz seems determined to mess with your head because despite the layout of the actual chapters, he clings an organizational scheme in which he literally moves through the summer day by day. I made it through the whole book, and still I have no idea what the very specific dates have to do with this book.

Going back to his original intention, which is to show the timelessness and pervasiveness of this story, which never does seem to end, and to mimic the way the brain works, perhaps this scheme is accurate.

You know how memories make perfect sense in your head and become a complete mess when you try to speak them or write them? Maybe that’s what happened to Kotlowitz.

Green Homes 2 under demolition, but still towers behind newly built mixed-income townhouses. Photo taken February 2006 by Payton Chung. Click image for source.

Green Homes 2 under demolition, but still towers behind newly built mixed-income townhouses. Photo taken February 2006 by Payton Chung. Click image for source.

Where Lois Read It

The second thing that made this book surreal to me is where I read it…at times literally on the streets of Chicago itself. Definitely in some bars and restaurants, and also several chapters on the beach. Yup, Chicago has nice beaches and normal (not rich) people can afford to live very close to them.

The thing that no one outside of Chicago talks about much is that many parts of Chicago are very nice places. The food is great, the weather has its good moments, there is a lot of green space, and the whole thing is pretty affordable.

To me, it’s like living in New York without having to pay to live in New York. And you get to enjoy nature too.

So I’m reading this book in Chicago, in some very nice parts of Chicago, and I also start to realize that my Chicago is probably very similar to Kotlowitz’s Chicago.

Which he rarely, if ever, addresses or even acknowledges.

So when I read There Are No Children Here, in Virginia, I was reading about CHICAGO, A VERY SCARY PLACE. Now at the time, I was teaching low income students that had some things in common with the boys profiled in the book. I did learn some things that helped me in my job.

I think I imagined that Kotlowitz was some kind of imbedded war reporter. But you know what? He goes over to the parts of the city that he writes about, and then he goes back, to live a life that is probably not that different from mine.

It’s a day job, just like mine was when I taught in a low SES school.

Does it mean anything? Somehow, I feel like it does.

But I’m not sure if it should.

It does, however, beg the question that probably haunts Kotlowitz: why so close yet so far away?

And why doesn’t it ever change?

Also try these:

High Risers is specifically about Cabrini-Green, and infamous housing project in Chicago…that was also the basis for the TV show, Good Times, mentioned above.

And if you haven’t read Evicted, about low income housing in Milwaukee, read it. It helps you understand what you are dealing with in the rental market when you aren’t middle class.

I long ago figured out that you pay disproportionately more for housing when you can’t afford up front costs…for example, look at what even a cheap hotel costs compared to an apartment when you live in it…which people do when they don’t have security deposits…and compare the price of rent to a mortgage…which people do when they can’t afford a down payment and other costs of owning.

And I had NO IDEA that being a slum lord is so lucrative!