Dispatches of Chicago Violence

An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago is a heart-wrenching account of the horrific impact of gun violence on the south and west side of the city. Written by Alex Kotlowitz, a Chicago-based journalist and writer whose work consistently focuses on issues of justice, the book captures the voices of those directly affected by the seemingly endless cycle of shootings and shootings. It is an extraordinarily sad tale.

The geography of the book is constrained to the primarily Black and Hispanic neighborhoods of the city, just as the high-levels of violence in Chicago are similarly bounded. There is no substantive framing, no trends, and no meaningful bigger picture context. Kotlowitz is not interested in charts, tables, studies by criminologists or governmental reports. The pieces in this work are “dispatches” from an all too common summer, he tells us. It is only in the book’s latter part do we hear more from the voices of politicians and the police.

Kotlowitz dives into the lives of individuals, the men, women and children directly affected by the violence. He talks with former gang members, with young men awaiting trial, with the mothers and fathers of those killed and injured. Kotlowitz is a very good listener and his stories and profiles are richly drawn and suitably complex. He is interested in these people as people. That, in and of itself, is powerful. American Summer is an important corrective to what is often reflected in media and popular culture.

Researching the book took Kotlowitz four years. He talked with about two hundred people. The structure of the book appears to be chronological, but he weaving together a series of snapshots, individual stories of hope, violence and struggle. The recurring theme is one of PTSD. Each and everyone of the people involved in the violence is wrestling with the consequences of violence. It is pervasive and crippling.

One man is struggling, after prison and decades of guilt, with the consequences of shooting another teenager. Another struggles with drug addiction years after many in his family died in a fire, an arson caused by neighborhood street violence. A smart high school student joins other gang members and is rightfully arrested. Relatives and neighbors refuse to give testimony about a young man who committed a murder. It as another expression of a culture of fear and an ingrained sense that little or nothing can be done. “It is everywhere,” Kotlowitz writes. The sorrow of the parents and the grandparents is overwhelming.

For example, Kotlowitz breaks the wall of reporting and writes to us directly about the violence surrounding one individual, Thomas. A friend’s cousin is shot twice on his block. A friend shot and murdered at a corner liquor store. Another friend from high school killed by a gun, perhaps accidentally. A different friend shot six times and blinded. The older brother of another friend shot and killed. Yet another friend shot and killed, this time by a fourteen year old. What kind of life is possible in that kind of environment?

The strength of An American Summer is Kotlowitz’s focus on the personal. The book is humanizing, even as the stories are horrific and overwhelming. However, it is impossible to read and not want attention, investment, engagement and action to help these people. On that front we have to look elsewhere, beyond this narrative. An American Summer makes a compelling case for great interest and understanding by all of us in the violent neighborhoods of Chicago.

David Potash

Chicago’s Lincoln Park – A Study of Changing Neighborhood

Cycling through Chicago neighborhoods, walking in this fascinating city, I often wonder about its development. Who built what and why? How did we end up with our city of neighborhoods, our parks, our nodes of this and that? The architecture, the public and private spaces of this city, are extraordinarily interesting. Add to that the city’s rich, vibrant and often troubling history and even more questions arise. Why are we so segregated? Why are some parts of the city so wealthy and others so much less so? It doesn’t seem to have much to do with geography. There’s no elevated part of the city that overlooks the rest. Chicago is a flat metropolis and public transportation, while important, does not offer a guarantee of an improved infrastructure or a healthier neighborhood.

Are there two inexorable neighborhood trends in the city: gentrification with exclusion or under investment with poverty?

Recently I read a short volume that helps to answer these questions, at least in one Chicago neighborhood. Daniel Kay Hertz’s The Battle of Lincoln Park: Urban Renewal and Gentrification in Chicago is an accessible study that could be considered local history. Read it carefully, though, and it offers more. It is a case study, a window into how politics, racism, and economics intertwine in the creation of our built environment. Hertz is a Chicago native who knows his way around the city’s economy and politics. He’s a reliable guide in this book, which unpacks and questions the dynamics of gentrification. It is well-written, thoughtfully considered and chock full of smart analysis. My greatest complaint is that it is light on maps. They would have given the book even more punch.

Lincoln Park is a community on the north side of Chicago, bordering Lake Michigan. In the years after World War II, it was a dynamic neighborhood filled with a diversity of backgrounds, incomes, races and economic activity. Though certainly not edenic and clearly suffering from the long-term effects of the Great Depression, Lincoln Park had much going for it. It appealed to artists and other creative types after the war. Knowingly or not, deep changes were coming. It is from these first influx of post-war residents that Hertz starts his story. He follows them, and the shifts in the neighborhood, for the coming decades. There’s increased movement by white middle class people, a push for urban renewal and slum-clearance, which disrupts neighborhoods, and the organization of community groups who preach inclusivity while promoting practices that drive less affluent community members out. All of this happens in phases, usually connected to broader economic trends. By the 1960s, the neighborhood has greatly stressed, particularly as a vibrant and politically active Puerto Rican community was displaced. Those changes led to violence and riots.

Architecturally, multiple-family dwellings are replaced by single family homes. This brings in new types of families and excludes those with lesser means. The population dips as wealth ticks up. Federal dollars speed up the rate of transformation. A few large developments shape the community further, each of which involve “clearance”, or removing buildings of less property value, under the flag of “improving the community.” These are highly contested politically charged affairs. Hertz stresses, though, that the underlying transformation is steady and ongoing, with or without the big projects proceeding. From 1945 to 1970, the span of this book, Lincoln Park is the site of significant and long-lasting change. It has continued, too, as have changes and gentrification in many other parts of the city.

Hertz does a good job presenting different perspectives from the neighborhood. He’s very interested in giving voice to those that were not able to exercise much political power. Gentrification can cause real pain and harm. It can also bring benefits to an under-resourced area. Ultimately, Hertz is less concerned about policy and more in telling a story of the built environment. Hertz pays close attention to who did what and why during those years. It begs the question of economic gain and problematizes the idea of a “nice” neighborhood. That is a loaded issue, particularly when one considers who is determining it and why. There is much more to community than property values. Or large single-family houses. Reading his book and walking Lincoln Park, it is much easier to understand the neighborhood and, importantly, to think about how other neighborhoods have and are changing. It calls into question what people think of as community and why. That is a very important question, one we need to continue to address if we are to have a healthy city.

David Potash

The Defender: A Powerful Voice for Black Americans

The story of Chicago’s The Defender, perhaps America’s preeminent Black newspaper of the 20th century, is the history of race and racism in the city and the nation. It’s been an extraordinarily important publication, an essential voice for Black community and a tireless advocate for racial justice and agency, for over a century. Ethan Michaeli’s hefty book, The Defender: How The Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, is a sprawling account of the newspaper, strong on personalities and affection. It is tome at 633 pages, yet is still leaves at least this reader with questions. More than a history of a business, Micheali’s volume shines a provocative light on the intersection of The Defender, those that made it, the stories that it told, and the communities in which it was read.

The Defender was the brain child of Robert Abbott, a fascinating Black entrepreneur from Georgia who visited Chicago’s 1893 World Colombian Exposition as a young man. Among his many skills, he was a talented singer and a member of the Hampton Quartet. Abbott, impressed with the city’s Black professionals and keen on the opportunities he saw in the growing metropolis, decided to move to Chicago and become a lawyer. Plans changed as Abbott’s law career did not take off as expected. Knowing a bit about printing from a relative, Abbott judged that the city’s growing Black community needed a newspaper. Borrowing money and leaning on friends and acquaintances, he started The Defender in 1905 with an initial print run of 300. His offices were in his landlady’s dining room. The paper, with a mission as a defender of Abbott’s race, was truly a visionary enterprise. From those small steps, Abbott’s drive, brilliance and amazing work built the organization and a paper with international impact.

Initially read on the South Side of Chicago, The Defender was passed from reader to reader. Importantly, the newspaper was picked up by Pullman porters, many of whom lived or traveled through Chicago, increasing its scope. Over time, Abbott attracted a cadre outstanding journalists and writers, like Ida B. Wells and Langston Hughes. The paper was tireless in its attention to racism, opportunity and justice. It was relentless in its descriptions and criticisms of lynchings and other injustices, especially in the South. The paper investigated and reported factually racist atrocities and lynchings, in direct contrast to what white publications printed. Abbott and members of the papers were harassed and threatened, but they pressed on, unfazed. The paper’s work accelerated the political and cultural organizations of within Black Chicago, and was an extraordinarily important factor in the Great Migration. Abbott and the paper initiated the Bud Billiken parade in 1929, a celebration that has grown to being the nation’s largest African-American parade. It is a wonderful August event, and Michaeli cleverly draws the reader into his work by opening with a young Barack Obama at the event.

John H. Sengstacke, Abbott’s nephew, took over the paper in 1940 followings Abbott’s death. The Defender played a key role in politics and race issues at the city, state and national level through World War II, pushing hard for civil rights and the integration of the military. Facing strong competition from other Black newspaper by this time, Defender journalists and editors were prominent and active. That key scope extended through the 1950s and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and beyond. Political and cultural leaders needed the newspaper’s attention, especially as more Blacks voted and acquired wealth and influence. It is difficult to overstate the key role that The Defender served in keeping Black communities informed and engaged.

Michaeli’s book describes all of this very well. He’s a talented writer with a good eye for detail. Consistently using the paper as a primary source, he has rich material to engage the reader. And as The Defender was active across the continent for decades, there’s more than enough history to reference and recount. Michaeli’s attention to the violence and prejudice that The Defender covered very strong. He appreciates, as did the newspaper’s staff and readership, the harsh realities of Black Americans. He underscores, too, that racial justice was only achieved through suffering and struggle. The book offers a powerful reminder of just how constant racial bigotry and violence were a prominent throughout the twentieth century.

On the other hand, the lengthy book could have been more effective with greater attention to context and history. Michaeli does reference some of the important historical scholarship that helps to explain the big picture, but I did not come away with the sense that he was comfortable crafting his history in that realm. I understand that this would have changed the book. Nonetheless, for those not familiar with twentieth century American history, or the history of Chicago, The Defender moves quickly and makes assumptions. Some of this is simply how the author approached the material. Michaeli, a white University of Chicago English major, took a job as a copy editor at the Defender a year after graduation in 1991. He stayed at the paper for five years, working his way up to journalist, and learning about Chicago, racism, and American history along the way. Five hundred pages into the book – its structure is chronological – Michaeli introduces himself, writes about his ignorance of race and history, and explains his journey to understanding through his job and the work of the newspaper. As he notes, the experience “filled in so many blanks in American history left by the textbooks of my youth and showed me how things really work.”

At the start of the 1900s, America had more than 20,000 newspapers. Many of these publications represented communities ignored by mainstream presses. Their function was much more than reporting the news. These newspapers were critical in the development of group identity and political mobilization, particularly as the country wrestled with issues of suffrage, political participation, and the meaning of being an American. Now read mostly by graduate students, the vast majority of these papers have long been assigned to archives, their readership and influence waning over the decades. The Defender had a much greater impact than most and has lasted longer than most. It still exists online and still has an important voice. Michaeli’s book goes far in telling that story.

David Potash

Wild, Wild, Westside Chicago

Mike McHugh, a long-time Chicago native, recently penned a book recounting his father’s stories. The elder McHugh, a building inspector and man about town, was “connected.” He knew police and crooks, mobsters and molls, union officials and politicos. He had all manner of yarns to spin to Mike, his brother Jerry, and I’m sure many others. The resulting volume, Chicago Westside Irish, reads like an adult story hour, best told at a bar and not your local library. McHugh’s approach is non-judgmental; it is simple reporting.

The book’s tone is conversational. Without sources or context, it is relatively easy to get lost amid the exploits, the names and the nicknames. On the other hand, with some selective web searching, it’s easy to put the pieces together. From what I’ve researched, McHugh’s stories are based in fact – no matter how fantastic they might read.

There were bootleggers in the family. Famed criminals, like Al Capone, move in and out of the tales, with a drink here, a funeral there. It’s a telling reminder of just how small a town the enormous city of Chicago can be.

Chicago Westside Irish is also a reminder of Chicago’s rich history – especially when it comes to crime, politics and criminal justice. Just as today, there were significant problems in the 1920s and 1930s, too. Chicago, for some, can very much be the wild, wild west.

David Potash

Phair the Writer

Exit in Guyville is a brilliant debut album. Liz Phair put it out in 1993, while living in Chicago, and she followed it the next year with Whip-Smart, another strong effort. I remember buying both all those years ago and noticing her lyrics. They were pointed, thought-provoking, and carefully crafted. Phair struck me as something of a poet. Her lyrics stuck with me more than her melodies.

Over the years I lost track of Phair as a musician, though I did see her perform. She came out with a memoir in late 2019.

Horror Stories is Liz Phair’s wholly original, non-glamorous, non-rock star memoir, though she is most definitely a rock start. It is a unique sort of work, off-kilter and de-centered. It highlight’s Phair’s way of looking at the world and her life. Her perception, candor, and ability to look at things differently gives the work an unusual flavor. She tells us in the introduction that she wrote it “to articulate those experiences that people may not always want to recognize, but describe them in a way that makes them worth the effort.” It is worth the effort. Had Phair not fashioned a career as a musician, she could have given it a go as a writer.

Phair’s non-chronological observations range from childhood to where she is know. She notices things, big and small, and describes them with intensity and feeling: from a girl who passed out to a break-in at college to her thoughts while being made-up for a photo shoot. She brings care and honesty to these moments, explaining quite a bit about her, her privilege, talent, pains and suffering. More intentional than a flaneur, she is a smart woman with creative edges.

What Horror Story lacks is structure. If you give it a chance, Phair’s creativity and voice will carry you along.

David Potash

Chicana Activists

A vitally important book in understanding Latinx Studies and history, Chicanas of 18th Street: Narratives of a Movement from Latino Chicago, looks at the Chicana/o movement of the 1960s and 1970s through the first-person perspectives of six activists from the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. Written by Leonard G. Ramirez and the six women activists, the book is a interesting mixture of big-picture policy and theory with “on-the-ground” accounts of what it was like for the participants.

The voices and histories of the women are compelling. They did not push for change because of theory. Instead, they were motivated by direct issues of injustice, opportunity, and the possibility of seeing improvements in their lives and the lives of their family and community. There is an immediacy to their account that compresses conceptions of history, giving the reader a sense of how they – and others – might be swept along. It also was not all that long ago that the very idea of civil rights for all was considered by some to be “radical.” Racism, sexism, and a host of other forces pushed these women and their communities down. They fought back.

Chicanas of 18th Street would be an outstanding book to teach. It makes clear that heroism is not just for the battlefield or distant history. These women were courageous, brave, and heroic – and they did it while juggling day to day challenges and more than their fair share of problems. It shows how change can happen and does happen, a powerful message for students.

David Potash

Cabrini-Green and Chicago

If you think about Cabrini-Green without any knowledge of Chicago or the history of public housing, the associations that probably come to mind are extremely negative: rampant violence and poverty, created by the government. Cabrini-Green, a former public housing complex in the near North Side of Chicago, achieved a kind of amazing notoriety. But was it always a failure? And why and how did it turn out so badly? These are important questions that Chicago resident and writer Ben Austen tackles in High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing. It’s an important corrective to a complicated history.

Austen takes a chronological approach to the creation of Cabrini-Green: its conception, development, challenges and demise. He focuses on the voices and stories of the people who lived there – and his attention to their narratives is most welcome. If we really consider housing and homes, we know that they are not just bricks and layouts, or architects and developers and politicians. Housing has to be about the people who lived in the homes. Reading High-Risers gives a thoughtful account of the residents of Cabrini-Green and a history of the project, which was also a neighborhood and community.

Austen’s narrative makes clear that the fate of Cabrini-Green was not predetermined – any more than other large block public housing efforts were destined for failure. The book is good on the local political and economic factors that made Cabrini-Green so problematic. Austen explains the neighborhoods, the power structures, and above all, the pervasive racism and segregation. He explains the ways that violence, especially gang violence, tore the families and communities within Cabrini-Green

What High-Risers does not address is the larger shifts in American public policy that stacked the deck against public housing. What happened in Chicago was not unique. Changing funding streams, different expectations at the city level, and a host of other factors have made successful public housing extremely challenging. We’re living with the consequences of those decisions today.

High-Risers explains Cabrini-Green and quite a bit about Chicago. Austen’s contribution is most welcome to understanding this fascinating city.

David Potash


My apartment opens to a busy Chicago Avenue. At night, the street is loud with hipsters, tourists, buskers and custom car stereos. Young men and women Whoo and Whoop and the bars clink with bottles and glasses. Sounds are continuous, a constant roar punctuated by thumps and yells, with engines rumblings and street musicians jamming.

Mornings are different. Sound is episodic. Single cars and trucks, conversations, the barking of a dog. I hear people, not crowds.

The bike lane is full. More and more people are cycling downtown to their jobs. Some take their bicycle commute seriously, kitted with panniers, reflective tape and extra mirrors. Others are more spontaneous. They pass by in a steady stream.

A difficult intersection is up the street, a hundred feet or so from my door. When halted by a red light, the they start together as a mass, a morning peloton.

I like to linger – not watching but listening. I want to hear shifting, the sounds of gears changing. The sound of a well-tuned bicycle is extremely satisfying: silent with perhaps the quietest of hums, depending upon pavement, save for the changing of gears.

A gear change announces itself with a small but purposeful rattle. It is a hiccup, a deep breath before starting something strenuous, a machine readying itself before picking up a piece of work. The pause is brief, less than a second. And then, with a decisive click, the gear engages.


David Potash

Chicago’s Block Clubs

Chicago is often described as “a city of neighborhoods” and there is much to that claim. When meeting someone from Chicago, more often than not they will immediately volunteer their neighborhood. “Oh, I’m a South Sider” or “Wrigleyville” or “Bronzeville.” It seems to be especially true for life-long residents of the city.

Historically, local Chicago communities have carried a host of associations along with their geographical boundaries. Neighborhoods were known for certain industries or employment (steel, meatpacking, transportation), with a particular race or ethnicity, or for a parish or organization. Neighbors were invested in their local community. Figuring out the nature and meaning of that local attachment is the focus of Amanda I. Seligman’s Chicago’s Block Clubs: How Neighbors Shape the City. A professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Seligman is interested in urban history and questions of community.

The book is closely researched hyper-local history about activities for which there is often little by way of written record. Seligman overcame the research challenges by working, in her words, where there was archive material – in the light. Block clubs are informal neighborhood groups. Totally voluntary, they became a fixture of Chicago in the early half of the 1900s initially through the efforts of the Chicago Urban League to help African-Americans in the great migration north. They were not just for African-Americans, though. Many other groups organized and supported block clubs. Clubs sprouted throughout the city during World War II. The numbers of block clubs have declined – bearing in mind that there is no official “count” – but they still are an important part of the Chicago landscape.

Anchoring the book are the records of the Hyde Park Kenwood Community Conference, a block club with a robust archive. Herbert Thelen, a long-time professor of education at the University of Chicago, was HPKCC’s driving force. Seligman’s book, interestingly, does not study block clubs through chronology and the shifting priorities of Chicago’s history. Instead, she organized her observations into clusters: why block clubs matter, how they were developed, and their primary functions – beautification, local improvements, sanitation and regulation. We gain a strong sense of on-the-ground dynamics and activities, but missing are the clubs’ roles in the larger context of Chicago politics, economics, and change.

David Potash


Which Side Is The Other Side?

Natalie Y. Moore is a product of the South Side of Chicago. For those who do not know Chicago, “North Side” and “South Side” conjure up much more than a region. They embody a history, a mindset, and a way of life, separate and distinct from each other. They are often about race and ethnicity. Many who live in the city think of their home as a neighborhood, not the larger city. In all there are 77 of neighborhoods and together they make Chicago a fascinating and dynamic metropolis. Yet the sides of the city are not easily thought of as one, as expertly chronicled by Moore in her book, The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation. Racism and geography can create destiny.

south-sideMoore is a journalist. She reports on the South Side for WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR station. She has covered other cities and other countries. Her writing is in newspapers and national publications. Her investigation into the South Side is in great part informed by her reporting skills. She brings history, politics, economics, and culture to bear explaining the who, what, where, when and how of the South Side of Chicago. Starting with a clear-eyed look at the terrible history of racism in the city, Moore examines housing policy and practice. She describes red-lining, economic exploitation based on race, and the myriad of failure of the Chicago Housing Authority. Moore anchors housing in the local histories of neighborhoods unable to shake free from poverty. It is a story of generations trapped.

Training her eyes on Chicago’s public schools, Moore paints an equally chilling picture of segregation. Chicago actively resisted calls and judgments to integrate its school system, despite marches and protests and well-meaning pressure from progressives of all stripes. Her chapter on CPS is titled “Separate and Still Unequal.” Class matters, too, and Moore is equally sharp when looking at grocery stores, food stores and restaurants across the city. On one level, her book is a study of the effects of systemic racism.

The South Side is more than a work of journalism, however. Moore is no embed reporting to a distant and curious public. She is fiercely proud of her city. She loves the South Side, warts and all, and wants readers to understand and appreciate it. A resentment to those that would demean it givers her prose attitude and passion.

Moore grew up in Chatham, an African-American neighborhood that had been an Italian, Hungarian and Irish neighborhood in earlier decades. After World War II the whites moved out and black families moved in. Chatham provided a solid foundation for Moore’s childhood and she found a home in Sutherland, an integrated CPS elementary school in nearby Beverly. For high school, she attended Morgan Park HS, which was known for its college preparatory program. When Moore was a student it was mostly black, with white and Hispanic students. (Today it is 97% black – segregation in schools for much of the city has significantly increased). Moore looks back on her high school education fondly and is proud to call herself a product of CPS.

She rails against the violence in the city – and is equally angered at those who label the city with a broad brush of little but racism, crime and despair. Fear is increasing, she writes, even as overall rates of homicide, measured not year to year but over the long-term, is down. Moore wants policy discussions about violence to be guided by facts, not emotion. She sees the underlying economic problems and high levels of unemployment as the real issue. Looking to leaders like Harold Washington, Moore believes that Chicago can build political coalitions to push back against racism and segregation.

Moore works to end her book on a positive note. She talks with activists, academics, artists and legislators, arguing that change is possible.

Don’t read The South Side to look for policy suggestions. Don’t study it expecting an agenda for future mayors and aldermen. Instead, Moore wants us to reconsider, reappraise and appreciate the South Side. She tackled the task with integrity and care.

David Potash