In his latest book, celebrated journalist and author Alex Kotlowitz illuminates Chicago through the stories of people at street level.
Kotlowitz, currently a writer-in-residence at Northwestern, read selections from Never a City So Real at an event sponsored by the Center for the Writing Arts.
As a contributor to the Crown Publishing series on fascinating places, Kotlowitz hoped to write about Michigan. "I'm an avid canoeist," he told the crowd, "and I thought I'd spend a few months in the Upper Peninsula. But when my agent told me they wanted me to write about Chicago, my heart sank," he said.
"What is there left to say?" he remembered asking himself.
Kotlowitz recalled what author Richard Wright once wrote about Chicago when he called it the known city and referred to the wealth of literature, classic and contemporary, dedicated to Chicago.
He decided he couldn't write about City Hall or the Board of Trade. So he did what he does best. He looked to the people on the margins, those who are outsiders by race, class, geography or circumstance.
Having grown up in New York — he's lived in Chicago for more than 20 years — he knows the outside perspective. "Think about it," he said, ticking off the names and achievements of, among others, Frank Lloyd Wright, Montgomery Ward and Jane Addams. "Chicago is a place where outsiders have thrived."
While perhaps not thriving, the subjects of Never a City So Real are survivors. His collection of essays, or portraits, as he called them, introduces a single mother living on the West Side, a former steelworker, a soul food restaurateur and a muralist who paints over the drab cinderblock walls of housing projects.
The muralist, Milton Reed, tried to make people feel good by painting for them a visual refuge from their dank neighborhoods, Kotlowitz writes. When word caught on about his skill in creating serene landscapes with lakes and trees, he began to take on projects of a wider subject range. In the case of a woman who apparently needed to work out some anger, Reed painted a scene of her pushing her boyfriend out the window of her high-rise apartment.
After reading from the book, Kotlowitz played a sneak preview of radio pieces he has produced for Chicago Public Radio. Those pieces will be broadcast in February.