TOPICS > Politics

The Other Chicago

August 29, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM. LEHRER: And speaking of the cities, we go now to a Gergen dialogue. David Gergen, editor-at-large of “U.S. News & World Report,” talks to Alex Kotlowitz, journalist and author of the prize-winning 1991 book “There Are No Children Here.” This week, he wrote a story that was part of the “Chicago Tribune’s” convention coverage entitled “The Quiet Riot Next Door.” David.

DAVID GERGEN, U.S. News & World Report: Thanks, Jim. Alex, you’ve written extensively and poignantly about the neighborhoods that surround this convention hall. And I’d like to ask you tonight about the relevance of this convention to the people living in those neighborhoods, but before we get there, tell us what these neighborhoods are like.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ, Author, “There Are No Children Here”: Sure. You know, the convention sits in the heart of Chicago’s West Side, a five-mile stretch of I think what most of us consider Americans’ urban under-class. And I think what’s so striking is not so much what is there but what isn’t there as you walk through the neighborhoods that comprise Chicago’s West Side. There are few banks, mostly currency exchanges. There’s not a single movie theater in this five-mile stretch. There are no bowling alleys or skating rinks for the kids. Until two years ago, there was not a library in this neighborhood immediately surrounding the convention center. There are few restaurants, the very institutions that most of us take for granted and the very institutions that make up community.

DAVID GERGEN: You said you wanted, before we went on the air, you went to a classroom here and asked kids how many had seen a stabbing or a shooting.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Right. I had gone to a seventh grade class at the Brown Elementary School that sits just a block away from where we speak right now. And I asked them what I think has probably become a fairly familiar repertorial question, and that is, how many of you have seen somebody shot or stabbed, and all but two or three hands went up in the class, and I then asked them how many people they thought in my forty years I have seen shot or stabbed, and the estimates ranged five, six, seven people, and I had to tell them that in my forty years I’ve never seen anybody shot or stabbed, and that my experience was considerably more typical than theirs.

DAVID GERGEN: And these conditions have been getting worse in recent years?

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: There’s no question in my mind that as bad as things were in the mid 1980’s as crack cocaine began to make an entre into these communities that things are considerably worse now.

DAVID GERGEN: Now tell me, amidst all the swirl of controversy here–we’ve been hearing about Dick Morris tonight–and everybody of course in the hall is waiting for President Clinton to make his speech tonight. How relevant is a convention like this to the people who live in these communities?

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Very little, if any. I mean, I’ve heard very little discussion over the past few days on any of the issues that would directly affect people living in the neighborhood surrounding the convention center. There’s been very little talk about what we’re going to do about public housing, about what we’re going to do about bringing jobs back into these communities, about what we’re going to do about financing of public schools. We’re talking about schools that don’t provide art or music classes. So I’ve heard very little that’s directly relevant to the lives of these people.

DAVID GERGEN: Have you been comfortable with the conversations about children? In the convention here we’ve heard a great deal about it–


DAVID GERGEN: –in both Republican and Democratic conventions.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Well, certainly children and families have been the theme of both conventions, and I think what we’ve missed in all of this is discussion about the most vulnerable among us, and that is children who are growing up in poverty. I’ve heard virtually no discussion about that.

DAVID GERGEN: President Clinton tonight is expected to propose a program of–for welfare job–welfare-to-work–it’s a $3.4 billion program. How adequate do you think that will be to address the needs of these communities as you see them?

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Well, I think it’ll be terribly inadequate. I mean, I think we’re talking about communities in which as many as 50 to 60 percent of the adults are not working. I think part of what the President is going to propose tonight is right out of the Republican play book, the idea that we can somehow guide social policy through tax cuts or tax breaks. And we’ve seen that that hasn’t worked. The enterprise zones have not had much effect in these neighborhoods. I think we’ve got to be much more affirmative and much more constructive and talking about bringing work back into these communities.

DAVID GERGEN: Well, William Julius Wilson, the sociologist who’s just published a book, of course, about Chicago, and he’s going to be on the NewsHour soon, I wanted to ask you, he pushes or advocates a notion of a WPA, revived WPA, public works and public service jobs as the answer. Now, of course, many people feel those have been discredited. I’m curious how you feel today.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Well, I think if you walk through Chicago’s West Side, it’s clear that there’s a great deal that we can do in rebuilding infrastructure. And it seems to me that it would be very logical, at least in the beginning, the first five, ten years of whatever jobs program we put together, to perhaps put people back to work in their own communities. And, in fact, we see this going on in some public housing complexes in which they’re training tenants to work in repairing and maintaining public housing. So you see the very sort of small kind of public works program going on there, and, in fact, it has worked. And I think that we’re going to have to take a very strong look at having the federal government play a role in creating jobs.

DAVID GERGEN: So from your experience, all this talk about devolution and pushing power back to the states from the federal government, that’s something you oppose then?

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Yeah. I find it somewhat scary, particularly when we talk about such a national concern as welfare and poverty. I think we need to have federal standards. We need to have national standards in place. This is not to suggest that we can’t rely or shouldn’t rely on community-based organizations. But there’s no question that there’s a very distinct and clear role for the federal government.

DAVID GERGEN: Alex, thank you very much, and good luck to you.