One Christmas Day, Alex Kotlowitz was strolling through Chicago's Henry Horner projects with Lafeyette and Pharoah, the protagonists of his first book, after sharing a holiday meal with the young black boys and their family. Suddenly, they were approached by a white, female police officer. "Are you okay?" she asked, looking directly at Kotlowitz. A few weeks later, Kotlowitz and Pharoah were shopping for sneakers in downtown Chicago when a black man approached them. "Is everything okay?" he asked. This time the question was directed at Pharoah. In a white neighborhood, Kotlowitz was perceived as imperiled; in a black neighborhood, the two boys were potential victims. "Such is the state of race relations today," Kotlowitz says. "We view the world through such distinct prisms, having everything to do with our personal and collective experiences."
America's vexed relationship with race, the drama of ordinary lives on either side of a divide—these are Kotlowitz's subjects. In There Are No Children Here (1991), he chronicles two years in the lives of Lafeyette and Pharoah. His second book, The Other Side of the River (1998), explores the death of a black teenager in Michigan as a screen onto which two adjacent towns—one black and one white—project their resentments and fears.
The son of writer Robert Kotlowitz, Alex Kotlowitz grew up in a book-filled house in New York City. He graduated from Wesleyan University and worked on a cattle ranch in Oregon before landing his first reporting job at an alternative weekly paper in Lansing, Michigan. He spent much of the next five years freelancing for National Public Radio and was hired in 1984 by the Chicago bureau of The Wall Street Journal.
In 1987, Kotlowitz wrote an article in The Wall Street Journal about the effect growing up amidst violence was having on the lives of Lafeyette and Pharoah. Published in 1991, the book was a surprise bestseller and became a made-for-television film by Oprah Winfrey.
In 1992, when riots broke out in Los Angeles in response to the verdict of the Rodney King trial, Kotlowitz suggested to his editors that he write about the reaction to the trial in two small communities in southwestern Michigan, Benton Harbor and St. Joseph.
While there, Kotlowitz heard the story of Eric McGinnis's death. A sixteen-year-old black boy, McGinnis had been found floating in the St. Joseph River. Each town had reached starkly different conclusions about the circumstances of his death—and that divide became Kotlowitz's subject.
He left The Wall Street Journal in 1993 and spent four years on The Other Side of the River. Aside from its poetic language and narrative daring, the most remarkable thing about The Other Side of the River is its utter break—structurally, thematically—from There Are No Children Here.
In addition to his writing, Kotlowitz returned to radio in 2003, winning a Peabody Award for coproducing "Stories of Home," a collection of audio essays that aired on Chicago Public Radio. His most recent writing project is Never a City So Real (2004), a book about Chicago.
Never a City So Real, Crown, 2004
The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America’s Dilemma, Nan A. Talese, 1998
There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America, Nan A. Talese, 1991
"The Limits of Sanctuary Cities", The New Yorker, November 23, 2016
"Solving Chicago's Murders Could Prevent More", The New Yorker, September 20, 2016
"Review of ‘The Prize,’ by Dale Russakoff", The New York Times Book Review, August 19, 2015
"Deep Cover: A review of Alice Goffman’s ‘On the Run’", The New York Times Book Review, June 29, 2014
"The Price of Public Violence", The New York Times, February 24, 2013
"Are We Asking Too Much From Our Teachers?", The New York Times, September 16, 2012
"Khalid", Granta, Summer 2009
"All Boarded Up", The New York Times Magazine, March 8, 2009
"Blocking the Transmission of Violence", The New York Times Magazine, May 4, 2008
"Our Town", The New York Times Magazine, August 5, 2007
"Aslylum for the World's Battered Women", The New York Times Magazine, February 11, 2007
"The Smuggler's Due", The New York Times Magazine, June 11, 2006
"The Politics of Ibrahim Parlak", The New York Times Magazine, March 20, 2005
"In the Face of Death", New York Times Magazine, July 6, 2003
"Love Stories: A collection", Chicago Public Radio, Spring 2003
"Let’s Get Married", PBS Frontline, November 2002
"The Trenchcoat Robbers", New Yorker, July 8, 2002
"Stories of Home: A collection", Chicago Public Radio, Spring 2002
"Where is Everyone Going?", The Chicago Tribune Magazine, March 10, 2002
"Cicero, Illinois: What's Past Is Present", Atlantic Monthly, November 2001
"Cicero", This American Life, March 16, 2001
"I Got the Sheriff", New Yorker, September 25, 2000
"Through the Clouds", The Washington Post Magazine, March 12, 2000
"The Execution of Youth", New Yorker, January 17, 2000
"The Unprotected", New Yorker, February 8, 1999
"The High School at the End of the Road", New York Times Magazine, July 5, 1998
"James Cox", Rolling Stone, May 28, 1998
"Colorblind", New York Times Magazine, January 11, 1998
"Getting to Know One Another, Again and Again", New York Times Magazine, March 9, 1997
"Upward Fragility", New York Times Magazine, April 2, 1995
"A Bridge Too Far? Benjamin Chavis", New York Times Magazine, June 12, 1994
"Their Crimes Don’t Make Them Adults", New York Times Magazine, February 13, 1994
Interviews and Reviews
Random House’s author page,
Remarks on receiving his Studs Terkel Award, March 24, 2004
Q&A, Northwestern University’s The Chronicle, November 20, 2003
Lewis, Kathryn, “Review: There Are No Children Here,” The Nation, October 1, 2003
As a guest on Talk of the Nation, “Rebuilding Cities After Riots,” Talk of the Nation, NPR, June 24, 2003
Interview about Benton Harbor riots, “The Other Side of the River,” Morning Edition, NPR, June 20, 2003
Interview about Benton Harbor Riots, “Calm Returns to Benton Harbor After Riots,”, NPR, June 20, 2003
Commentary, “Are the Conservatives Right?,” Frontline, November 14, 2002
“Let’s Get Married,” Frontline, Documentary for which Kotlowitz was a correspondent, November 11, 2002
Review: The Other Side of the River, Salon, Williams, Paige, January 29, 1998
Interview about The Other Side of the River, All Things Considered, NPR, January 13, 1998