Stories & Essays

The Smugglers' Due

The New York Times Magazine

I was introduced to Deng Chen through an attorney who had helped him with some legal matters. Her specialty is trafficking, and when I told her I was doing some research on human smuggling and its victims, she cautioned me to be careful about using the word "victim" and, more to the point, not to confuse trafficking, which involves coercion, with smuggling, which is by choice.

The Trenchcoat Robbers

The New Yorker

Even those who were close to Ray Bowman didn’t know him very well. He led an unadorned life on the outskirts of Kansas City, Missouri, in a small ranch house that he shared with his longtime girlfriend, Jenny Delamotte, their two daughters, and Delamotte’s daughter from an earlier relationship. Bowman sold lawnmowers and worked as a private investigator-at least, that’s what he told his friends and his family-but he seemed to have a lot of time on his hands. He frequently disappeared for weeks, never telling Delamotte where he was going.


The New York Times Magazine

One Christmas day seven years ago, I’d gone over to the Henry Horner Homes in Chicago to visit with Lafeyette and Pharoah, the subjects of my book There Are No Children Here. I had brought presents for the boys, as well as a gift for their friend Rickey, who lived on the other side of the housing complex, an area controlled by a rival gang. Lafeyette and Pharoah insisted on walking over with me. It was eerily quiet, since most everyone was inside, and so, bundled from the cold, we strolled toward the other end in silence.

In the Face of Death

The New York Times Magazine

At 2:40 a.m. on Aug. 26, 1998, along a main drag on the west side of Indianapolis, 18-year-old Jeremy Gross approached a convenience store with a friend. They intended to rob it. At 5-foot-8 and of slender build, Gross was not particularly physically imposing, and he had a distant look about him. He wore his blond hair in a bowl cut and often seemed nervous and fidgety. He knew the store well, since he worked there part time, and he also knew the young man, Christopher Beers, who was the lone clerk that morning.

Getting to Know One Another Again and Again

The New York Times Magazine

Jan. 10, 1997

Dear Alex,

I woke up this morning wondering whether you and your brother, Dan, ever think about me as being 72. Do you? Does Dan? Because I do and sometimes a lot – when the future suddenly shrinks as a possibility in an especially constricted way, when the average age in the daily obituaries suddenly plunges (often, it seems), when energy goes slack and there are clearly no second breaths or reserves for the moment, when I calculate how old I will be (80!) when your daughter is merely 10, when … as you can see there is always an occasion. And the number itself, 72, has a real heft to it; so does the concept, as everyone knows, whatever they may pretend.

The Politics of Ibrahim Parlak

The New York Times Magazine

This is a story about the trickery of time. Sometimes the world changes on a dime, as it did on Sept. 11, and with the transformation of the present, the past, too, can suddenly take on a different hue. This, it seems, is what happened to Ibrahim Parlak. Indeed, it’s tough to choose the tense in which to tell his story. He runs — or ran — a Middle Eastern restaurant. It’s in Harbert, Mich., a small summer resort town, an hour and a half by car from Chicago, along the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Recalling David Halberstam

The Chicago Tribune

In the spring of 1960, my dad, who worked at RCA Victor, was assigned to accompany Elvis Presley home to Nashville from Ft. Dix, N.J. Elvis, who had just returned from his service in the Army, was about to make his first recording for RCA.

Off the Grid

writer-in-residence blog for Chicago Magazine

The Trauma of Violence and Our Broken Communities

Fifteen years ago, I was on vacation with my family in upstate New York, when late one night I got a phone call from a homicide detective I knew from the West Side. She was calling from my house. Pharoah Rivers, one of the boys I wrote about in There Are No Children Here, was staying with us, and earlier that evening he’d taken a cab from our home in Oak Park to his mom’s home on the West Side. The detective told me that when the cab pulled up in the city, two men approached the car. One of them yanked Pharoah out, and they then both rushed into the backseat. As they tried to rob the cab driver, something went amiss, and they shot and killed him. The detective wanted us to know that Pharoah was okay, that he was back at our house, in shock.



Chicago is one of America’s most iconic, historic, and fascinating cities. For Alex Kotlowitz, an accidental Chicagoan, it is the perfect perch from which to peer into America’s heart.

Separated by a river, St. Joseph and Benton Harbor are two Michigan towns that are geographically close, yet worlds apart. St. Joseph is a prosperous, predominately white lakeshore community while Benton Harbor is impoverished and predominately black. When the body of Eric McGinnis, a black teenage boy from Benton Harbor, is found in the river that separates the towns, relations between the two communities grow increasingly strained as longheld misperceptions and attitudes surface. 

There Are No Children Here chronicles two years in the lives of two boys, Lafeyette and Pharoah, struggling to survive in Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes, a public housing complex disfigured by crime and neglect. 

© 2018, Alex Kotlowitz. All rights reserved