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Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Life at the Bottom, Part Two

LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago

In February 1993 David Isay decided to do a radio documentary about the lives of young black men growing up in Chicago's public housing projects for Chicago's WBEZ public radio station. After a series of interviews arranged through community workers and teachers he chose thirteen year-old LeAlan Jones and his fourteen year-old best friend Lloyd Newman. LeAlan and Lloyd lived in the Ida B. Wells Houses, one of Chicago's oldest black housing projects. Isay sent them off for ten days with tape recorders to describe their lives, their families, school, what they did for fun, and how things were in a community mostly ignored by the rest of the city. The result was Ghetto Life 101, which became one of the most celebrated public radio documentaries of all time.

"It's like Vietnam. I remember one time I was over at my auntie's house spending the night. We were playing Super Nintendo and I heard this lady say, "I heard you been looking for me, nigger!" Then she just - BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! She let off about eight shots. Then I heard the other gun fire off. And we were just still there playing like nothing happened. In Vietnam, them people came back crazy. I live in Vietnam, so what you think I'm gonna be if I live in it and they just went and visited? Living around here is depressing! It's depressing! Just look outside - this isn't Wally and the Beaver!" (p. 36)

Two years later David Isay returned to Chicago to do collaborate with LeAlan and Lloyd for a second documentary, Remorse: The Fourteen Stories of Eric Morse, about a five year-old boy dropped fourteen stories from the window of an Ida B. Wells building. The boys who dropped him were ten and eleven years old, and would go on to become the youngest children to ever be convicted on murder in the United States. In an attempt to understand what had led to the tragedy, LeAlan and Lloyd spent a year recording, doing interviews, and generally building the story into a full hour long feature for National Public Radio's All Things Considered. They talked to neighbors, the prosecutor, the state-appointed defence attorneys, school teachers, local cops, kids from the neighborhood, Tommy Jenkins (the incarcerated father of one of the boys), and Toni Morse, Eric's mother. They built a devastating critique of the amoral vacuum that is so much of modern ghetto life.

"They're talking about tearing down all the high-rises and putting everyone in low-rises as a solution. True, it's a start. But Tyron and Johnny could have thrown Eric out of a vacant apartment in the low-rises and he could have fallen and broken his neck. So what are you going to do - make the low-rise homes lower? It's more than just the buildings. You don't know how it is to take a life until you value life itself. Those boys didn't value life. Those boys didn't have too much reason to value life. Now they killed someone and a part of them is dead too." (p. 141)

This book is a collection of transcripts from Ghetto Life 101 and Remorse, including material unaired for lack of time, as well as a third section, Life, done by LeAlan and Lloyd in their junior year of high school, where they bring the reader up to date with their lives, their families' lives, and the events in the neighborhood since the end of Remorse. It's an excellent book, taking place as it does over a span of four years, and it benefits from being told directly from their perspective; often books and articles about America's poorer communities are written by middle-class liberals who, however well-meaning, are still communicating through their own perspective and whose reportage is inevitably colored by their own particular interests.

|| RPH || 10:15 PM || |