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Five Great Reads by Alex Kotlowitz

Chicagomag.com’s first writer-in-residence on race, Vivian Meier, stick-up men, exchanging letters with his father, and more.

This Friday, we’ll be launching a blog called Off the Grid: Dispatches from Chicago’s Writers-in-Residence, which debuts with one of the city’s great journalists, Alex Kotlowitz. Likely you know Kotlowitz from one of his three books; the documentary The Interrupters, which emerged from his 2008 New York Times Magazine piece on CeaseFire; or his many appearances on This American Life, most recently to talk with Bernie Epton’s children and the 1983 mayoral election.

If you’re new to his work, or just want to dive back into his archive, here are five excellent pieces from his work over the years:

* “Colorblind,” New York Times Magazine, 1998. A reflection on traveling back and forth between white and black communities in the course of his work, and the myths we tell ourselves about race.

* “The Best Street Photographer You’ve Never Heard Of,” Mother Jones, 2011. Kotlowitz’s essay on the great, recently discovered work of Chicago photographer Vivian Maier. My favorite part is a quote he gets from his friend, artist and playwright Tony Fitzpatrick: “She made them for all the right reasons. She made them to hold on to her place in the world. She made them because to not make them was impossible. She had no choice.”

* “Getting to Know One Another, Again and Again,” New York Times Magazine, 1997. An exchange of letters between two writers—Kotlowitz and his father, Robert Kotlowitz. “Pay attention. Memories can mean renewal; sometimes they offer a second chance at life.”

* “Who Is Watching Out for the Children?”, Illinois Issues, 2000. About a 16-year-old accused of committing a murder when he was 14 years old, the history of juvenile court in the city that invented it, and how the justice system deals with children who commit serious crimes.

* “The Trenchcoat Robbers,” New Yorker, 2002. A long, gripping story about two of the most successful stick-up men of the 20th century, whose rein of low-profile crime lasted about as long as Jesse James’s did.

Another Kotlowitz appearance you might be interested in, in the ongoing wake of the London/Manchester riots, is a 2003 Talk of the Nation roundtable on rebuilding cities after riots, which followed the riots that year in Benton Harbor, Michigan. That city, and its neighbor St. Joseph, is the subject of his book 1999 book The Other Side of the River.

Bonus: Kotlowitz at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine on urban violence in Chicago:

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