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Alex Kotlowitz
Last December, in celebration of our 40th anniversary issue, we presented 40 reasons to love Chicago. Among the dozens of profiles, lists, photo spreads, and Q&As, I found myself gravitating toward three essays (25, 36, and 38) by Chicago-based writers.

They were short pieces about simple things—a diner in Lake View, suburban life in Forest Park, a retro plastic-molding souvenir machine—but they spoke volumes about Chicago and its character. Good writers have a way of doing that.

With this in mind, on Friday will launch a blog called Off the Grid: Dispatches from Chicago’s Writers-in-Residence. Every so often, we plan to feature a new writer who will post about topics of his or her choosing—anything from personal essays to reported pieces. The only requirement is that the stories be about Chicago and its people.

We’re thrilled, then, to introduce our inaugural writer-in-residence, Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here and The Other Side of the River. Kotlowitz also writes for The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and various other publications, and he contributes to WBEZ’s This American Life from time to time.

Most recently, Kotlowitz coproduced The Interrupters, a documentary inspired by a New York Times Magazine piece he wrote about the Chicago-based group CeaseFire and its "violence interrupter" program. The film, which was directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and follows the lives of three former gang members and their antiviolence efforts, premieres in Chicago on Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

On a personal note, I’m particularly excited to have Kotlowitz on board because he is a former professor of mine. During my senior year of college at Northwestern, I took a class taught by Alex called “Journalism of Empathy: Writing About Others.” While I agonized over every sentence I wrote for that class—and generally felt self-conscious about my work that entire quarter—I was struck by how gracious and encouraging Alex was in his instruction and editing.

Two years after graduating, I came across his last book, Never a City So Real, a collection of short stories about Chicago. To this day, it remains one of my favorite books about this town. I’m looking forward to reading more of the same from Alex—right here on


Photograph: Chicago Tribune