By Alex Kotlowitz

Doubleday -- 324pp -- $21.95

On Mar. 30, a 14-year-old girl from a Chicago housing project was shot in the face after arguing with a man police say stole her cigarettes. Her death got a brief mention in the metro section of the Chicago Tribune two days later. The Chicago Sun-Times ignored it. In a city that remains one of the nation's most segregated, black children are often victims of brutal crime. One more death is hardly news.

That's one reason Alex Kotlowitz, a reporter in The Wall Street Journal's Chicago bureau, wrote There Are No Children Here. Kotlowitz says he hoped "a book about the children would make us all hear, that it would make us all stop and listen." To that end, he has fashioned a powerful work. Through deeply affecting portraits of two brothers in the Governor Henry Horner Homes on the city's West Side, Kotlowitz makes vivid the terrors of growing up in the projects. He confronts us with the daily experience of Pharoah and Lafeyette Rivers, 9 and 11 years old at the outset, over two years.

Perhaps the book can help narrow the compassion gap between mainstream Americans and the inner-city poor. It certainly shows how wide that gap is. In the opening, we see Pharoah, Lafeyette, and some other boys playing in a field by some railroad tracks. It's the summer of 1987, and they're trying to catch snakes. When a train carrying mostly white commuters approaches, the boys dive for cover. One bursts into tears. All have heard that the suburbanites shoot at black kids from behind the tinted train windows, because they're trespassing on the tracks. Kotlowitz notes that commuters, equally frightened of the kids, often move away from the windows as the train passes through the city's blighted core.

In 1956, when the boys' maternal grandparents moved into the homes, public housing projects seemed an impressive effort to shelter the less fortunate. The complex of high rises boasted a new playground and a grass baseball diamond. Lafeyette and Pharoah's mother, LaJoe, who grew up in the building they live in, attended Girl Scout meetings and roller-skating parties in the basement. Members of the family were active in politics and were friendly with the neighborhood's white alderman. Two of them worked for city agencies.

Since then, there has been a terrible transformation. The boys and their family often huddle against the walls of their first-floor apartment as gangs exchange gunfire outside. LaJoe, the unemployed mother of eight, heads the family; her husband, an alcoholic and heroin addict, is often absent. Fourteen-year-olds in the projects can earn $600 in a week--more than LaJoe gets from welfare in a month--running drugs.

While most kids wonder what they'll be when they grow up, Lafeyette and Pharoah wonder if they'll grow up at all. LaJoe, for her part, wonders if the apartment was once used by an abortionist who flushed fetuses down the toilet, because a horrible smell issues from it. The building manager finds, instead, that the basement is full of rotting animal carcasses and human and animal excrement. Months pass before the mess is removed by workers in gas masks.

When we meet the brothers, the gang warfare is at a hot-weather high. The younger one, Pharoah, "now trembled at any loud noise," Kotlowitz writes. "While bullets tore past the living room window, Pharoah had pleaded . . . `M-m-m-m-mamma, make'em, make'em stop!' As the gunfire continued, he fainted."

Sometimes Pharoah won't talk about the violence and death all around. Other times, he can't, because of a worsening stutter. When an older brother gets 10 years in prison for armed robbery, Pharoah says: "Mama, I'm just too young to understand how life really is." One night, LaJoe finds him crawling in the hallway, still asleep, while automatic weapons rat-a-tat-tat outside. A few days later, Pharoah says: "I worry about dying, dying at a young age."

Lafeyette also suffers, especially after his friend Bird Leg is shot to death. At the funeral, a friend tells him: "We're gonna die one way or the other by killing or plain out. I just wanna die plain out." Lafeyette nods: "Me too." Soon after, a teenager he admires is killed in a questionable shooting by an agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms. Lafeyette is plagued by nightmares and diarrhea. He tells LaJoe: "Mama, I'm real tired. . . . Anytime I go outside, I ain't guaranteed to come back."

But the boys are also brave and resilient. During one shoot-out, LaJoe must stop Lafeyette from running out to bring his brother safely inside. Pharoah studies hard in the crowded apartment to prepare for a spelling bee. Not only does he overcome his stutter during the bee, he places second. Kotlowitz says Pharoah clutches childhood "with the vigor of a tiger gripping his meat." He reads Old Yeller, watches cartoons, saves for video games and candy. When the boys see their first rainbow, he chases through the bleak neighborhood looking for a pot of gold. Lafeyette calls that "kiddie stuff" and stays behind. But later, he wonders whether "I could have found some real little peoples and they'd of been my friends . . ."

Readers can't help but care about Lafeyette and Pharoah. It's not surprising that Kotlowitz does, too. He has given them money for private school, taken them on fishing trips, and bought them jeans and sneakers. With proceeds from his book, he plans to set up a trust fund for them. Kotlowitz could be faulted for abandoning his objectivity. But at least, unlike most of the world outside the projects, he hasn't abandoned the boys.

Julia Flynn Siler

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE