Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York's Underground Economyby Sudhir Venkatesh
Sudhir Venkatesh, acclaimed sociologist at Columbia
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New York is a city of highs and lows, where wealthy elites share the streets with desperate immigrants and destitute locals. Bridging this economic divide is New York’s underground economy, the invisible network of illicit transactions between rich and poor that secretly weaves together the whole city.
Sudhir Venkatesh, acclaimed sociologist at Columbia University and author of Gang Leader for a Day, returns to the streets to connect the dots of New York’s divergent economic worlds and crack the code of the city’s underground economy. Based on Venkatesh’s interviews with prostitutes and socialites, immigrants and academics, high end drug bosses and street-level dealers, Floating City exposes the underground as the city’s true engine of social transformation and economic prosperity—revealing a wholly unprecedented vision of New York.
A memoir of sociological investigation, Floating City draws from Venkatesh’s decade of research within the affluent communities of Upper East Side socialites and Midtown businessmen, the drug gangs of Harlem and the sex workers of Brooklyn, the artists of Tribeca and the escort services of Hell’s Kitchen. Venkatesh arrived in the city after his groundbreaking research in Chicago, where crime remained stubbornly local: gangs stuck to their housing projects and criminals stayed on their corners. But in Floating City, Venkatesh discovers that New York’s underground economy unites instead of divides inhabitants: a vast network of “off the books” transactions linking the high and low worlds of the city. Venkatesh shows how dealing in drugs and sex and undocumented labor bridges the conventional divides between rich and poor, unmasking a city knit together by the invisible threads of the underground economy.
Venkatesh closely follows a dozen New Yorkers locked in the underground economy. His greatest guide is Shine, an African American drug boss based in Harlem who hopes to break into the elusive, upscale cocaine market. Without connections among wealthy whites, Shine undertakes an audacious campaign of self-reinvention, leaving behind the certainties of race and class with all the drive of the greatest entrepreneurs. As Shine explains to Venkatesh, “This is New York! We’re like hummingbirds, man. We go flower to flower. . . . Here, you need to float.”
Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York’s Underground Economy chronicles Venkatesh’s decade of discovery and loss in the shifting terrain of New York, where research subjects might disappear suddenly and new allies emerge by chance, where close friends might reveal themselves to be criminals of the lowest order. Propelled by Venkatesh’s numerous interviews and firsthand research, Floating City at its heart is a story of one man struggling to understand a complex global city constantly in the throes of becoming.
A well-known sociologist explores how the underground economy is dissolving racial and class barriers in an increasingly globalized New York City. Although Venkatesh (Sociology/Columbia Univ.; Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets, 2008, etc.) established his career via his penetrating studies of the Chicago underclass, he declares that in New York, a "new world of permeable borders beckoned [where] the criminal underworld interacts with the mainstream world to make the world of the future." He notes that although the book grew out of research conducted since 1997 on sex workers and the underground economy in these cities, it is not strictly academic but also contains elements of memoir. After establishing his essential thesis about New York's new permeability among ambitious residents willing to "float," he delves into more specific social narratives, beginning with the lives of Indian video store workers and aging Hispanic prostitutes against the backdrop of Manhattan's Giuliani-era gentrification. Venkatesh then moves on to a nuanced portrait of a Harlem cocaine dealer trying to decode the lucrative downtown (white) market (a section reminiscent of his previous book) and to the noirish lives of several women attempting to be successful as managers of upscale prostitutes. These women discussed the "large numbers of women [arriving] in New York with a surprising new openness to the idea of using sex work to supplement poorly paying straight jobs." The author displays a piercing sense of empathy and ability to translate dry sociological principles into an understanding of the difficult lives of the urban poor. Less effective are his reveries on his own changing personal circumstances, which include divorce and the struggles of academic careerism, and his attempts to observe the feckless social and career rituals of Manhattan's youthful upper class. Although the overall narrative is unwieldy and at times indulgent, Venkatesh has established a singular voice in urban sociology, and his immersive research and insights remain penetrating and unique. Will appeal to readers fascinated by the intersections of class, prosperity and crime.
“If you live in the New York of Shake Shack burgers and business meetings at the W Hotel, you should read Sudhir Venkatesh’s Floating City…. If it’s criminal or iniquitous and happens here, it’s probably to be found in this book.”
“Compelling…. Like the acclaimed writer Katherine Boo, Venkatesh is interested in deep research, in spending years with subjects and piecing together a detailed portrait. Unlike Boo, Venkatesh is present in his books. He has crossed the line and entered the scene.”
New York Daily News:
“Entire human ecosystems exist undocumented and hidden from view. That Venkatesh can bring them to the surface—if only for brief flashes of their existence—illuminates the worldview of future sociologists, policy-makers, students and citizens.”
Publishers Weekly (starred):
"[A] fascinating X-ray of the city...Venkatesh's engrossing narrative dissects the intricacies of illegal commerce and the subtle ways it both divides and entwines different classes and races, while painting rich, novelistic portraits of its participants and their dreams of self-reinvention."
“Venkatesh displays a piercing sense of empathy and ability to translate dry sociological principles into an understanding of the difficult lives of the urban poor....[He] has established a singular voice in urban sociology, and his immersive research and insights remain penetrating and unique.”
“Venkatesh has a talent for transforming ethnographic observations into character-driven accounts. [Floating City] is an exciting and compelling work....Readers interested in the daily workings of the illicit economy will be fascinated by the complexities and contradictions of the underground economy that Venkatesh details.”
“Venkatesh brings to life the underground economy of New York, where rich and poor and various ethnicities and backgrounds meet and function while they ‘float.’ An enlightening read.”
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Read an Excerpt
We reached a dark staircase in the back of the strip club; he pushed me up one flight, then pressed me against the wall with his massive palm while his other hand rapped on a metal door. Inside sat three extras from a John Cassavettes movie – a young woman in lingerie and two middle-aged men with gaunt faces and greased black hair combed back over their heads. One of them had a calculator in his hand, the other played with a small rubber band. Both had unbuttoned shirts and silver chains in their chest hair. Both shot me bored looks as the half-naked girl continued with what she was saying.
“The best thing about me, I don’t flake out like some girls. I’m dependable.”
“I wouldn’t even know what that means, sweetheart,” said the man with the calculator.
“I’ll be here,” she continued. “I’ll show up when I say I’m gonna show up – and I’ll be ready to do my thing.”
Unimpressed, the man with the rubber band looked at the security guard, then at me. “Who’s this guy?”
The guard tightened his grip on my arm. “He’s been snooping around.”
“I’m a sociologist,” I said. “I’m doing a study of sex work in New York, and how people make money in clubs.”
The man with the calculator laughed. The man with the rubber band shook his head. “What is it with you people?” He turned to his partner. “Must be, what, the fourth guy wants to study us? This year? Look, a little advice: none of these girls want your free condoms and nobody needs an AIDS test. Why don’t you go looking for people under bridges or somewhere who really need the fucking help?”
Clearly, he was a bit shaky on the concept of sociology. “I’m not a social worker,” I said.
“You don’t want to help?” said the man with the rubber band. “Why don’t you want to help?” said the woman in lingerie. All three pairs of eyes focused on me.
“I think it’s important to just to know what people do for a living,” I said. “To really know. How much they make, how hard is it, why do they do it, who are they, things like that.”
“How hard is it?” the woman in lingerie repeated. “It’s hard, baby! I’ll fill your ear with that.”
The man with the calculator turned his palms up. “Yo, sweetheart.”
She went silent, looking away.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day
—The New York Times
“Compelling . . . dramatic. . . . Venkatesh gives readers a window into a way of life that few Americans understand.”
“An eye-opening account into an underserved city within the city.”
“A rich portrait of the urban poor, drawn not from statistics but from vivid tales of their lives and [Venkatesh’s], and how they intertwined.”
—The Economist (A Best Book of the Year)
Meet the Author
Sudhir Venkatesh is the William B. Ransford Professor of Sociology and a member of the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University. His most recent book is Gang Leader for a Day, a New York Times bestseller that received a best book of the year award from The Economist. Venkatesh’s writings have appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Washington Post. He lives in New York City.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Floating City vaguely begins where Venkatesh's previous autobiographical account Gang Leader for a Day left off: he leaves Chicago for NYC as a new professor at Columbia University. Though he already has contacts in the City's underground economy from some of his informants from his dissertation, the premise of Floating City is that he eventually realizes NYC needs a different kind of sociology altogether. While this is in-and-of itself problematic because all cities have the kind of underground networks he postulates as ‘unique’ to NYC, albeit through very different geographies, more problematic is his 'me-search' narrative. More specifically, the constant dialogue running through the book about his own type of research versus the sociological 'formalistic' approaches practiced by his colleagues gets old by the second chapter but keeps on going to the bitter end. There were some interesting parts of the book. For example, his connections with the young white elite, a few of whom have gotten themselves involved in the underground economy more out of greed and the thrill of it then about survival, is interesting. But Floating City falls flat because Venkatesh let his ego get in the way of a what could of been a really good book. I rate this book as good because I don't regret reading it, but I probably won't recommend it to others.