Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets

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Overview

A New York Times Bestseller
Foreword by Stephen J. Dubner, coauthor of
Freakonomics

When first-year graduate student Sudhir Venkatesh walked into an abandoned building in one of Chicago?s most notorious housing projects, he hoped to find a few people willing to take a multiple-choice survey on urban poverty?and impress his professors with his boldness. He never imagined that as a result of this assignment he would befriend a gang leader named ...

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Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets

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Overview

A New York Times Bestseller
Foreword by Stephen J. Dubner, coauthor of
Freakonomics

When first-year graduate student Sudhir Venkatesh walked into an abandoned building in one of Chicago’s most notorious housing projects, he hoped to find a few people willing to take a multiple-choice survey on urban poverty—and impress his professors with his boldness. He never imagined that as a result of this assignment he would befriend a gang leader named JT and spend the better part of a decade embedded inside the projects under JT’s protection. From a privileged position of unprecedented access, Venkatesh observed JT and the rest of his gang as they operated their crack-selling business, made peace with their neighbors, evaded the law, and rose up or fell within the ranks of the gang’s complex hierarchical structure. Examining the morally ambiguous, highly intricate, and often corrupt struggle to survive in an urban war zone, Gang Leader for a Day also tells the story of the complicated friendship that develops between Venkatesh and JT—two young and ambitious men a universe apart.

"Riveting." —The New York Times

"Compelling... dramatic... Venkatesh gives readers a window into a way of life that few Americans understand." —Newsweek

"An eye-opening account into an underserved city within the city." —Chicago Tribune

"The achievement of Gang Leader for a Day is to give the dry statistics a raw, beating heart."The Boston Globe

"A rich portrait of the urban poor, drawn not from statistics but from viivd tales of their lives and his, and how they intertwined." —The Economist

"A sensative, sympathetic, unpatronizing portrayal of lives that are ususally ignored or lumped into ill-defined stereotype." —Finanical Times

Sudhir Venkatesh’s latest book Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York’s Underground Economy—a memoir of sociological investigation revealing the true face of America’s most diverse city—was published in September 2013 by The Penguin Press

 
 

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Riveting." —The New York Times

"Compelling... dramatic... Venkatesh gives readers a window into a way of life that few Americans understand." —Newsweek

"An eye-opening account into an underserved city within the city." —Chicago Tribune

"The achievement of Gang Leader for a Day is to give the dry statistics a raw, beating heart." —The Boston Globe

"A rich portrait of the urban poor, drawn not from statistics but from viivd tales of their lives and his, and how they intertwined." —The Economist

"A sensitive, sympathetic, unpatronizing portrayal of lives that are ususally ignored or lumped into ill-defined stereotype." —Finanical Times

William Grimes
Without question, Mr. Venkatesh is dazzled by J. T. and seduced by the gang life. He maintains enough distance, however, to appraise the information he is given and to build up, through careful observation, a detailed picture of life at the project. He writes what might be called tabloid sociology, but it rests on a solid foundation of data…
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

In the late 1980s and 1990s, "rogue sociologist" Venkatesh infiltrated the world of tenant and gang life in Chicago's Robert Taylor Home projects. He found a complex system of compromises and subsistence that makes life (barely) manageable. Venkatesh excellently illustrates the resourcefulness of impoverished communities in contrast to a society that has virtually abandoned them. He also reveals the symbiotic relationship between the community and the gangs that helps sustain each. Reg Rogers reads with great emphasis and rhythm. His lilting, cadence and vocal characterization of tenants is enjoyable. Rogers's first-person narrative establishes a deep intimacy with the reader. Venkatesh reads the final chapter, but he lacks the subtly and nuance that Rogers projects throughout his reading. The insubstantial author interview on the last disc mostly covers material already discussed in the book. Simultaneous release with the Penguin Press hardcover (Reviews, Nov. 5, 2007). (Feb.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
School Library Journal

Adult/High School

As a young graduate student fresh off an extended stint following the Grateful Dead, Venkatesh began studying urban poverty. With a combination of an ethnographer's curiosity about another culture and some massive naïveté, he gathered firsthand knowledge of the intricacies of Chicago's Robert Taylor projects. Early on, he met a megalomaniac gang leader known here as J.T., who became his mentor. Venkatesh observed and learned how the crack game works, and how many have their fingers in the pie and need life to remain the way it is. He observed violence, corruption, near homelessness, good cops, bad cops, and a lot of neglect and politics-as-usual. He made errors in judgment-it took a long time for his street smarts to catch up to his book smarts-but he tells the story in such a way as to allow readers to figure out his missteps as he did. Finally, as the projects began to come down, Venkatesh was able to demonstrate how something that seems positive is not actually good for everyone. The first line in his preface, "I woke up at about 7:30 a.m. in a crack den," reflects the prurient side of his studies, the first chapter title, "How does it feel to be black and poor?" reflects the theoretical side, and both work together in this well-rounded portrayal.-Jamie Watson, Harford County Public Library, MD

Kirkus Reviews
An insider's view of gang culture and warfare. First described in Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner's "rogue" guide, Freakonomics (2005), Venkatesh's brazen foray into Chicago's organized street life is chronicled here in its entirety. It began during his first year of graduate sociology work at the University of Chicago and took seven years to complete. The author's colleagues asserted that quantitative and statistical data would suffice to completely deconstruct the behavioral patterns of those living in the poor, black neighborhoods surrounding the university. Instead, he chose an ethnographic approach, personally immersing himself in his vigorous research. In Washington Park, a beautiful (by day) area that the university consistently discouraged its students from frequenting, Venkatesh spoke with two sage black seniors who dispensed fatalistic views on race relations. The ballsy investigator wandered through the Lake Park high-rise housing project located just a few miles from campus, hoping to interview families about being "black and poor." He was briskly escorted from an "abandoned" building; knives and guns were quickly drawn. With J.T., a gold-toothed, tough-talking former college student and current gang member, the author developed "a strange kind of intimacy." Venkatesh's guts and persistence elicited J.T.'s substantial history lesson on black Chicago, its underground economy, the crack cocaine trade and the intricate echelons of gang hierarchy. J.T. soon moved in with his proud, outspoken mother at the crack-infested Robert Taylor Homes housing project, hoping to increase his drug-selling revenue. Venkatesh dutifully followed and scrutinized prostitutes, hustlers andgang violence. Still striving to learn how gang activity and allegiances dictate behavior, he infiltrated the Black Kings crack gang. That was dangerous, complicated and legally risky; he could have been jailed for contempt for failing to share his notes with the police. Venkatesh writes of his harrowing, exhilarating fieldwork with the great pride and insatiable curiosity of a seasoned news reporter. A dark, revealing expose.
The Barnes & Noble Review
From the fall of 1989 through the fall of 1998, Sudhir Venkatesh, now a sociologist at Columbia University, hung out -- often for many days in succession -- with a gang called the Black Kings, in the largest and most infamous of Chicago's large and infamous housing projects, the Robert Taylor Homes. Gang Leader for a Day is the third book by Venkatesh to grow out of this decade of immersive observation of life in these (now razed) buildings. The first two were forthrightly academic: American Project: The Rise and fall of a Modern Ghetto took a global and historical look at the projects. Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor examined, with specific details and inside knowledge, the interconnected methods, licit and otherwise, by which the residents of Robert Taylor tried to make a living -- from drug dealing to back-alley car repair to prostitution to selling home-cooked meals. One aspect of his economic findings -- the discovery that many low-level, low-income drug dealers live with their mothers -- also found its way into Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner's huge bestseller Freakonomics. The success of that book might have provided part of the impetus for Venkatesh to return to this subject in a more literary way.

In any case, Gang Leader for a Day offers a personal, memoiristic account of the author's experience with the Black Kings. The result is a book that alternates compelling drama with the tedium that no doubt characterizes a lot of gang life. Venkatesh witnesses "mouth shots" -- punches to the face inflicted as punishment on gang members who violate the rules of street-corner crack selling. He meets the sadistic "Officer Jerry," a local cop on the take, as well as the more upright "Officer Reggie," who steers clear of, but rationalizes, police corruption. He learns the gang's structure and fiscal policies, which resemble cargo-cult shadows of corporate governance. Meanwhile, other residents of the community -- like Ms. Bailey, the powerful tenant leader who has her own hydra-headed scams going -- befriend Ventakesh and open up about their economic and social struggles.

Inevitably, the author becomes involved in the action he is there to observe. The book's title derives from Venkatesh's short-lived effort to run the Black Kings for a day -- an incident that unfortunately peters out, narratively speaking. Venkatesh is asked to make decisions (some countermanded) about a clean-up detail and a minor dispute between gang members. The provocative notion of "Gang Leader for a Day" quickly dwindles into insignificance, with the episode ultimately demonstrating the banality and quotidian quality of the drug trade (let's admit it: not so different in that respect from office life). Far more dramatic is the author's involvement in helping to save the life of a gang member grievously wounded in a drive-by shooting carried out by rival gangs.

The book's true center of gravity is found in the author's long relationship with "J.T.", the leader of the Black Kings gang. Proceeding from Venkatesh's dissatisfaction with graduate-school statistics-based sociology, the allure that marginal groups seem to hold for him (he followed the Grateful Dead around for a while after college graduation), and the fact that, as he says, "I didn't have many friends", his connection to the Black Kings started out shaky and then grew stronger and stronger, before its inevitable attenuation. In fact, it often sounds a little like a love affair.

J.T. first comes upon Venkatesh when he has been detained and threatened by some gang underlings, whom he had approached with a few standard and unintentionally hilarious questions from a clipboard sheet. "How does it feel to be black and poor?" he had asked. "Very bad, somewhat bad, neither bad nor good, somewhat good, very good." When J.T. happens upon this hapless interloper, Venkatesh says, "Everything he did, every move he made, was deliberate and forceful." The next night, the author tells us, "I tried to sleep but the rest was fitful." Shortly after that, we read, "I felt a strange kind of intimacy with J.T., unlike the bond I'd felt even with good friends.... I was overjoyed that he was curious about my work." And: "It was pretty thrilling to have a gang boss calling me up to go hang out with him." And: "I turned giddy at the prospect of continuing our conversations." Venkatesh goes home to met the family and immediately "forged a bond" with J.T.'s mother. As intense as the feelings are, they come to a familiar-sounding conclusion -- by the end of the book, when the author visits J.T. during his fellowship at Harvard, he finds him "clingy."

The roots of this romance seem clear: to be accepted by J.T. and his henchmen was clearly a major accomplishment for a high school social pariah ("replete with pocket protector, bad haircut, and an armful of math and science books") who also had no friends in graduate school. One wonders if this evidently long-standing sense of being an outsider led the author into sociology in the first place -- and into the conflicts of conscience that make Gang Leader for a Day so often fascinating. The author allows J.T. to think that his work will be a "biography" and then often agonizes about this deception. It comes home to him more and more forcefully that he may be legally at risk because of what he sees and knows. Why this risk doesn't occur to him from the moment he witnesses his first drug sale I don't quite understand, but I guess he was young, and I know love is blind. Venkatesh also intermittently wrestles with the general intellectual and journalistic questions raised by close involvement with and potential betrayal of one's subject. He doesn't resolve these age-old questions satisfactorily because they cannot be satisfactorily resolved -- as Janet Malcolm so brilliantly and conclusively explains in her introduction to The Journalist and the Murderer.

The central epiphany in this book, when the scales begin to fall from the author's eyes about some of his own motives, has much to do with these questions, and it comes, appropriately enough, courtesy of the ambiguous Robert Taylor powerhouse Ms. Bailey. And it proves all by itself one of the implicit theses of Venkatesh's writing about this subject -- that the hard knocks suffered and short straws drawn by the people he is observing give them a kind of weary but deep wisdom that many of us don't have or try to ignore. "Why do you want to hang out?" Ms. Bailey asks.

"I suppose I'm learning. That's what I do, study the poor."

"Okay, well, you want to act like a saint, then you go ahead," Ms. Bailey said, laughing. "Of course you're learning! But you are also hustling. And we're all hustlers. So when we see another of us we gravitate toward him. Because we need other hustlers to survive.... You need to get your information. You're a hustler, I can see it. You'll do anything to get what you want. Just don't be ashamed of it."

And I suppose one could say that Venkatesh has indeed hustled three books and a scholarly reputation out of this brave and foolhardy decade's worth of associating with known criminals. But somehow he has managed to infuse this account of that time with a sweetness and naiveté that implicitly inform even the present-day point of view of this book -- nowhere more clearly than when he tells of the Black Kings laughing at him, as they do often. They laugh especially hard when he is gang leader for a day and tries to use the word "nigger" with the nonchalance of a genuine Black King. --Daniel Menaker

Author of the novel The Treatment and two books of short stories, Daniel Menaker is former Executive Editor-in-Chief of Random House and fiction editor of The New Yorker. His reviews, humor pieces, and other writings have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Slate.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143114932
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/30/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 78,796
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Sudhir Venkatesh

SUDHIR VENKATESH is William B. Ransford Professor of Sociology at Columbia University. He has written extensively about American poverty and is currently working on a project comparing the urban poor in France and the United States. His writings, stories, and documentaries have appeared in The American Prospect, This American Life, The Source, PBS, and National Public Radio. Venkatesh's latest book, Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York's Underground Economy, was published in September 2013 by The Penguin Press.

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Read an Excerpt

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Dedication

Foreword

PREFACE

 

ONE - How Does It Feel to Be Black and Poor?

TWO - First Days on Federal Street

THREE - Someone to Watch Over Me

FOUR - Gang Leader for a Day

FIVE - Ms. Bailey’s Neighborhood

SIX - The Hustler and the Hustled

SEVEN - Black and Blue

EIGHT - The Stay-Together Gang

 

AUTHOR’S NOTE

Acknowledgements

INDEX

About the Author

ALSO BY SUDHIR VENKATESH

Off the Books:
The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor

 

American Project:
The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto

THE PENGUIN PRESS
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A. Penguin Group
(Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:
80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

 

First published in 2008 by The Penguin Press,
a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

 

Copyright © Sudhir Venkatesh, 2008

All rights reserved

 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

 

Venkatesh, Sudhir Alladi.
Gang leader for a day : a rogue sociologist takes to the streets / Sudhir Venkatesh.
p. cm.
Includes index.

eISBN : 978-1-594-20150-9

1. Gangs—Illinois—Chicago. 2. African Americans—Illinois—Chicago.
3. Chicago (Ill.)—Social conditions. 4.Venkatesh, Sudhir Alladi. I. Title.
HV6439.U7C46 2008
364.1'0660977311—dc22
2007040170

 

 

 

 

Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

 

The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrightable materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

To Autry Harrison

FOREWORD

Stephen J. Dubner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I believe that Sudhir Venkatesh was born with two abnormalities: an overdeveloped curiosity and an underdeveloped sense of fear.

How else to explain him? Like thousands upon thousands of people, he entered graduate school one fall and was dispatched by his professors to do some research. This research happened to take him to the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, one of the worst ghettos in America. But blessed with that outlandish curiosity and unfettered by the sort of commonsensical fear that most of us would experience upon being held hostage by an armed crack gang, as Venkatesh was early on in his research, he kept coming back for more.

I met Venkatesh a few years ago when I interviewed him for Freakonomics, a book I wrote with the economist Steve Levitt. Venkatesh and Levitt had collaborated on several academic papers about the economics of crack cocaine. Those papers were interesting, to be sure, but Venkatesh himself presented a whole new level of fascination. He is soft-spoken and laconic; he doesn’t volunteer much information. But every time you ask him a question, it is like tugging a thread on an old tapestry: the whole thing unspools and falls at your feet. Story after story, marked by lapidary detail and hard-won insight: the rogue cop who terrorized the neighborhood, the jerry-built network through which poor families hustled to survive, the time Venkatesh himself became gang leader for a day.

Although we wrote about Venkatesh in Freakonomics (it was many readers’ favorite part), there wasn’t room for any of these stories. Thankfully, he has now written an extraordinary book that details all his adventures and misadventures. The stories he tells are far stranger than fiction, and they are also more forceful, heartbreaking, and hilarious. Along the way he paints a unique portrait of the kind of neighborhood that is badly misrepresented when it is represented at all. Journalists like me might hang out in such neighborhoods for a week or a month or even a year. Most social scientists and do-gooders tend to do their work at arm’s length. But Venkatesh practically lived in this neighborhood for the better part of a decade. He brought the perspective of an outsider and came away with an insider’s access. A lot of writing about the poor tends to reduce living, breathing, joking, struggling, sensual, moral human beings to dupes who are shoved about by invisible forces. This book does the opposite. It shows, day by day and dollar by dollar, how the crack dealers, tenant leaders, prostitutes, parents, hustlers, cops, and Venkatesh himself tried to construct a good life out of substandard materials.

As much as I have come to like Venkatesh, and admire him, I probably would not want to be a member of his family: I would worry too much about his fearlessness. I probably wouldn’t want to be one of his research subjects either, for his curiosity must be exhausting. But I am very, very happy to have been one of the first readers of Venkatesh’s book, for it is as extraordinary as he is.

PREFACE

I woke up at about 7:30 A.M. in a crack den, Apartment 1603 in Building Number 2301 of the Robert Taylor Homes. Apartment 1603 was called the “Roof,” since everyone knew that you could get very, very high there, even higher than if you climbed all the way to the building’s actual rooftop.

As I opened my eyes, I saw two dozen people sprawled about, most of them men, asleep on couches and the floor. No one had lived in the apartment for a while. The walls were peeling, and roaches skittered across the linoleum floor. The activities of the previous night—smoking crack, drinking, having sex, vomiting—had peaked at about 2:00 A.M. By then the unconscious people outnumbered the conscious ones—and among the conscious ones, few still had the cash to buy another hit of crack cocaine. That’s when the Black Kings saw diminishing prospects for sales and closed up shop for the night.

I fell asleep, too, on the floor. I hadn’t come for the crack; I was here on a different mission. I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and for my research I had taken to hanging out with the Black Kings, the local crack-selling gang.

It was the sun that woke me, shining through the Roof’s doorway. (The door itself had disappeared long ago.) I climbed over the other stragglers and walked down to the tenth floor, where the Patton family lived. During the course of my research, I had gotten to know the Pattons—a law-abiding family, it should be said—and they treated me kindly, almost like a son. I said good morning to Mama Patton, who was cooking breakfast for her husband, Pops, a seventy-year-old retired factory worker. I washed my face, grabbed a slice of cornbread, and headed outside into a breezy, brisk March morning.

Just another day in the ghetto.

Just another day as an outsider looking at life from the inside. That’s what this book is about.

ONE

How Does It Feel to Be Black and Poor?

During my first weeks at the University of Chicago, in the fall of 1989, I had to attend a variety of orientation sessions. In each one, after the particulars of the session had been dispensed with, we were warned not to walk outside the areas that were actively patrolled by the university’s police force. We were handed detailed maps that outlined where the small enclave of Hyde Park began and ended: this was the safe area. Even the lovely parks across the border were off-limits, we were told, unless you were traveling with a large group or attending a formal event.

It turned out that the ivory tower was also an ivory fortress. I lived on the southwestern edge of Hyde Park, where the university housed a lot of its graduate students. I had a studio apartment in a ten-story building just off Cottage Grove Avenue, a historic boundary between Hyde Park and Woodlawn, a poor black neighborhood. The contrast would be familiar to anyone who has spent time around an urban university in the United States. On one side of the divide lay a beautifully manicured Gothic campus, with privileged students, most of them white, walking to class and playing sports. On the other side were down-and-out African Americans offering cheap labor and services (changing oil, washing windows, selling drugs) or panhandling on street corners.

I didn’t have many friends, so in my spare time I started taking long walks, getting to know the city. For a budding sociologist, the streets of Chicago were a feast. I was intrigued by the different ethnic neighborhoods, the palpable sense of culture and tradition. I liked that there was one part of the city, Rogers Park, where Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis congregated. Unlike the lily-white suburbs of Southern California where I’d grown up, the son of immigrants from South Asia, here Indians seemed to have a place in the ethnic landscape along with everyone else.

I was particularly interested in the poor black neighborhoods surrounding the university. These were neighborhoods where nearly half the population didn’t work, where crime and gang activity were said to be entrenched, where the welfare rolls were swollen. In the late 1980s, these isolated parts of the inner cities gripped the nation’s attention. I went for many walks there and started playing basketball in the parks, but I didn’t see any crime, and I didn’t feel particularly threatened. I wondered why the university kept warning students to keep out.

As it happened, I attracted a good bit of curiosity from the locals. Perhaps it was because these parks didn’t attract many nonblack visitors, or perhaps it was because in those days I dressed like a Deadhead. I got asked a lot of questions about India—most of which I couldn’t answer, since I’d moved to the States as a child. Sometimes I’d come upon a picnic, and people would offer me some of their soul food. They were puzzled when I turned them down on the grounds that I was a vegetarian.

But as alien as I was to these folks, they were just as alien to me.

 

 

As part of my heavy course load at the U of C, I began attending seminars where professors parsed the classic sociological questions: How do an individual’s preferences develop? Can we predict human behavior? What are the long-term consequences, for instance, of education on future generations?

The standard mode of answering these questions was to conduct widespread surveys and then use complex mathematical methods to analyze the survey data. This would produce statistical snapshots meant to predict why a given person might, say, fail to land a job, or end up in prison, or have a child out of wedlock. It was thought that the key to formulating good policy was to first formulate a good scientific study.

I liked the questions these researchers were asking, but compared with the vibrant life that I saw on the streets of Chicago, the discussion in these seminars seemed cold and distant, abstract and lifeless. I found it particularly curious that most of these researchers didn’t seem interested in meeting the people they wrote about. It wasn’t necessarily out of any animosity—nearly all of them were well intentioned—but because the act of actually talking to research subjects was seen as messy, unscientific, and a potential source of bias.

Mine was not a new problem. Indeed, the field of sociology had long been divided into two camps: those who use quantitative and statistical techniques and those who study life by direct observation, often living among a group of people.

This second group, usually called ethnographers, use their firsthand approach to answer a particular sort of question: How do people survive in marginal communities? for instance, or What makes a government policy work well for some families and not for others?

The quantitative sociologists, meanwhile, often criticized the ethnographers’ approach. They argued that it isn’t nearly scientific enough and that the answers may be relevant only to the particular group under observation. In other words, to reach any important and generalizable conclusion, you need to rely on the statistical analyses of large data sets like the U.S. Census or other massive surveys.

My frustration with the more scientific branch of sociology hadn’t really coalesced yet. But I knew that I wanted to do something other than sit in a classroom all day and talk mathematics.

So I did what any sensible student who was interested in race and poverty would do: I walked down the hallway and knocked on the door of William Julius Wilson, the most eminent living scholar on the subject and the most prominent African American in the field of sociology. He had been teaching at the U of C for nearly twenty years and had published two books that reshaped how scholars and policy makers thought about urban poverty.

I caught Wilson just in time—he was about to go to Paris for a sabbatical. But he was also about to launch a new research project, he said, and I could participate if I liked.

Wilson was a quiet, pensive man, dressed in a dark blue suit. Although he had stopped smoking his trademark pipe long ago, he still looked like the kind of professor you see in movies. If you asked him a question, he’d often let several long moments of silence pass—he could be more than a little bit intimidating—before offering a thoughtful response.

Wilson explained that he was hoping to better understand how young blacks were affected by specific neighborhood factors: Did growing up as a poor kid in a housing project, for instance, lead to worse educational and job outcomes than if a similarly poor kid grew up outside the projects? What about the difference between growing up in a neighborhood that was surrounded by other poor areas and growing up poor but near an affluent neighborhood? Did the latter group take advantage of the schools, services, and employment opportunities in the richer neighborhoods?

Wilson’s project was still in the planning stages. The first step was to construct a basic survey questionnaire, and he suggested I help his other graduate students in figuring out which questions to ask. This meant going back to earlier studies of black youth to see what topics and questions had been chosen by earlier sociologists. Wilson gave me a box of old questionnaires. I should experiment, he said, by borrowing some of their questions and developing new ones as needed. Sociologists liked to use survey questions that their peers had already used, I learned, in order to produce comparable results. This was a key part of the scientific method in sociology.

I thanked Wilson and went to the library to begin looking over the questionnaires he’d given me. I quickly realized I had no idea how to interview anyone.

 

 

 

Washington Park, situated just across Cottage Grove Avenue from the U of C, is one of Chicago’s stateliest parks. Designed in the 1870s by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, it has a beautiful swimming pool, indoor and outdoor basketball courts, dazzling flower gardens, and long, winding paths that crisscross its nearly four hundred acres. I liked to go running on the clay track that encircled the park, a track that decades earlier had hosted horse and auto races. Until the 1940s the surrounding neighborhood was mainly Irish, but when black families started buying homes nearby, most of the white families moved away. I was always surprised that the university actively dissuaded its students from spending time in Washington Park. I failed to see the danger, at least in the daylight.

After my run I sometimes stopped by the broad, marshy lagoon in the middle of the park. The same group of old black men, usually a half dozen or so, congregated there every day—playing cards, drinking beer, fishing for bass and perch in the lagoon. I sat and listened to them for hours. To this point I had had little exposure to African-American culture at all, and no experience whatsoever in an urban ghetto. I had moved to Chicago just a year earlier from California, where I’d attended a predominantly white college situated on the beach, UC San Diego.

I had been reading several histories of Chicago’s black community, and I sometimes asked these men about the events and people of which I’d read. The stories they told were considerably more animated than the history in the books. They knew the intricacies of machine politics—whom you had to befriend, for instance, to get a job or a building permit. They talked about the Black Panther Party of their youth and how it was radically different from today’s gangs. “The Panthers had breakfast programs for kids, but these gangs just shoot ’em and feed ’em drugs,” one man lamented. I already knew a bit about how the Panthers operated in Chicago during the civil-rights era. What little I knew about modern gangs, however, came from the movies and newspapers—and, of course, the constant cautions issued by the U of C about steering clear of certain neighborhoods.

I was particularly intrigued by the old men’s views on race, which boiled down to this: Whites and blacks would never be able to talk openly, let alone live together. The most talkative among them was Leonard Combs, a.k.a. Old Time. “Never trust a white man,” he told me one day, “and don’t think black folk are any better.”

Old Time came to Washington Park every day with his fishing gear, lunch, and beer. He wore a tired beige fishing hat, and he had lost so many teeth that his gums smacked together when he spoke. But he loved to talk, especially about Chicago.

“We live in a city within a city,” he said. “They have theirs and we have ours. And if you can understand that it will never change, you’ll start understanding how this city works.”

“You mean whites and blacks will never get along?” I asked.

A man named Charlie Butler jumped in. “You got two kinds of whites in this city,” he said, “and two kinds of blacks. You got whites who’ll beat you if you come into their neighborhood. They live around Bridgeport and on the Southwest Side. Then you got another group that just won’t invite you in. They’ll call the police if you come in their neighborhood—like where you live, in Hyde Park. And the police will beat you up.”

Charlie was a retired factory worker, a beefy man with tattooed, well-developed arms, a college football star from long ago. Charlie sometimes came to Hyde Park for breakfast or lunch at one of the diners where other blacks hung out, but he never stayed past sun-down and he never walked on residential streets, he said, since the police would follow him.

“What about blacks?” I asked.

“You got blacks who are beating their heads trying to figure out a way to live where you live!” Charlie continued. “Don’t ask me why. And then you got a whole lot of black folk who realize it ain’t no use. Like us. We just spend our time trying to get by, and we live around here, where it ain’t so pretty, but at least you won’t get your ass beat. At least not by the police.”

“That’s how it’s been since black folk came to the city,” Old Time said, “and it’s not going to change.”

“You mean you don’t have any white friends?” I asked.

“You have any black friends?” Old Time countered with a sly grin. I didn’t need to answer. “And you may want to ask your professors if they have any,” he said, clearly pleased with his rebuke.

From these conversations I started to gain a bit of perspective on what it was like to be black in Chicago. The overriding sentiment was that given how the city operated, there was little chance for any significant social progress.

This kind of fatalism was foreign to me. When you grew up in affluent Southern California, even for someone as politically disengaged as I, there was a core faith in the workings of American institutions and a sustaining belief that people can find a way to resolve their differences, even racial ones. I was now beginning to see the limits of my narrow experience. Nearly every conversation with Old Time and his friends wound up at the intersection of politics and race. I couldn’t follow all the nuances of their arguments, especially when it came to local politics, but even I could see the huge gap between how they perceived the world and how sociologists presented the life of urban poor people.

One day I asked Old Time and his friends if they’d be willing to let me interview them for Professor Wilson’s survey. They agreed, and I tried for a few days. But I felt I wasn’t getting anywhere. Most of the conversations ended up meandering along, a string of interruptions and half-finished thoughts.

Charlie could see I was dejected. “Before you give up,” he said, “you should probably speak to the people who you really want to talk to—young men, not us. That’s the only way you’re going to get what you need.”

 

 

 

So I set out looking for young black men. At the U of C library, I checked the census records to find a tract with poor black families with people between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four. The Lake Park projects looked good, at least on paper, and I randomly chose Building Number 4040, highlighting on my census printout the apartments where young people lived. Those were the doors I’d be knocking on. Old Time told me that I could go any day I wanted. “Most black folk in the projects don’t work,” he said, “so they don’t have nowhere else to be.” Still, I thought a weekend would be the best time to find a lot of people.

On a brisk Saturday afternoon in November, I went looking for 4040 South Lake Park, one of several high-rise projects in Oakland, a lakefront neighborhood about two miles north of the U of C. Oakland was one of the poorest communities in Chicago, with commensurately high rates of unemployment, welfare, and crime. Its population was overwhelmingly black, dating back to the early-twentieth-century southern migration. The neighborhood surrounding the Lake Park projects wasn’t much of a neighborhood at all. There were few people on the streets, and on some blocks there were more vacant lots than buildings. Aside from a few liquor stores and broken-down bodegas, there wasn’t much commerce. It struck me that most housing projects, even though they are built in cities, run counter to the very notion of urban living. Cities are attractive because of their balkanized variety: wandering the streets of a good city, you can see all sorts of highs and lows, commerce and recreation, a multitude of ethnicities and just as many expressions of public life. But housing projects, at least from the outside, seemed to be a study in joyless monotony, the buildings clustered tightly together but set apart from the rest of the city, as if they were toxic.

Up close, the buildings looked like tall checkerboards, their dull yellow-brick walls lined with rows of dreary windows. A few of the windows revealed the aftermath of an apartment fire, black smudges spreading upward in the shape of tombstones. Most of the buildings had only one entrance, and it was usually clogged with young people.

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Table of Contents

Gang Leader for a Day Foreword by Stephen J. Dubner
Preface

One: How Does It Feel to be Black and Poor?
Two: First Days on Federal Street
Three: Someone to Watch Over Me
Four: Gang Leader for a Day
Five: Ms. Bailey's Neighborhood
Six: The Hustler and the Hustled
Seven: Black and Blue
Eight: The Stay-Together Gang

Author's Note
Acknowledgments
Index

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

When Sudhir Venkatesh, a product of the prosperous suburbs of southern California, first arrived at the University of Chicago in 1989 as a graduate student in sociology, he was strongly cautioned never to venture outside the small “safe” enclave that was actively patrolled by the campus police force. For the next nine years, he routinely ignored that advice. A student of the social and economic conditions that shape the lives of the urban poor, Venkatesh chose not simply to immerse himself in the books, charts, and data that make up the usual intellectual diet of an advanced student of the social sciences. Instead, armed only with a notebook, his curiosity, and an innate indifference to peril that some would call brave and others might deem foolhardy, he immersed himself in the daily life of a nearby housing project, the Robert Taylor Homes. Venkatesh took the logical—but also unheard of—step of actually getting to know the people on whom he was trying to become an academic expert. The result was not only a remarkable Ph.D. dissertation but also a host of astonishing experiences and observations that Venkatesh has now published in his deeply engaging memoir Gang Leader for a Day.

In the pages of Gang Leader for a Day, we meet a cast of characters so astonishing that they could only be real: J.T., a brash but surprisingly intelligent and business-savvy leader of the Black Kings gang; C-Note, a resourceful hustler who can do a hundred different jobs for a hundred dollars; Ms. Bailey, the projects building president who knows both how to get things done and how to line her pockets; and Autry Harrison, the pimp turned Boys and Girls Club director who quietly tries to guide the youth of the project toward a better vision of the future. These people are only a handful of the dramatis personae of a daily drama of violence, drug abuse, sexual intrigue, and struggles to survive that, as the author discovers, can be understood and narrated only from the inside.

Bucking the establishment, risking his reputation and perhaps his life, Venkatesh comes to know with astonishing intimacy the drug dealers, crackheads, prostitutes, and hustlers who comprise the world of the Robert Taylor Homes. Yet it may very well be that the most surprising things he discovers have little to do with the violence, crime, and despair that one would expect to find in a story like his. The greater surprise is the extent to which, in this sordid milieu, Venkatesh’s readers may recognize a differently developed version of themselves. For in this labyrinth of crime and corruption, we also meet people striving for what we all seek: to make a dollar; to raise our children; and to find some pathway to the next day. Sudhir Venkatesh set out in search of a housing project. He discovered America.

ABOUT SUDHIR VENKATESH

Sudhir Venkatesh is William B. Ransford Professor of Sociology at Columbia University in New York City. He is a researcher and writer on urban neighborhoods in the United States and France. He is also a documentary filmmaker and a frequent commentator on National Public Radio. His first book, American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto, also explored life in Chicago public housing. His previous book, Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, which documented illegal economies in Chicago, received a Best Book Award from Slate.com and the C. Wright Mills Award.
 

A CONVERSATION WITH SUDHIR VENKATESH

Q. In his foreword to Gang Leader for a Day, Stephen J. Dubner avers that you have “an underdeveloped sense of fear” (p. xi). Do you agree to that characterization, or would you like to put the matter in other words?

Fear presumes knowledge. Meaning it is hard to worry about something about which you have little awareness or understanding. I knew little about the Chicago projects when I arrived in the late 1980s. So I don’t think I had sense of what was frightening—I was unfamiliar with cities, but I was mostly curious and naive. I was well into my research by the time I was told that I should be frightened.

Q. Your book is a unique, vivid memoir of a side of American life that few of your readers will have experienced. However, you tend to steer clear of policy recommendations for changing your subjects’ lives for the better. If you had one suggestion for relieving the kind of conditions you describe in Gang Leader for a Day, what would it be?

I would ask every American interested in philanthropy to turn off the computer. Walk across the street or take a subway to another part of town. Do something that requires interpersonal exchange: teach an adult how to read, go to the suburbs and help them understand the history of American racism, tell rich kids what it means to work for a living, volunteer in a soup kitchen. It doesn’t matter, as long as you develop personal connections with those in need. Turning on the computer, inputting a credit card, and sending money to a poor child seems useful, but it has its limits. “Policy” begins with small actions of compassion. Otherwise it can be paternalistic, rooted in pity.

Q. Much of a sociologist’s written work is prepared for a different audience and with different goals from those of Gang Leader for a Day. What did it feel like to write in a more vernacular, novelistic style than your profession typically demands?

Liberating is the short answer. The longer answer: Sociology has a lot to offer but, unless sociologists make a commitment to widening the scope of their work, they will look like fools on the hill, wondering why no one pays any attention to them. We write in an alienating manner; like other academics, we make up words with little if any justification and we disrespect the wider public. We have to take our audience seriously.

Q. Your ethnicity was one of the qualities that most perplexed the people you met at Robert Taylor. Over the course of the years you spent there, how do you feel your being neither black nor white affected the way people responded to you, and how do you think it influenced your opportunities to observe your subjects?

My status as South Asian American helped me hang around a bit longer than I could have if I had been black or white. Chicago in the late 1980s was really a polarized place where blacks and whites were at each others’ throats. I was able to sneak in and observe this dynamic without being a threat to either group. Today, South Asians own property in black communities, they live among different ethnic groups, and their neutrality is no longer as obvious. They have a stake in the inner city, and many are benefiting by owning businesses, employing residents, and so on. If I had done my work today, I would have received a much different welcome.

Q. How has your unconventional approach to field research affected your standing within the scholarly community?

My approach was once in the mainstream of sociological research: namely, sociologists were known for direct field research. They enjoyed finding pockets of American society where the local lifestyle was distinctive. They sought to enter and then document the rules, codes of conduct, norms, culture, and so on. Over time, as sociology became more “scientific,” large surveys replaced first-person fieldwork; social scientists tended to believe that the individual field-worker was too biased to yield useful knowledge. So, while my work is unconventional today, before the World War II, it was standard fare. I hope we can find a way to combine the best of both worlds: intimate fieldwork and scientific study.

Q. Obviously, there is much about life in an urban housing project that no middle class community would dream of imitating. Yet you also encountered an openness, a sense of community, and a willingness to share resources during hard times that seem largely absent from current suburbia. Are there lessons that you think people on the “right” side of the tracks could learn from places like Robert Taylor?

There are few places in America where democracy is practiced on the ground. The projects are one such place. In the community that I studied, the government was absent. The residents had to mediate disputes themselves (police were ineffective), they had to fix their own apartments (the housing authority was negligent), they cleaned up their own streets and alleys (the sanitation department never came around). This work produced a sense of community, one in which people listened to one another, debated and formed consensus through compromise. In the suburb where I grew up, I never knew my neighbors and democracy was something we read about in textbooks. So, I found democracy in the projects.

Q. Much of Gang Leader for a Day details your relationship with J.T. Was there any other member of the Black Kings whose story you found as compelling?

About five years after I conducted my research, I started to see the children of older gang members join the gang. It sent a chill through me because the reproduction of poverty was happening right before my eyes. Daily hardships were hard enough to witness but it was even more difficult to see the children of young men and women starting out life with a bad hand.

Q. In molecular physics, there is a principle that holds that you cannot observe a phenomenon without changing it. Do you think your very presence at the scenes you describe in Gang Leader for a Day tended to alter them and how?

The Heisenberg Principle absolutely applies to my work—and to all scholarship, scientific or humanistic. In fact, one of motivations for writing Gang Leader was to show how sausage is made, as it were. In most narrative nonfiction, the author is a fly on the wall. There is little if any reflective assessment of the author’s relationship with the subjects of the research. I think this is irresponsible, and it does little to engender trust with the readers.

Q. You write in Gang Leader for a Day about the ethical and legal restrictions that are imposed on sociological research. Do you consider these restrictions reasonable, or are there aspects of them you would like to see modified or removed?

I think it is vital that academics have their research approved by their colleges and universities. Such procedures were only starting to be developed when I was a graduate student. Today, academics have to gain approval before initiating any scientific research on human subjects—interestingly, journalists do not because “reportage” is exempt from such regulations! Some scholars complain that this is a nuisance, but I think the benefits (i.e., accountability) are far too important to ignore.

Q. At the end of Gang Leader for a Day, you write with regard to J.T. and yourself, “It would be hard to call us friends” (p. 283). What feelings stand in back of that statement? Regret? Relief? Something else? Do you think it’s really possible for a socioeconomic chasm of the kind that separates you to be bridged by friendship?

Our relationship was transactional at the core. That doesn’t, however, make it any less human. I do believe people can create friendships across socioeconomic lines. One of my best friends is a public housing tenant and we laugh at our differences as well as our similarities. Is this common in American society? Absolutely not. But it is certainly not impossible.

Q. If you had the chance to relive your experiences at the Robert Taylor Homes, what, if anything, would you now do differently? How do you think your time in the Robert Taylor Homes changed you?

I honestly don’t know what I would do differently. I was young, naive, and the book is about a process of self-transformation. If I could go back and “right” all the “wrongs,” I probably wouldn’t have had the same experiences. I probably would not have had the same access. This doesn’t excuse the many mistakes I made, and there are certainly times that my behavior made me cringe. But I don’t have a series of regrets that haunt me.

My experience changed me in so many ways. I’ll mention one. I think we underestimate the craft of listening. Our society has collective Attention Deficit Disorder. We get bored very easily. We find it difficult to have a conversation without talking about our own opinions or drifting off entirely. Self-absorption seems an epidemic with no apparent cure. I was fortunate to have advisers in graduate school who insisted that I listen to others and document their stories. I try to do that in other parts of my life, though I know I’m never as attentive as I would like to be.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How would you respond if a graduate student from an elite university turned up at your door and announced his intention to study you? How would your reaction differ from what Sudhir Venkatesh encountered in Gang Leader for a Day?
  • Give a character sketch of J.T. What are his particular strengths and weaknesses as a leader?
  • In Gang Leader for a Day, Venkatesh continually compares the Black Kings’ drug trafficking with more conventional forms of American business. To what extent are you persuaded by these comparisons?
  • What strategies does Venkatesh use to gain the confidence of J.T. and the other people he meets at Robert Taylor? Does he ever completely gain their trust? Why are issues of trust so difficult in this book?
  • In chapter two, Venkatesh and J.T. argue about whether a “culture of poverty” exists among poor blacks in America. In your opinion, does Gang Leader for a Day do more to confirm or to dispute that there is such a culture?
  • Why is J.T. so anxious and controlling with regard to where Venkatesh goes and whom he talks with at Robert Taylor? Whom or what is he really protecting?
  • On pages 146 through 149, Ms. Bailey blames the conditions at Robert Taylor on a larger society that has denied opportunities to the poor. To what extent do you consider her arguments persuasive?
  • Venkatesh’s regard for Autry Harrison is so great that he dedicates Gang Leader for a Day to him. Why does he respect Autry highly?
  • J.T. constantly rationalizes the activities of the Black Kings and maintains that the gang confers more benefits than detriments on the community. Is there any truth to his self-justifications? Are there ways in which the community would be worse off if the BKs were suddenly to disappear?
  • Venkatesh’s portrayal of the Chicago police and other “legitimate” institutions of power is less than wholly complimentary. To what extent do you think the city’s institutions helped to create and maintain the conditions that allow gangs to flourish?
  • Why do Venkatesh’s efforts to educate the young women and children of the project fail so miserably? Why does he find it so difficult in general to help the people he encounters?
  • How does a powerful woman like Ms. Bailey exert influence over the housing project? How does the exercise of female power in this book differ from the wielding of male power?
  • As you read Gang Leader for a Day, were you troubled by the ethics of Venkatesh’s research? Was he, as he himself sometimes worried, as exploitative and manipulative in his own way as J.T. was in his?
  • Did reading Gang Leader for a Day make you more or less sympathetic to the problems of America’s urban poor? Why?
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 47 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 28, 2008

    For A Day Has Take Away?

    Having grown up on the wrong side of the tracks and having lived in the projects for a time, I found myself deeply conflicted by the author's portrayal of others and himself. In the end he is only somewhat honest with himself about being the biggest hustler of all in the book. How exactly do you eat people's food and sit on their couches and follow them around for six years and in the end say you weren't even friends? Is this simply artificial distance inserted to make himself seem more scholarly, or does he really feel this way about the people who greatly contributed to his career? He tries to distinguish himself from the very people he interacted with and at times participated in morally questionable behavior with by describing himself as dressing appropriately for an Ivy League professor while returning to visit the ghetto.' This description of himself at the end of the book brought home sharply to me the reality that most people will take a look at this world, like the author, and then put it down and walk away from the very real needs that real Americans have and it left me frustrated and angry. ( Like this is there rightful place in a cast system?) That is not America, fortunately. For every person who makes it out, there are hundreds left behind and most people are unwilling or unable to do anything except close a book and forget. I highly question that anything will be done as a result of this work to significantly improve impoverished Americans' situations, a view that the author confirms? - So much for Sociology, huh? For all of the conflicting statements about various individuals moral choices in the book, the real heroes are the people who are trying to make the best of a bad situation. J.T., the drug dealer who gave the author the unprecendented access, reflects the true complexity of his environment and the ways in which people rationalize what they have to do in order to make a life for their families. In many ways all of the people who spoke with and participated in the author's journey through American poverty reflect the same principles and values that the rest of America have. We all make choices and do what we have to do to get by, no matter how cultured we pretend to be. So while I am frustrated by the author's need to distinguish himself from the people who shared so much with him, I hope that this book makes people think about the people around them and the very real suffering that occurs in our own country. I know from having lived in a place not to far removed from what the author describes, I cannot turn away and forget. While other people see a middle class girl now, in many ways I will never be separated from that life and I know that even this book does not begin to address the long-term difficulties involved in irradicating poverty in this country. This book then is incomplete and is in many respects like an incident report. It gives you the facts but very little solutions or substantive take away. 'Gangleader for a day,' however does reveal a foreshadow for America of what will become even more common place. This is subcoultures and underground economies which will become more common as our economy melts down and the powers that be dismantle the middle class into a future socialist state. Watch for the 'Amero' and America's continued decline.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 23, 2012

    A great, gritty read

    This dook follows Sudhir's graduate work in the Robert Taylor projects in Chicago. It tracks the daily activities of one branch of a gang, as well as the community residents. One part brilliant, one part fearless, Sudhir put himself in daily harm for his research. I couldn't put this book down and I look forward to reading it again.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2012

    Gang Leader for a Day

    Sudhir Venkatesh, a student at University of Chicago studying sociology, takes an unorthodox approach to scrutinizing the Black community within the city of Chicago. Venkatesh, upon meeting a gang leader of the Black Kings, becomes immersed in the culture, dangers, and existence of a gang member living in the infamous Chicago projects. J.T., Venkatesh’s connection to the Black Kings, gradually brings in Sudhir and unveils to him the true life and affairs within the confines of their distinctive gang. As time progresses, the “Rogue Sociologist”, known as “Mr. Professor” to gang members, begins understanding and examining the connections and tangling dependence between numerous parties. Gangs, poor residents, police, drug addicts, dealers, and even politicians, have a hand in the workings of the Black Kings and each element adds a new dimension to the complicated relationships in the community. Sudhir explains the thought process of every gang member, in which they believe they are doing only that which is necessary and fulfilling people’s essentials. As Venkatesh learns more regarding the foundation of the lifestyle the projects’ house, he witnesses firsthand the violence inflicted by the gangs and how order is kept. The first beating he is in attendance for reminds him, as he reminds the readers, that the reality of the role violence plays in gang life is often not fair or warranted, rather essential to sustain their particular way of life. Sudhir does an excellent job at giving facts answering the common questions asked about the projects and gives a unique view of looking at places, such as the Robert Taylor houses, as a community, struggling to survive. The hard truths, like the presence of hookers, prostitution, drugs, and unnecessary violence, present in the projects is also touched on through Venkatesh’s relationships and experiences with the many characters living in this poor community. He brings understanding of the viewpoint of those, like the squatters and young new gang members, who feel trapped into accepting life with the Black Kings. He recognizes with his research he compromised his own integrity, observing men, like C-Note, get beat up and illegal drug dealings. However, the information he sends on through “Gang Leader for a Day” exposes the dark truth in the once hidden lies about the true dealings behind the walls of the projects.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted January 8, 2012

    Decent book to read.

    Sudhir Venkatesh, who was a student at University of Chicago that studied sociology, took an eccentric approach to examining the African American community in Chicago. Venkatesh, after meeting the gang leader from the Black Kings, became absorbed into the culture. He admired the dangers and existence of a gang member living in the infamous Chicago projects. J.T., Venkatesh’s association to the Black Kings, slowly brings him in and reveals to him the true life within the gang. As time passes by, Venkatesh begins understanding the connections and the tangling dependence between numerous parties. Gangs, poor residents, police, drug addicts, dealers, and even politicians, all take part in the workings of the Black Kings. Venkatesh explains the thought process of gang members which is that they believe they are doing only what is. During his experience, he witnesses violence firsthand that is inflicted by the gangs and how order is kept. The first beating he experiences reminds him that violence plays a big role in gang life. It is essential to sustain their particular way of life. Throughout the book, Venkatesh excels at giving facts that answer the common questions asked about the projects and gives a unique view of looking at places, such as the Robert Taylor housing struggling to survive as a community. The hard truths, such as the presence of hookers, prostitution, drugs, and unnecessary violence, present in the projects is also touched on through Venkatesh’s experiences with the many. He brings understanding to the viewpoint of those, like the squatters and young new gang members, who feel trapped into accepting life with the Black Kings. He recognizes that with his research he compromised his own integrity. He observed men like C-Note get beat up and illegal actions such as drug deals. However, the information he provides through “Gang Leader for a Day” exposes the dark truth in the hidden lies behind the walls of the projects.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 3, 2012

    Highly Recommended-unique book

    Sudhir's book is painfully truthful as he explores the link between the inner workings of a Chicago street gang and the poverty situation in the Robert Taylor projects. What began as a search for answers to an urban poverty survey, led Sudhir Venkatesh to befriend a rising gang leader, J.T. , and gain access to the community on many different levels. His determination to achieve recognition and success with his professors resulted in eight years of research within the projects. This book depicts how unprecedented his experience was and he repeatedly explains how previous research could not be a relevant representation without spending time with its subjects. One of the first things he realizes from the people he meets there is he cannot reveal the truth on urban poverty from data collected by a survey. Instead Sudhir receives the unchallenged truth about those below the poverty line. He observes the neighborhood gangsters, dealers, crackheads, prostitutes, squatters, pimps, organizers, and officials in an attempt to understand their claim that they make up a "community" and life revolves around their "building." Their powerful stories show how they have been forced into this lifestyle but they have accepted it. Many of their decisions center around the need to feed a family and they are more likely to participate in illegal work over the minimum wage they would otherwise receive. His new friend, J.T., provides Sudhir the opportunity to experience the complicated life of a gang leader which can closely resemble a businessman's. J.T. is easy to relate to and understand. His need to gain recognition and success is not only similar to Sudhir's but also any other ambitious individual. Gang Leader for a Day is powerfully insightful, as a witness learns about a gang's crack-selling economy and its overall role in a community that would be lost without it. It is a shocking book that not only provides insight to a corruptly structured community, but also a necessary testament to the truth.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 9, 2011

    Great reading for criminal justice researchers

    This is an excellent ethnography on the social life of a "crack" gang in the chicagos'Robert Taylor Homes. This was Sudhir's first assignment conducting research as a graduate student from the University of Chicago. Young and old researchers as well as anyone interested in the daily life of a drug dealer will enjoy this book. I'm using it as a secondary read for my Research Design students. It is well worth the price. Prof RolloRT

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 11, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Didn't want to put it down!

    This book was a requirement for a class I took but I would recommend it to anyone. The story was very captivating. You go in depths into the life a gang leader and see how the gang system works within the projects. You get an inside look at how the citizens feel about the gang in their community. A great read.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 23, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Inside Peek to what Statistics won't reflect

    The author forged a friendship and was therefore able to have a first hand look at the way many people live across america. More than just a stereotype...poverty can truly become a culture. The arguments coming from the streets of america towards the middleclass, and at the end....the cold hard statistics and numbers which show that in the end, life on the street really isn't a better way of life as many are lead to believe when joining a gang.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 16, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Engrossing with Risk

    This book not only gave a raw, descriptive image of what poverty means but involves us in an engrossing tale about two best friends with a dark hubris. Though I felt the first person narrative was very effective I felt the pace of the tale fluctuated too much to become comfortable with a speed. Besides that this was a great novel and it really allows you to see some opposing sides of certain issues.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 23, 2009

    Gang leader for a Day

    Bought this for my high school senior--he couldn't put it down. My 8th grader is reading it now and finds it fascinating.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2008

    Fascinating read

    After reading Freakonomics, I was quite interested to read more in depth on Sudhir's research. This book gives exactly that, with a very insightful and thorough look into life and the system that was in place at the Robert Taylor Homes. The relationship between the community and the gang and how each was affected brings a new perspective to life in the slums. Provocative material and compelling characters make this a great read. Highly recommended.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 20, 2008

    Fantastic Follow-up to the Freakonomics Tease

    This book is the full story of the rouge sociologist's penetration and insight into the Black Knights gang in Chicago. The author's writing is insightful, honest, and touching. Very informative regarding the reality of life in inner city housing projects and the interplay between communities and gang organizations. Will change your view of the people and the activities that are so often misportrayed and misunderstood by the mass media.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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