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

( 47 )

Overview

The story of the young sociologist who studied a Chicago crack-dealing gang from the inside captured the world's attention when it was first described in Freakonomics. Gang Leader for a Day is the fascinating full story of how Sudhir Venkatesh managed to gain entrée into the gang, what he learned, and how his method revolutionized the academic establishment.

When Venkatesh walked into an abandoned building in one of Chicago's most notorious housing projects, he was looking for ...

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

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Overview

The story of the young sociologist who studied a Chicago crack-dealing gang from the inside captured the world's attention when it was first described in Freakonomics. Gang Leader for a Day is the fascinating full story of how Sudhir Venkatesh managed to gain entrée into the gang, what he learned, and how his method revolutionized the academic establishment.

When Venkatesh walked into an abandoned building in one of Chicago's most notorious housing projects, he was looking for people to take a multiple-choice survey on urban poverty. A first-year grad student, he would befriend a gang leader named JT and spend the better part of the next decade inside the projects under JT's protection, documenting what he saw there.

Over the next seven years, Venkatesh observed JT and the rest of the gang as they operated their crack selling business, conducted PR within their community, and rose up or fell within the ranks of the gang's complex organizational structure.

Gang Leader for a Day is an inside view into the morally ambiguous, highly intricate, often corrupt struggle to survive in an urban war zone. It is also the story of a complicated friendship between two young and ambitious men, a universe apart.

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Editorial Reviews

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: 9780061571138
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/22/2008
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged, 7 CDs, 8 hours 30 minutes
  • Pages: 7
  • Sales rank: 965,466
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 5.75 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Sudhir Venkatesh

Sudhir Venkatesh is professor of sociology at Columbia University. He has written extensively about American poverty. He 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, and on PBS and national Public Radio.

Stephen J. Dubner, a former writer and editor at The New York Times Magazine, is the author of Turbulent Souls (Choosing My Religion), Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper, and the children's book The Boy with Two Belly Buttons.

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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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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 47 )
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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.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • 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.

    1 out of 1 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.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • 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.

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  • 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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