Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor / Edition 1

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Overview

Listen to a short interview with Sudhir Venkatesh

Host: Chris Gondek | Producer: Heron & Crane

In this revelatory book, Sudhir Venkatesh takes us into Maquis Park, a poor black neighborhood on Chicago's Southside, to explore the desperate, dangerous, and remarkable ways in which a community survives. We find there an entire world of unregulated, unreported, and untaxed work, a system of living off the books that is daily life in the ghetto. From women who clean houses and prepare lunches for the local hospital to small-scale entrepreneurs like the mechanic who works in an alley; from the preacher who provides mediation services to the salon owner who rents her store out for gambling parties; and from street vendors hawking socks and incense to the drug dealing and extortion of the local gang, we come to see how these activities form the backbone of the ghetto economy.

What emerges are the innumerable ways that these men and women, immersed in their shadowy economic pursuits, are connected to and reliant upon one another. The underground economy, as Venkatesh's subtle storytelling reveals, functions as an intricate web, and in the strength of its strands lie the fates of many Maquis Park residents. The result is a dramatic narrative of individuals at work, and a rich portrait of a community. But while excavating the efforts of men and women to generate a basic livelihood for themselves and their families, Off the Books offers a devastating critique of the entrenched poverty that we so often ignore in America, and reveals how the underground economy is an inevitable response to the ghetto's appalling isolation from the rest of the country.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this revealing study of a Southside Chicago neighborhood, sociologist Venkatesh opens a window on how the poor live. Focusing on domestics, entrepreneurs, hustlers, preachers and gangs linked in an underground economy that "manages to touch all households," the book reveals how residents struggle between "their desires to live a just life and their needs to make ends meet as best they can." In this milieu, African-American mechanics, painters, hairdressers, musicians and informal security guards are linked to prostitutes, drug dealers, gun dealers and car thieves in illegal enterprises that even police and politicians are involved in, though not all are criminals in the usual sense. Storefront clergy, often dependent "on the underground for their own livelihood," serve as mediators and brokers between individuals and gang members, who have "insinuated themselves and their drug money into the deepest reaches of the community." Although the book's academic tenor is occasionally wearying, Venkatesh keeps his work vital and poignant by using the words of his subjects, who are as dependent on this intricate web as they are fearful of its dangers. (Oct.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
ea. vol: Harvard Univ. Oct. 2006. SOC SCI Remember playing the board game Chutes and Ladders? Drawing on an eight-year study, Newman (sociology & public affairs, Princeton Univ.; A Different Shade of Gray: Midlife and Beyond in the Inner City) effectively uses ethnographic portraits to examine why some low-wage earners in New York's ghettos and beyond particularly African American and Latino service-sector employees have been experiencing a real-life version of the game. Some were able to capitalize on the economic prosperity of the late 1990s, often thanks to family, friends, and public subsidies; they went up the ladder, returning to school and obtaining trade certificates, high school diplomas, and even college degrees. Meanwhile, others, faced with family obligations, little or no training, and sheer prejudice, were not able to take advantage of these opportunities and moved downward. Similarly, sociologist Venkatesh (director of research, Inst. for Research in African American Studies, Columbia Univ.; American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto) looks at the impoverished residents of Southside Chicago's Maquis Park and the networks they have developed to cope with their devastating circumstances. For example, a mechanic works in an alleyway "shop," and gang-run businesses are an everyday affair. While Venkatesh has a more personal, compelling writing style, Newman's work offers appendixes rich in socioeconomic detail and will be of greater interest to policymakers. Both of these books are in the fine tradition of David K. Shipler's The Working Poor: The Invisible in America, and both deserve places in public and academic libraries. Ellen D. Gilbert, Princeton, NJ Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674023550
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 10/16/2006
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh is Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies at Columbia University.

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Table of Contents

1 Living underground 1
2 Home at work 21
3 The entrepreneur 91
4 The street hustler 166
5 The preacher 214
6 Our gang 278
7 As the shady world turns 366
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