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 povertyand 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 JTtwo 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—is also published by Penguin Press.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
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.
Read an Excerpt
FOREWORD by 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.
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.
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.
Excerpted from "Gang Leader for a Day"
Copyright © 2008 Sudhir Venkatesh.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Gang Leader for a DayForeword by Stephen J. Dubner
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
What People are Saying About This
"Gang Leader for a Day is not another voyeuristic look into the supposedly tawdry, disorganized life of the black poor. Venkatesh entered the Chicago gang world at the height of the crack epidemic and what he found was a tightly organized community, held together by friendship and compassion as well as force. I couldn't stop reading, and ended up loving this brave, reckless young scholar, as well as the gang leader J.T., who has to be one of the greatest characters ever to emerge from something that could be called sociological research." Barbara Ehrenreich "Gang Leader for a Day is an absolutely incredible book. Sudhir Venkatesh's memoir of his years observing life in Chicago's inner city is a book unlike any other I have read, equal parts comedy and tragedy. How is it that a naòve suburban kid ends up running a crack gang (if only for a day) on his way to becoming one of the world's leading scholars? You have to read it to find out, but heed this warning: don't pick up the book unless you have a few hours to spare because I promise you will not be able to put it down once you start." Steven D. Levitt, co-author, Freakonomics "This extraordinary book features the fascinating research of a brilliant young sociologist. Sudhir Venkatesh spent several years closely interacting with crack-selling gang members and struggling poor residents in a large and very dangerous public housing project in Chicago. His riveting portrait of day-to-day life in this poor community, including the challenges confronting parents in a drug-infested and violent social environment, is disturbing. But, Gang Leader for a Day is rich with original information and insights on poor families, drug dealers and even the police. It will leave an indelible impression on readers." -William Julius Wilson, Harvard University Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser Professor "Whether you enjoy fiction, history, or biography you'll be drawn to Venkatesh's gripping retelling of his experiences in the Robert Taylor Homes. Gang Leader for a Day poignantly reminds us that there continue to be separate and unequal Americas that ultimately impact us all." Congressman Jesse L. Jackson, Jr. (D-IL)
Reading Group Guide
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.
- 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?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This book was awesome but also crazy. Sudhir spent over six years in the projects of Chicago with a gang and the tenants, most of whom are involved in the underground economy in one way or another. He discovered a lot of interesting data about how the underground economy functions in his time as a 'rogue sociologist', but he also put himself in quite a bit of danger. I don't think I'd be quite so naive as to do and say some of the things he did, but who knows. The book reads more like a mini biography of his time in the projects than an expose of life there...so while the book was _fascinating_, I think it could have been written differently/better.
Venkatesh studied the economics of the urban poor for his dissertation. In the course of his research, he spent an extraordinary amount of time among the residents of a Chicago housing project tower, befriending many. One of the people he got to know best was J.T., the leader of a local drug gang. For years, J.T. had convinced himself that Venkatesh was writing about him instead of about the underground economy. He wasn't, but 10 years later, Venkatesh wrote that biography, transforming his extensive notes of conversations with J.T. and others into a readable and interesting, if somewhat simple, documentary of his 5 years or so of research.
I enjoyed this book from start to finish. The author takes us on an almost accidental step into life in the Chicago Projects. Together, we take a journey into a world where good and bad - friend and foe, are far more complicated than we'd like to think. The author does not editorialize or present any feasible solutions, but rather presents a once-in-a-lifetime look into a world and lifestyle that is entirely foreign to most Americans. Should be required reading for students of sociology.
An interesting read about a socoiologist who sets out to study poverty in inner cities and learns about the ins and out of the projects. Well enough written to keep me interested and not too "I am above you all and thus have the answers".
Very compelling pop-sociology book. Sudhir, a grad student at the University of Chicago manages to befriend a gang dealer in South side Chicago during the late 1980s and early 1990s at the height of the crack epidemic. The book explores the "community" aspect of the projects, underground economy, and creative ways that gang members and non-gang affliated persons in the community interact. While the book does not try to condone a lot of the gang's behavior, it does paint a sympathetic picture of the lack of options afforded to such people. Basically, this book does feel a lot like a season of "The Wire" (minus the cops for the most part), and I don't think that's a bad thing.
Rogue? Not really, but I suspect that's the publisher talking. The author doesn't seem to have such a high opinion of himself, and that helps the book a lot. It moves, it has a great mix of the personal (his qualms about using the gang to advance his career) and the descriptive. If you've watched The Wire (which you should of course) and read this, there is a consistency to the picture that adds credibility to both. And it ain't a pretty picture.
Very readable. For some reason a lot of what he says happens doesn't ring true.
Gang Leader For A Day was a fascinating read for me. I read it on an airplane ride, so was able to read it in one setting and it definitely kept my attention the whole time. In telling the story of his time spent as a sociology student with the residents of one of the bigger projects in Chicago, Venkatesh provides quite a lot of insight into gang life and how gangs interact with the community around them. I first ran into this story in Freakonomics, which included a chapter on the economics of drug dealing using some of the data gathered in this research. The analysis piqued my interest, so I quickly grabbed this book up when I came across it. It's a captivating story in many ways, and I think it was worth the time spent.So why did I give the book 2.5 stars if it's so interesting? Frankly, the whole way through, I just kept thinking that it was too good a story to be true. Naive sociology student happens to connect with gang leader and spend the next several years studying the gang and its local community. Hmm. I can not believe Venkatesh was that naive or that his motives were as pure as he makes them out to be. Now, I don't know the author and I concede that I may be wrong, but the book struck me as self-serving the whole way through. It's still a pretty good read, and the portrait of life among the poor in the US is well worth the effort. It's just that I recommend reading with a little bit of a skeptical eye.
Sudhir Venkatesh is the new sociology rock star for Gang Leader for A Day, his story of the years spent doing research in a high-rise project in Chicago, guided and mentored by a gang leader. I mean, come on, when you make it to the Colbert Report, it¿s the ultimate mark of celebrity, right? Can the discipline ride his coattails?There has already been a lot of discussions regarding his book, Gang Leader for a Day at other sociology blogs. Mostly, he has been swiftly criticized on the ¿what was he thinking?¿ mode. Or ¿how could the great William Julius Wilson let him do this?¿ And all these criticisms are valid. There are really moments in the book where I could not help but be irritated with Venkatesh. I think most of my students would have more street smarts than he does. His naivete is annoying or self-serving or both. And of course, there is the fact that he seems quite careless. It seems pretty obvious right from the start than gang life or even project life requires careful attention to minute interactive details. That¿s one lesson he does not learn, or learns too late, after a few people endure extortion or beatings because of his eagerness to please his mentors: J.T. the gang leader, and Ms Bailey, the tenant leader. And when it is over, he receives academic acclaims, a prestigious fellowship, a position at a renowned university, and now, general public visibility. His subjects, on the other hand, are simply left behind with the same poverty and social marginality. Those that are still alive that is. The end of the book left me really uncomfortable and with the feeling that these people had been used for the professional advancement of one person. As Venkatesh himself acknowledges, in the project, he was a hustler among hustlers except that the substance of his hustling was not drug or money. To his credit, he does not shy away from it, but it is still hard to swallow.Ok, that¿s for the negative side. On the positive side, the book is a page-turner. I read within a few days and could not put it down. The accounts of life in the project are fairly detailed and the analysis of the gang life is quite fascinating. It is mistaken to just dismiss life in the projects as chaos or the jungle (as one of my colleagues put it a few days ago). On the contrary, surviving in extreme poverty requires organization, ingenuity, social skills and a pretty good understanding of the surrounding social structure of the projects and the society beyond. For sociologists of urban conditions, it will not be a big surprise to read about the social structure and hierarchy of the projects and the primitive capitalist accumulation that takes place across the board, not just in the gangs but also in the tenants.Venkatesh does a great job at describing the economics of the projects both for the gangs and the tenants. For the gangs, everything revolves around selling drugs and extorting protection money. But the gang leader also sees his organization as a community group that supports the whole project social structure by providing services that the City of Chicago and other social agencies are not providing. But of course, no service comes free to the tenants of the projects: tenants are ¿taxed¿ for everything and anything they receive from the gangs or the tenant leaders. The tenants are captive clients: no one will provide them services but the gangs and the tenant leaders. They have no choice, they¿re stuck. This is life on the margins of society. People have to figure out how to survive on their own and at the mercy of gangs. And the strategies they adopt in order to do just that, incomprehensible from a white middle-class perspective, are used to blame them for their conditions, as in the culture of poverty type of studies.There is definitely ethics at work in the gangs and among the tenants. Certainly, the gang leaders have learned the lessons of capitalism, and a pretty unbridled version of capitalism at that. And as with capitalism, there is v
When finally picking up this book to read it, I looked at the cover and said eh....I don't think that I will read this. I thought it would be dry, I thought it would take a fascinating topic and turn it into statistics. Well, I can always start it and put it down, it would certainly not be the first time that I have put a book down. Once I started, I could not stop. Not a dry, statistical sociological word in the whole book. This man took an amazing risk (kind of by accident) and ended up studying a subculture and inner city life itself. Just amazing. Scary, enlightening, and truthful. Great book!
I read this for my Gangs class for my undergrad. It was a great book about how the gang was run by this guy who could be so cold hearted one minute then the next be a community leader. It gave me a better understanding of the hierarchy of gangs.
I really expected more from Gang Leader for a Day. It reads more like a novel than an academic piece. Plus it's hard to believe that he was in graduate school at the time that he started working on it and that he was unaware that his activities with a gang were not protected by the First Amendment, that he could be held legally liable for watching/encouraging criminal activities even if they were ultimately being studied for research purposes, nor how entirely unethical it was for him to lie in order to ingratiate himself with his research subjects and to get closer to the gang's leader. I expected a lot of the piece because I really liked Freakonomics and it's authors spoke very highly of Sudhir Venkatesh. I didn't find his conclusions to be all that interesting or new, nor did I find his final opinions/arguments to be all that irresistible. He appeared to be far to close to his research subjects, failing at many points to ask what would have been more interesting questions.
What happens when a grad student goes to the projects with a survey on poverty? In this case, a harrowing first 12 hours under confinement by gang members, and then an entre into the world of the gang. Told with an honesty that underscores Venkatesh's ambivalence towards the gang leader, this was a fascinating look at a world most of us would not want to get too close to. In the end, no one spends this much time with the gang without getting touched somehow, but I sense that in this case, it was worth the ride.
Eminently readable and engaging, this book by Sudhir Venkatesh looks beyond the easy conclusions of either sympathy or condemnation for gangs and examines the part they play in an inner-city community. His "in their world but not of it" position lends the book a downer ending as he witnesses but doesn't have to experience the break-up of the community following the destruction of the Robert Taylor homes, but overall, the book is a great read.
Sudhir Venkatesh was a grad student in Sociology at the University of Chicago when he got involved in a gang. Okay, that¿s a little dramatic. What actually happened is that he went into the poor neighborhoods surrounding the U of C and began asking people what it felt to be poor and black (seriously). Turns out that¿s maybe not such a good idea, as he was basically held hostage by a gang who thought he was Mexican and a spy for a rival gang planning a drive-by. Strange as it may seem, the kidnapping doesn¿t end up being all bad. Through it, Sudhir meets the charismatic gang leader J.T. with whom he will spend an inordinate amount of time over the next few years and through whom he will get access to the Robert Taylor projects for his thesis on the economy of poverty.This book was really interesting and I¿m glad I read it, especially living in Chicago and having taught very close to where the events of this book took place. That said, it did disappoint me in some ways. Sudhir¿s story was very interesting, but I expected him to grow as a person or learn something during his sojourn in the projects with the gang. Either that, or I expected that he would write his experiences with a story arc. Either way that would have made the book more memoir-ish, since it seemed too subjective for a real sociology book. Definitely an interesting peek int the real life of gangs and projects in Chicago. There is some absolutely heartbreaking stuff in here, and it helps you understand how people do reprehensible things to survive. Pick it up as an interesting study, but don¿t expect really stellar writing or much of a story arc.