Gang Leader for a Day: a Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets
© 2008 Sudhir Venkatesh
One of my ways to find reading related to my interests is to visit Amazon and search for books I have read before and liked: I then browse the “Related Books” section. It was in this way that I found Gang Leader for a Day, having searched for Freakonomics. One particular section in Freaknomics — about a young University of Chicago graduate student who spent years associating with a Chicago gang, whose research showed how little money most crack dealers actually made — intrigued me, and after I began reading Gang Leader for a Day I realized that this was the very same graduate student.
The story goes that while a grad student at UC, Venkatesh joined a project overseen byDr. William Julius Wilson and was tasked with visiting a housing development and asking a few questions. Venkatesh does so, and immediately draws the attention of several gang members who believe him to be a spy from one of the Mexican gangs in the city. They force him to stay in one of the buildings under their paranoid eyes while they wait for their boss (a man Venkatesh will name “J.T.”) to arrive. When J.T. he arrives, he asks Venkatesh about his studies, and bursts into laughter when Venkatesh begins to ask him questions from his survey — “How does it feel to be black and poor?” J.T. quickly informs Venkatesh that if he wants to find out about life in the projects, he has to spend time with the people who live there — not walk around with a clipboard asking census questions.
So begins an at least six-year project in which Venkatesh spends time with people living in the Robert Taylor housing projects in Chicago, a a major source of drug trafficking. While Venkatesh’s initial years are spent with J.T. and other members of the BK gang, his research — which eventually assumes the form of exploring how people living there respond to poverty — takes him into the community of the housing projects. The distinction between the two is very vague: the gang members are quick to assert that the gang is a community-building project, hosting parties and helping out people who need a hand, and as Venkatesh will see, community leaders from tenant presidents to local ministers have to deal with the gang as if they were a “legitimate” part of the community. Indeed, Venkatesh documents the power conflict between J.T. and Ms. Bailey, the tenant president.
This is not a Goodfellas–esque work of voyeurism: Venkatesh’s book does more than just showing the “secret work of drug leaders”. It reflects his dissertation in that it does show how impoverish people are struggling and adapting themselves to their situation. In a place where the federal government doesn’t exist and the city government is negligent when not impotent, people make due with what they’ve got, leading people to make what an outsider would see as morally questionable choices. I found myself both sympathizing with and slightly put-off by some of the people who emerged. At the same time Venkatesh is writing about this community in the projects, he also labors to connect it with the greater context of the late 20th century and especially the early 1990s.
The book makes for gripping reading. It’s an easy narrative to read through, even when Venkatesh is trying to relate what he’s seeing to the outside world and thus giving the reader background information. It’s also extremely thought-provoking. I’m not reading the book at a very deep level, but even in my relatively casual reading experience a lot of questions surfaced. It changed my idea of what Chicago gangs were like — I am only familiar with the old Italian gangs of Prohibition and to a lesser extent the modern drug gangs in Los Angeles — but it also showed me how deep the problem of inner-city decay is. It also helped me to understand a little of the racial divide in Chicago, something I hadn’t thought of until last Saturday when I listened to a This American Life show called “The Wrong Side of History”. It gives me a new respect for what President Obama and his colleagues must have had to go through when working in Chicago, and now I want to read about his work there.
I definitely recommend this.