Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor
© 2006 Sudhir Venkatesh
In the spring, I read Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day, an analysis of gang life in one of Chicago’s more prominent street gangs, which Venkatesh referred to as the “Black Kings”. Although the book’s focus was on the gang, its relationship to the local community showed me how difficult was for people living in that area to simply get by: in the abcense of any federal or municipal help, the people of the community had to make do with what they had, and that often meant relying on the gang for some services even though many community leaders despised them. Another work by Venkatesh, Off the Books, came up in a lecture on urban poverty in a sociology class, and I knew it was a must-read for me.
Off the Books shifts Venkatesh’s focus to the community of “Maquis Park” and the unofficial economy that undergirds it.With so few jobs in the area, people make a living however they can. Some of the methods chosen are conventional, but with a twist: an automechanic may pay a fee to a local landowner to use his parking lot or adjoining alleyway as a place to work on cars. Others are unique and defy easy labeling, like the information broker or opportunity realtor who helps hopeful hustlers find a safe streetcorner, parking lot, or alleyway to start working and directs customers to them. Everyone in the community participates in this off-the-books exchange, which involves a fair bit of for-kind or bartering agreements. A more legitimate automechanic with an actual garage may accept payments in the form of appliances, for instance, which he then sells. Venkatesh approaches the underground economy from five angles: he looks first at what families do to get by, then examines the roles business owners, street hustlers, religious leaders, and the local gang play in it. Because these players are typically interacting with another — a homeless man may be paid by a business owner to sit outside his door at night to keep burgulars away, and he might also be paid by a gang leader to keep an eye out for members of a car theft ring that are cutting into the Black Kings’ profits, while religious leaders often mediate conflicts between the gang, hustlers, and residents — there’s a fair amount of reundanancy. I read about the same interactions from different angles, but enough new information was gained from each angle that I don’t think this is a mistake on Venkatesh’s part.
What strikes me most about the book is what originally drew me to it: these are people doing the best they can to survive a socio-economic situation. Municipal leaders overlook the impoverished communities, so they must take matters into their own hands — relying on themselves to police the streets, keeping excesses to a minimum. The “us” and “them” roles change frequently: the gang or the homeless may be the problem in one instance and the solution in another. Poverty and the lack of responsive government has lead to a self-governing society of poverty, with its own leaders, courts, police, and “taxes”. I’m further interested in what Chicago leaders are trying to do to help the situation, and want to find out what Barack Obama’s role was as a “community organizer”: as I said in my comments on Gang Leader for a Day, being a community organizer in Chicago’s southside is for me an uniminagable challenge. The book is compelling, its stories told well, and its substance educational — particuarly for me.