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American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto Paperback – May 15, 2002

ISBN-13: 978-0674008304 ISBN-10: 0674008308

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 360 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (May 15, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674008308
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674008304
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.1 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #409,316 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Venkatesh (sociology, Inst. for Research in African-American Studies, Columbia Univ.) began his extensive exploration of the history of the notorious Robert Taylor Homes public housing project as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. His methodology is to build a "collective history" by combining surveys, documentary research, and participant observation. This approach provides a fascinating and rigorous explanation of how a model of urban subsidized housing, which succeeded for 20 years, declined into disastrous conditions for its inhabitants. He looks, for example, at criminal activity in the project with an unflinching view of the contributions of such social structural changes as the economy and labor market, social services providers, city and state politicians, police practices, and residents. This is an important contribution to understanding urban poverty and will stand with classic work by Carol Stack and William Julius Wilson (who wrote the foreword). Highly recommended for public or academic collections in sociology, urban studies, and public policy.DPaula R. Dempsey, DePaul Univ. Lib., Chicago
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

Venkatesh spent hundreds of hours interviewing residents of Chicago's Robert Taylor Holmes housing project. Poorly designed, cheaply built, and isolated from surrounding neighborhoods by an expressway, the Holmes project was doomed almost from the start...Venkatesh describes the struggles of tenant leaders and social activists who resisted the gangs and sought to improve living conditions, but he can't point to any wholesale reform in what was a fatally flawed system from the get-go. (Kirkus Reviews)

A fascinating and rigorous explanation of a how a model of urban subsidized housing, which succeeded for 20 years, declined into disastrous conditions for its inhabitants...[American Project] is an important contribution to understanding urban poverty and will stand with classic work by Carol Stack and William Julius Wilson (who wrote the foreword). Highly recommended. (Paula R. Dempsey Library Journal)

This book gets beyond academic analysis and gives voice to residents' concerns over education and health care, as well as the lack of employment opportunities, which in turn pushes young people to the streets in search of a means of earning money. By describing inhabitants' strident efforts to unify the community and fight political battles against an often indifferent bureaucracy, Venkatesh challenges the stereotypical notion that public housing fails because its residents do. (Doubletake)

The demolition of high-rise public housing such as the Robert Taylor Homes can only improve the lives of those presently subjected to its debilitating and dangerous grasp, right? Wrong. That, at least, is the carefully thought-out view of Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh in American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto. Revivifying participant observation as a form of sociological research, Venkatesh...has produced an ethnography of the South Side's most infamous project that challenges much of what passes for conventional wisdom...In many ways, Venkatesh's study...appears as a brief against a policy of demolition and dispersal...Forced relocations with minimal assistance would uproot the social networks painstakingly created over the past generation and represent a retrogression...The problem, in short, lay not simply with the occupants of public housing but in their relationship with the larger society. (Arnold Hirsch Chicago Tribune 2001-01-14)

The general public believes the Robert Taylor Homes are an unmistakable failure. But author Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh challenges that view...It's not that most communities are free of the social ills that infect public housing but 'that we ask more of the poor, and particularly those in public housing'...[whose] good intentions [are] thwarted by poor law enforcement, diminished federal funding, thriving underground economies and increased gang violence. (Chicago Reporter 2000-11-01)

Venkatesh wrote American Project to urge readers to get beyond the quantitative, statistical measure of the urban pathology of public housing and look at the 'collective memory' of the people who lived there. It's all too easy to disparage life in the projects, Venkatesh notes, but such thinking also disparages the forms of community, political organization, and ultimately the lives of those who made Robert Taylor their home...American Project is moving, thoughtful, and written with common-sense clarity. (Michael Corbin Baltimore City Paper 2001-12-13)

The major contribution of this book is its focus. Most of the recent books on the life of the inner city ghetto focus exclusively on the individual behavior of poor urban residents, and stress the pathology of the inner city. American Project, however, documents continuous efforts of the project residents to create community, to pool resources and political muscle to insure the continuation of basic services, and to secure democratic representation. The ultimate failure of Robert Taylor Homes was not a lack of trying, but rather that the problems faced by the residents went beyond what they could address with limited resources. (G. Rabrenovic Choice 2001-04-01)

[This] history of Chicago's notorious Robert Taylor Homes...[describes] how this once promising program fell so low and [offers] cautionary lessons for progressives who want to devise successful social policies...Venkatesh probes beyond the headlines about Robert Taylor Homes--the shootings, murders, accidental deaths, and police sweeps--and shows us how its residents used whatever resources were at hand to adjust to adverse circumstances. The brilliance of the author's approach is that he listens sympathetically to the people who lived and worked in this massive public housing development, yet he remains scrupulously objective. (Alexander von Hoffman American Prospect 2001-04-09)

The results of Venkatesh's myriad experiences are encomapped in 332 rivetting, thought-provoking pages...Completely different from the usual sociological tracts, American Project proffers a strong narrative and vivid stories. It offers its readers challenging insights into the lives of people in the government-subsidised [Robert Taylor] Homes. Above all, it stunningly portrays the transformation of a curious Indian-American "outsider" into an "insider" who gradually comes to understand and appreciate "the beauty of human condition" amidst squalor and violence. (Arthur J. Pals India Today International 2001-02-26)

American Project is a revealing look at what works (and what doesn't) in public housing--and why. Sudhur Alladi Venkatesh, one of the most promising young sociologists today, tells the story of one of America's most infamous housing projects, the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago...Based on nearly a decade of fieldwork within the projects themselves, American Project is the first comprehensive story of what went wrong in one of America's first and most famous public housing projects. By engaging himself with the community, Venkatesh gets beyond a purely academic analysis and is able to illustrate the benefits and pitfalls of urban public housing both in the Robert Taylor homes and within the larger realm of urban studies. He draws on his personal relationships with tenants, and local police officers and municipal organizations--to tell the real story of the besieged inner-city community that journalists and outsiders often never see. (Black Perspective 2001-02-01)

American Project examines the Robert Taylor Homes, a high-rise public housing complex in Chicago. It records the initial hopes when the development opened in 1962 and the deterioration that later occurred...[This book] is a rich and perceptive account of the inhabitants of the project, which brings us into close contact with everyone from poor tenants to drug peddling gangs...In this vivid and compelling portrait of the project, Venkatesh describes the breakdown of the public housing effort in 20th-century America. Most important is his observation that service providers and other officials often operated in a system that limited their ability to improve conditions. (Allan Winkler Times Higher Education Supplement 2001-06-15)

American Project is a rich and perceptive account of the inhabitants of the project, which brings us into close contact with everyone from poor tenants to drug-peddling gangs. (Allan Winkler Times Higher Education Supplement 2001-06-15)

More About the Author

Sudhir Venkatesh is William B. Ransford Professor of Sociology & the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University in the City of New York. He served as a Senior Advisor to the Department of Justice from 2009-2012.

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

28 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Alan Mills VINE VOICE on December 26, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Venkatesh has done a superb job of describing the interrelationships between tenants, and the relationship between tenants and management, as well as chronicalling the changes in these relationships since Robert Taylor was constructed in the early 60's. Anyone who wants to move beyond the headlines, and find out more about the strengths and weaknesses of life in a public housing development should read this book.
That said, the author's background and training as a sociologist comes through loud and clear, and ultimately limits his book. While Venkatesh does a good job of detailing the social relationships among the players, he virtually ignores the larger political issues. Why was management so inept as to be virtually non-existent? Why did the drug/crime culture take hold, and how did the gangs transfor themselves into multi-state corporate enterprises? Most importantly, given that CHA is now in the process of demolishing virtually everyone of the buildings which form Robert taylor Homes, how do we avoid creating the same problems in the next generation of public housing.
Excellent bibliography, by the way. A very good place to dig for resources for anyone wanting to study the history of the Chicago Housing Authority since 1960.
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29 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Don S. Samuelson on December 31, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Venkatesh describes his research experience at the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago in a readable and engaging style. His work, while at the University of Chicago, was a result of interviews, traditional research of literature and "hanging out." With the residents, the CHA staff, the resident leadership and the gangs which had a variety of community, business and narcotics interests.
Traditional property management services were not provided to CHA residents as a matter of right. Instead, a complicated set of rules violations (reporting income, reporting household composition), payoffs, relationship brokering, "hustle," and an underground economy emerged to get basic services (repairs, heat, security, etc.) to the residents of Robert Taylor.
In the beginning the "brokerage" was provided by the resident leadership (the Local Advisory Council)and the CHA staff. Gradually, with the emergence of the drug economy, the role was assumed by the gang/drug interests which really controlled conditions at the CHA family developments like Robert Taylor. The police and other traditional service institutions ceded their responsibilities to these interests. And public housing developments like Robert Taylor became "free crime" zones.
The CHA is presently engaged in highly innovative "Plan for Transformation" whereby all of the 25000 units of family and senior housing has been put under private management during the past year, and the CHA high rises are being vacated as part of an effort to replace them with mixed income, mixed use communities, where resident services are provided as a matter of course, and the public housing developments are to be integrated into the larger community structure of which they are a part.
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42 of 54 people found the following review helpful By William Beaver on June 11, 2001
Format: Hardcover
American Project is the story of the Robert Taylor high-rise housing project built in Chicago in the 1960s for lower income blacks. Ultimately, it is a story about social control; that is, the attempt to control various criminal and delinquent acts in order to make Robert Taylor a livable community. Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh traces the struggle of the residents to do so, despite poor security provided by the Chicago Housing Authority and inadequate police protection. For the first ten years efforts by the residents to maintain some sense of order worked to varying degrees but after that it was all downhill.
Most problematic was the emergence of gangs like the Blacks Kings who became more than just an ordinary street gang -- they became an organized criminal group devoted to making big money through drug deals. A significant part of book is devoted to analyzing attempts to deal with the Black Kings. Some within the community wanted to cooperate with the group conceding that there was no way to stop them from selling drugs. Hence, the only viable policy was compromise. Appeals were to the Black King's leadership to increase public safety, and these efforts worked as long as Kigs benefited. For instance, it's easier to sell any product in an atmosphere of calm rather than chaos. However, when policies were not in the interests of the group they failed, as did Robert Taylor which was eventually torn down.
I find two major weaknesses in the book: First, since social control is the primary theme of the book one would expect more that just passing references to single-parent families in that numerous studies show that when single mothers raise boys by themselves criminal activity increases.
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16 of 22 people found the following review helpful By S. Sourelis on April 30, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I found Venkatesh's book to be quite compelling, yet I took issue with the book jacket's contention that it is "the first comprehensive story of daily life in an American public housing complex." There was once written a book, "Behind Ghetto Walls" by Lee Rainwater in 1970, regarding the former Pruitt-Igo project in St. Louis. This book, too, is a comprehensive study on daily life in a project, and an excellent one at that.
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