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Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor Hardcover – October 16, 2006

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Editorial Reviews

From 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 © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


In this revealing study of a Southside Chicago neighborhood, sociologist Venkatesh opens a window on how the poor live...Venkatesh keeps his work vital and poignant by using the words of his subjects. (Publishers Weekly 2006-09-04)

[Venkatesh] spent years in a 10-square-block neighborhood on Chicago's South Side observing the clandestine work of gangbangers and mechanics, prostitutes and pastors. The result, Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, suggests that in some American neighborhoods, the underground economy is a source not just of sustenance but of order, and that while shady transactions may be illegal, they adhere to a distinctive and sophisticated set of laws. (Patrick Radden Keefe 2006-12-08)

Remember the Chicago grad student in Freakonomics who figured out why drug dealers live with their mothers? His name is Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, and his new book, Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, is the riveting drug-dealer back story--and a lot more. Venkatesh, who is now a professor of sociology and African-American studies at Columbia, spent 1995 to 2003 following the money in 10 square blocks of the Chicago ghetto. He finds an intricate underground web. In it are dealers and prostitutes--and also pastors who take their money, nannies who don't report income, unlicensed cab drivers, off-the-books car mechanics, purveyors of home-cooked soul food, and homeless men paid to sleep outside stores. Venkatesh's insight is that the neighborhood doesn't divide between 'decent' and 'street'--almost everyone has a foot in both worlds. 'Don't matter in some ways if it's the gang or the church,' says one woman as she describes the network that gives her some sense of security. The Wire meets academia, Off the Books is a great and an instructive read. (Emily Bazelon 2006-12-07)

[Venkatesh] examines the underground economy of a poor Chicago neighborhood and discovers a thriving system of licit and illicit exchange. Although the resourcefulness of certain drug dealers, back-alley mechanics, and fly-by-night day-care providers is remarkable, Venkatesh argues that under-the-table transactions work to further separate their participants from the economic mainstream. (Benjamin Healy The Atlantic 2006-12-01)

In Off the Books, Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh defines the underground economy as 'a web in which many different people, from the criminal to the pious, from the down-and-out to the bourgeois, are inextricably intertwined'...The story Venkatesh tells in Off the Books is specific to Maquis Park, but the underground economy he found there almost certainly has its counterpart in the black ghettos of large cities. Indeed, its reach extends beyond the ghetto to the kitchens of restaurants, the homes of the well-off and the myriad service jobs that employ workers off the books. Yet it remains in the shadows, barely touched by researchers, a vast world usually ignored, misunderstood, or dismissed with stereotypes. Venkatesh's riveting account describes the underground economy through vividly realized characters...[His] dissection of Maquis Park's underground economy overturns one stereotype and common assumption about the urban poor after another...Venkatesh finds the underground economy's origins in the racism, economic devastation, and political abandonment that have decimated many big American cities...What can be done? Venkatesh offers no concrete remedies. But that is not his point. Off the Books is not about policy. Wonderfully written, brilliantly researched, it illuminates, as no other book has done, the ubiquitous world of shady activities that structure everyday life for the residents of the nation's Maquis Parks in ways few Americans observe or understand. (Michael B. Katz Chicago Tribune 2006-11-26)

Venkatesh paints a detailed picture that reflects his close acquaintance with the neighborhood, moving from businesses that are legal but off the books to those that are entirely outside the law and talking to home-based food preparers and preachers, street hustlers and gang members...This is a Chicago you don't know, told in readable prose that puts most other sociologists to shame. (Harold Henderson Chicago Reader)

In Sudhir Venkatesh's newly published Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, readers are introduced to a cast-royale of rogues, some loveable, others little short of detestable, who inhabit a super-isolated ghetto neighborhood in Southside Chicago...For four hundred pages, Venkatesh describes in intimate detail the often bizarre world of economic relationships in this urban edge zone, largely outside the web of economic, political, legal, and law-enforcement structures that dominate mainstream American life. The result is a compelling, deeply disturbing ground-level view of today's underclass...His approach--offering a pastiche of images of the ghetto economy rather than bombarding readers with statistics on income levels, life expectancy, and so forth--firmly situates Venkatesh in a long tradition of writers preoccupied with anecdotally chronicling America's underside and crafting verbal portraits of the colorful, often entertaining misfits on the margins...Overall, this is a fascinating look at a place and community that would otherwise remain entirely under the radar. If our economy and society throws up such spectacular inequalities, at the very least we owe it to the poorest of the poor to try to understand their lives, their struggles, their pain. Venkatesh takes us into this world; it's an often-ugly place, but, as Off the Books shows, it is also one that is strangely compelling. (Sasha Abramsky American Prospect Online 2007-01-10)

[A] remarkable book. (Paul Seabright Times Literary Supplement 2007-06-22)

[Venkatesh] immersed himself in Maquis Park, a poor black neighborhood on Chicago’s Southside…He discovered and analyzed the diverse forms of unregulated, unreported, and untaxed work of small business owners. This “off the books” world thrives due to residents’ lack of human capital, high entry costs, poverty, and social isolation. Venkatesh’s analysis weaves hair salons, auto repairs, pimps, drug dealers, block club leaders, ministers, and gang leaders into an intricate web of exchange networks. Varied individuals are also called upon to mediate conflicts in the neighborhood. Venkatesh concludes that without significant changes in inner cities, the underground will flourish. Reminiscent of works by Elijah Anderson. (J A. Fiola Choice 2007-09-01)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; First Edition, First Printing edition (October 16, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674023552
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674023550
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.8 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #528,495 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

89 of 98 people found the following review helpful By Robert Daniels on October 1, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Some books are informative. And some books are eye-opening. This book is eye-opening. Read it and you will learn many fascinating things you never dreamed were going on....

...unless you already live in a highly urbanized/disadvantaged neighborhood.

The author is an enterprising young academic who is drawn to the firsthand study of life in such neighborhoods. Being of mixed race "gave me (the author) an indeterminate and unthreatening presence" by which he could spend months with the residents - enough time to understand life and the economy there with more thoroughness than perhaps ever before.

The underground economy in this corner of America is woven into every fabric of life. You learn first hand about enterprises running the gamut from the homeless fellow who does reliable auto repair in back alleys and side streets, to the (no surprise here) sex workers and drug sellers, to the stay at home mom that cooks meals for local residents, shopkeepers and even the police.

You learn how the local gang leader is not simply a lawless soul feared by all, but a broker of influence upon which even the most upstanding residents come to rely.

With so much disadvantage built into the neighborhood you come to understand how everyone learns to accept shady economic dealings out of the joint recognition of the need to survive. But when such dealings bring a larger than acceptable threat to the children and residents, then the gang leader is often brought in to broker a deal to return things to homeostasis.

As a white suburbanite here is what struck me the most. There is waaaaay more tolerance and acceptance among neighbors in the ghetto than there is in suburbia.
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21 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on May 29, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh has the potencial for a really good book here, but he mucks it up by switching back and forth between being an objective social scientist reporting his findings and a sympathetic visitor to the urban American slum. His digressions into obscure and arcane points of academic theory interrupt the narrative flow and make the book a tedious read at times.

With that minor quibble stated however, Off the Books is a very enlightening survey of the seemingly intractable problems facing the population of America's ghettos. I highly recommend it to the people who promote laissez-faire economic policies as a cure-all for urban social pathologies.
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30 of 40 people found the following review helpful By J. A. Walsh VINE VOICE on January 23, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Saw Venkatesh's book on Slate's list of the best of 2006 and looked forward to reading it after picking it up.

I was disappointed, but I'll confess that I think I was expecting too much. With all due respect to Venkatesh, who is a professor of sociology and African-American Studies, this book would have been much more enjoyable in the hands of a commercial (versus academic) writer.

The subject matter holds great potential and the research is exhaustive, maybe no commercial author could have provided the insight and won the access that the author did, but I found the book redundant and the treatment oversimple - some analysis of what drives an underground economy (barriers of education, criminal history, etc.) and how it takes shape (the licit vs. illicit side, barter, entrepeneurship, criminal racketeering, etc.) is important, but here its overwrought, and the book winds up being too long and too light.

Venkatesh endlessly returns to labored insights on the clockwork of the "shady economy," and to his obvious sympathy and compassion for his subjects. The latter is emotional and political and is manifest throughout the book - and it is crippling.

A characteristic example exists in the laughable introduction of "Bird," one of the book's plucky heroes, a local mother who Venkatesh describes as "working...sixty to seventy hours a week" as a prostitute.

Sadly, for me, there wasn't a lot new here, still Venkatesh seems to want to make this about politics, public policy, and race. But the fact is that there is little here that wasn't equally applicable to the underworld economies of Capone's Chicago and many others throughout time and across the world.
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13 of 17 people found the following review helpful By David Steele on February 12, 2007
Format: Hardcover
40 years ago, Jane Jacobs influenced generations of planners and urban policy makers with her "Death and Life of Great American Cities," a sensitive and sensible portrait of how great cities work as social organisms. Jacobs turned 60 years of urban policy on its head and gave birth to a new way of thinking about cities and how to solve their problems: by celebrating and encouraging their social fabric, rather than dividing it with freeways and public housing projects. Since Jacobs' work, American cities have seen a great resurgance in their central cores. But today they are more divided than ever between rich and poor. While America's central cities are seeing more investment and interest than ever before, those same central cities are also home to deepening poverty and despair.

Sudhir Venkatesh has produced a startlingly honest portrayal of how this "other half" the American urban experience really works. While Jacobs saw density as the answer to the city's problems rather than the cause of them, Venkatesh examines what happens when the density of the city meets deep generational poverty. In a world where everyone is engaged in everyday survival, the "eyes and ears" that Jacobs celebrated as the ultimate contol over social behavior become, in Venkatesh's analysis, the mechnism of regulation of a vast underground, off the books economy. The neighborhoods Venkatesh studies are places that are ignored and forgotten by the larger society, places where resources are scarce and where the very definition of "right and wrong" is colored by the need to survive, to put food on the table, to make rent.

Venkatesh provides a refreshingly non-ideological study into how the urban poor really live.
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