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Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor First Edition Edition

3.8 out of 5 stars 41 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674030718
ISBN-10: 0674030710
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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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

No scholar in America understands the underground economy like Sudhir Venkatesh. The book is both beautifully written and incredibly insightful. I can't remember the last time I learned so much from reading a book. (Steven D. Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics)

Sudhir Venkatesh has uncovered a social world that will surprise even the most sophisticated observers of human behavior. This extraordinary study could become a classic urban ethnography, and will certainly change the way we think about life and work in the underground. (William Julius Wilson, author of When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor)

Off the Books is an outstanding contribution to our understanding urban economic, social and political processes. This engrossing ethnography has led me to change how I theoretically think about fundamental concepts such as social capital, social isolation, and the state of civil society in the US. (Michael C. Dawson, author of Black Visions)

An original portrait of the blurred boundaries between so-called legitimate and illegitimate economic relations in the U.S. ghetto …A most comprehensive look at the informal economic life of the urban poor. (Mitchell Duneier, author of Sidewalk)

An unsentimental but powerfully human analysis of the webs of underground activity that sustain poor neighborhoods and their residents. Venkatesh gives the lie to the denigrating tropes of shiftlessness, mental dullness, government dependence, and disorganization that have been used to indict families in poverty. (Mary Pattillo, author of Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City)

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 Slate.com 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 Slate.com 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

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; First Edition edition (February 1, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674030710
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674030718
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.2 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #235,454 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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This was a good book at first but once you continued reading it basically repeated the same variations on a single rather depressing theme of how people in absolute profound poverty tolerate every kind of depravity to get by. The book seems to be a written if slightly updated version of the old Norman Lear Comedy "GOOD TIMES!" You see good people kissing up to drug kingpins in a vain attempt to stem violence on the streets that police officers have given up on. You see police officers prostituting themselves to get work done on their personal vehicles at low ghetto prices. Almost everyone in this book is on the take or tainted by ghetto life in some way. The author portrays himself as an almost saintly gift to the ghetto who brokers peace to the unwashed impoverished savages of the inner city mean streets. The book is very condescending in places to the point that it is almost hard to read.

In its defense, Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor is a mostly accurate if painfully unflattering incarnation of ghetto life. Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor is filled with people doing “whateva” to survive another day. Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor is bad in that it does not look beyond the ghetto stereotypes. Let me tell you weak minded lame every ghetto stereotype is adequately represented in Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor . The problem I have with Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor is that it does not look beneath the ghetto stereotypes to see the people, the harsh decisions and the underlying issues that make life off the books mandatory for the people trapped in this impoverished life of pure hell.
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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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Venkatesh has masterfully produced what is both effective and persuasive in his work “Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor.” It is effective in that he captures the essence of a plighted people and place, and persuasive because some kind of personal change will be experienced in the range of time before the book is read to after it is finished. He shows that there is good, there is bad, and there is ugly existing in Maquis Park, just like every other neighborhood across the United States. In this way, Venkatesh indicate a contradiction throughout the book, which is how this Chicago neighborhood is both its own separate entity unlike any other, as well as a place not much different than certain areas of urban poor and that mirrors those in existence across the nation. Without any available opposition, the argument is that he has accomplished what he intended: an insightful overview and persuasive analyzed study of an impoverished Chicago underground neighborhood that operates by its own rules and yields its own particular series of events.

One can certainly appreciate Venkatesh’s objectiveness, a key element in writing a piece such as his. He does not take us into this hush world to prove its existence of right or wrong, just as he does not claim its innocence nor deny the evident corruption. As a whole, this book does exactly what you want it to. It does not aimlessly give countless personal accounts like one may blindly prepare for, it instead correctly uses firsthand information to augment support for its arguments. It stays on focus and then brings in the scholarly analysis when necessary. It also awakens one, if he or she is not already awoken, to the world of social stratification.
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