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Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets Hardcover – January 10, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Honest and entertaining, Columbia University professor Venkatesh vividly recounts his seven years following and befriending a Chicago crack-dealing gang in a fascinating look into the complex world of the Windy City's urban poor. As introduced in Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner's bestseller, Freakonomics, Venkatesh became involved with the Black Kings—and their charismatic leader J.T.—as a first-year doctoral student at the University of Chicago. Sent to the projects with a multiple-choice test on poverty as his calling card, Venkatesh was, to his surprise, invited in to see how the drug dealers functioned in real life, from their corporate structure to the corporal punishment meted out to traitors and snitches. Venkatesh's narrative breaks down common misperceptions (such as all gang members are uneducated and cash rich, when the opposite is often true), the native of India also addresses his shame and subsequent emotional conflicts over collecting research on illegal activities and serving as the Black Kings' primary decision-maker for a day—hardly the actions of a detached sociological observer. But overinvolved or not, this graduate student turned gang-running rogue sociologist has an intimate and compelling tale to tell. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From School Library Journal
Adult/High School—As a young graduate student fresh off an extended stint following the Grateful Dead, Venkatesh began studying urban poverty. With a combination of an ethnographer's curiosity about another culture and some massive naïveté, he gathered firsthand knowledge of the intricacies of Chicago's Robert Taylor projects. Early on, he met a megalomaniac gang leader known here as J.T., who became his mentor. Venkatesh observed and learned how the crack game works, and how many have their fingers in the pie and need life to remain the way it is. He observed violence, corruption, near homelessness, good cops, bad cops, and a lot of neglect and politics-as-usual. He made errors in judgment—it took a long time for his street smarts to catch up to his book smarts—but he tells the story in such a way as to allow readers to figure out his missteps as he did. Finally, as the projects began to come down, Venkatesh was able to demonstrate how something that seems positive is not actually good for everyone. The first line in his preface, "I woke up at about 7:30 a.m. in a crack den," reflects the prurient side of his studies, the first chapter title, "How does it feel to be black and poor?" reflects the theoretical side, and both work together in this well-rounded portrayal.—Jamie Watson, Harford County Public Library, MD
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Aside from learning all about life in the Projects and enjoying the story of getting to know the people in this book, I learned several important things which I never realized before.
This book showed me what life was like in every primitive society before the rule of law. One can either have a society where the Rule of Law is enforced, or one where the Law of Power is enforced.
Where we have the Rule of Law, everyone is subject to the rule, and laws and contracts are enforced. This protects the general public against HUMAN PREDATORS as THIEVES, as well as those engaged in "OUTLAW CAPITALISM."
What we have here in the Projects is a TRIBAL SOCOETY, where the leader (warlord) manages with a combination of POWER and CHARISMA. He takes a cut (like a 'federal' tax) off of EVERY activity that goes on in the complex, from selling candy, washing cars, prostitution, sub-lets, and of course, drug sales. There are smaller community leaders (smaller warlords, male and female) who also take cuts off a number of smaller activities (like 'local' taxes).
Reading this book helped me better understand the piracy in Somalia and why we are unlikely to see it eliminated in our lifetimes. Once a society has collapsed, it goes back to this warlord model. It takes a long time for a society to build out of that; such a society cannot easily be put back together. In fact, this model probably applies to more human societies, even today, than does the democratic model.
This book helped me to better understand government corruption in the developing world. A democratic model is trying to be imposed upon peoples who behave in a tribal and/or predatory manner with each other.
This is a model that the middle and upper classes in America are far enough removed from that they don't understand it. The whole model makes it difficult for people to get out of this life paradigm.
I especially learned that the MOST important business of government--more important than defense, or infrastructure--is REGULATION. Here we have everyone needing to be a "hustler" in order to survive. We have capitalism at it's most extreme and unregulated form. This book really showed me why it is important that capitalism continue to be regulated.
This book also had a lot to say about everyday micromanagement of the drug trade on the street level. It covered a different facet than many other books on the drug trade, which concentrate on the lives of the top bosses. I learned that selling drugs on a street corner is actually the drug industry's minimum-wage job, also undertaken for the maximum risk.
Anyone interested in these subjects should definitely read this book.
After a tense introduction, Venkatesh befriended JT, a leader of Chicago's Black Kings gang. This book is Venkatesh's account of the decade he spent observing gang life in the projects. He followed JT around Robert Taylor Homes, witnessing crack-making and selling, prostitution, and an overabundance of violence -- both gang related, and not. He witnessed life in public housing for those who partnered with the gang, and for those who tried to avoid the gang at all costs.
The subject matter of this book is one that has always intrigued me - in high school, I read a book called There Are No Children Here (also set in Chicago), which highlighted the lives of children growing up in a blighted and failing housing system. I chose the college I did because I had originally planned to major in Urban Studies and Sociology (I majored in English). Though I didn't study urban plight as I had originally planned, my interest in the subject hasn't waned, and I anticipated loving this book. I didn't. But, I did enjoy it, it was a quick read, and I learned much about the decay of our urban settings.
The main issue that I had with this book, is that Venkatesh struck me as painfully naive. He walked into a housing project with a multiple choice survey that asked questions like, "How does it feel to be black and poor?" and actually expected people to respond. What were they supposed to say? "Oh, I love being black and poor. It doesn't bother me at all that I'm a marginalized person, living in a dilapidated building."? Come now.
I don't feel like one needs a Mensa caliber brain to realize that these questions are silly and insulting. And yet, Venkatesh was Ph.D. level student at a renowned institution. It just reminded me never to take my common sense for granted.
This event took place in the first chapter -- and I didn't really feel that his naivety improved. Venkatesh spent the better part of a decade observing these people, interviewing them, getting to know them, and earning their trust, but, I never felt that he truly understood them. And in fairness, maybe that understanding was never a true possibility.
At one point, he broke away from JT for a few days, and interviewed some of the others living in the building. He asked them questions about their "jobs," and their abilities to make a living in this setting. They answered his questions honestly, telling him of the various underground money-making projects that they participated in. Venkatesh knew that JT and his gang "taxed" all the residents who used the building as a place to make money -- and JT was apparently unaware of many of these schemes. Yet, Venkatesh still told JT about these different projects, and then was genuinely surprised when the tenants were angry at him for running his mouth. I wanted to scream at him, "You're a damn fool Sudhir, come on!"
During his tenure with the gang, Venkatesh learned so much about how the gang worked and operated, and saw that the gang functioned with the gusto of a Fortune 500 company. JT was the leader of his faction; he had an accountant and a planner. He had worker-bee foot soldiers who stood on the street and sold the product (crack), and he had a whole variety of customers. But, above JT, there was an entire upper-level hierarchy to strive for. The Black Kings were a nationwide gang, and they held leadership meetings all over the country. Venkatesh was fascinated by this -- and so was I.
It's not a surprise that the Black Kings cropped up in these buildings. The Robert Taylor Homes were deplorably set-up -- they stretched from 39th Street to 54th, running alongside the Dan Ryan Expressway. In other words, in order for the tenants to LEAVE their housing, they had to literally cross the highway. Many of them did not have cars. They were effectively isolated from the rest of society. The buildings themselves were high rises of 16 stories each - with outdoor hallways. Outdoor. Like a motel. In Chicago.
If you haven't been to Chicago -- I'll paint this picture for you: in the winter, Lake Michigan, a huge lake, freezes over. Solid. I've had the wind in Chicago rip at my face so severely that my eyes streamed like I was sobbing, with those tears then literally freezing to my face the second they left my eyes and hit the air. It's cold. It's so. frigging. cold. And, their hallways were outside.
After children began plummeting to their deaths from the upper floors, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) begrudgingly put chain-link fences up along the corridors. So, these people lived in buildings, with outdoor hallways, enclosed by the beauty of chain-link metal.
Outdoor hallways aside - the CHA built these buildings, crammed the people inside, and then left, never to come back or administer the required up-keep. Doors fell off the hinges. Water stopped running in many apartments. The elevators sometimes just, went into a free-fall, killing everyone inside -- and this was only if they were working at all. Appeals to the CHA for help went unanswered. It's not surprising that impoverished people, in run-down buildings, with little access to the city, began organizing themselves into street-gangs.
But, with all of this said, can gang members be absolved of their multiple misdeeds? I don't personally believe so, and Venkatesh struggled with this also. I don't think he wanted to absolve them; it was clear that he understood that gang-life wasn't a sustainable lifestyle. Gang members weren't long for this world, and unfortunately, neither were the innocents that they came in contact with. The members of this particular gang often said, "You need to understand that the Black Kings are not a gang; we are a community organization, responding to people's needs," and Venkatesh admitted his skepticism about this many times.
The gang felt that it provided its tenants "safety," and "employment." They also conducted "community outreach," by going door-to-door and encouraging people to register to vote (once they were signed up, the gang told them who they were to vote for. The Chicago political machine is alive and well, even in the 'hood).
The gang may have provided "protection" to the tenants of their building, but they were also targets of drive-by shootings --in which innocents were killed. The gang may have employed people, paying them money to sell drugs -- but in this they were perpetuating addiction. For each "service" that they provided, they inflicted a world of pain. The cycle was never-ending, and vicious.
My favorite part of this book though, was the illumination of city-wide, governmental corruption. The CHA wouldn't conduct repairs when most tenants called, but they accepted bribes from some of the "building leaders" in exchange for vaguely explained services.
There were police officers that would come into the buildings and beat drug dealers, then raid their apartments, stealing their drugs and their money, but without issuing an arrest. They didn't actually have interest in getting them off of the streets (otherwise, how could they get their cut of a rather lucrative drug trade)?
The Aldermen were terrible too. They could be bought by the gang leaders -- they would keep well-meaning police officers away from parks where the dealers would be selling their drugs. It was frustrating.
Eventually, the Robert Taylor homes were torn down, and all tenants were "relocated." Many moved to different poor neighborhoods, continuing their life in the projects. Some of JT's gang members joined other gangs to ensure their own safety. The CHA was responsible for relocating the tenants, but it shirked this duty along with all of its others, and the tenants did what they could on their own to find places to live.
This book was frustrating, eye-opening, and disheartening. Yet, I recommend it. For more of my reviews, go to readingandmusing.com