Customer Reviews: Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets
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VINE VOICEon March 16, 2008
This book is definitely an interesting read, particularly if you are not from the wrong side of the tracks. For most middle and upper class readers, I believe this is an insightful and voyueristic view of the lives that are so often forgotten about in this country.
Having grown up on the wrong side of the tracks and having lived in the projects for a time, I found myself deeply conflicted by the author's portrayal of others and himself. In the end he is only somewhat honest with himself about being the biggest hustler of all in the book. How exactly do you eat people's food and sit on their couches and follow them around for six years and in the end say you weren't even friends? Is this simply artificial distance inserted to make himself seem more scholarly, or does he really feel this way about the people who greatly contributed to his career? He tries to distinguish himself from the very people he interacted with and at times participated in morally questionable behavior with by describing himself as dressing appropriately for an Ivy League professor while returning to visit the ghetto. This description of himself at the end of the book brought home sharply to me the reality that most people will take a look at this world, like the author, and then put it down and walk away from the very real needs that real Americans have and it left me frustrated and angry. For every person who makes it out, there are hundreds left behind and most people are unwilling or unable to do anything except close a book and forget. I highly question that anything will be done as a result of this work to significantly improve impoverished Americans' situations, a view that the author confirms.
For all of the conflicting statements about various individuals moral choices in the book, the real heroes are the people who are trying to make the best of a bad situation. J.T., the drug dealer who gave the author the unprecendented access, reflects the true complexity of his environment and the ways in which people rationalize what they have to do in order to make a life for their families. And in many ways all of the people who spoke with and participated in the author's journey through American poverty reflect the same principles and values that the rest of America have. We all make choices and do what we have to do to get by, no matter how cultured we pretend to be.
So while I am frustrated by the author's need to distinguish himself from the people who shared so much with him, I hope that this book makes people think about the people around them and the very real suffering that occurs in our own country. I know from having lived in a place not to far removed from what the author describes, I cannot turn away and forget. While other people see a middle class girl now, in many ways I will never be separated from that life and I know that even this book does not begin to address the long-term difficulties involved in irradicating poverty in this country. And the main reason for this is in this book: you can leave the projects, but it never really leaves you and thus many people end up back there no matter how hard they work to get out.
Gangleader for a day, therefore, should represent a reality check for America, especially as our economy slows.
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on January 11, 2008
Thus Reggie, a Chicago gang member, warned the author of this book. Thank goodness, Venkatesh wasn't frightened away, and the consequence is this narrative about a Chicago crack-dealing gang.

I first learned something about life in a Chicago housing project when I read David Isay's heartbreaking Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago (1999), and something about the street drug trade in David Simons and Edward Burns' grueling The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood (1998). Both have become classics. Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader for a Day is, I believe, destined to join them as an on-the-spot narrative of gang culture of Chicago. Some of the people whose lives he tracks--J.T., Clarisse, Mama and Pops Patton, Reggie, Millie, T-Bone--grow on you until you feel as if you actually know them.

While a graduate student at the University of Chicago, weary of cold statistical analysis, Venkatesh began hanging out with the Black Kings, a crack-selling gang who headquartered in the Robert Taylor Homes projects. He wanted to get in touch with the gang subculture through direct observation. He entered into the project pretty naive and just a bit too full of himself. Seven years later, after following the Black Kings and establishing a relationship with their leader, one J.T., the things he'd seen and heard made him a lot more streetwise and a little less cocky.

During his seven-year study, "Mr. Professor," as J.T.'s mother initially called Venkatesh, learned that Chicago gangs, or at least J.T.'s outfit, lived in a culture of violence and machismo, but also functioned in an unexpected way as police in their own territory. From the perspective of society, they were lawbreakers. But at Robert Taylor Homes, they were also lawmakers, keeping a tight rein on adventitious violence and, through acts of "philanthropy," keeping the local economy fueled with drug money.

He discovered about halfway through his research with the Black Kings that he'd witnessed or heard about so many gang and drug deal activities that he'd do well to seek legal advice. When he did, he discovered (to his discomfort) that there was no such thing under the law as "researcher-client confidentiality," and that he was in a vulnerable legal position. At one point during his project, he actually worried that "he was falling into a hole [of criminality] I could never dig myself out of" (p. 250)

He realized that getting wounded in gang violence nine times out of ten meant either that nobody would call an ambulance for you, or if they did, that no ambulance would make a run into the inner city war zone to pick you up.

He learned that there's a city-wide organization and hierarchy when it comes to many Chicago gangs, including the Black Kings.

And from spending all this time with pushers, junkies, gangsters, civilians, hookers, and cops, and learning firsthand about their lives, he learned that it's risky to make holier-than-thou comparisons. When he bade J.T. farewell, for example, Venkatesh mentioned to the gangleader that he wasn't sure he was ready to jump into another longterm research project. J.T. cannily observed that there was little else Venkatesh was qualified to do. "You can't fix nothing, you never worked a day in your life. The only think you know how to do is hang out with n-----s like us" (p. 281).

An excellent, fascinating book, sometimes frightening, at other times unspeakably sad, and at still others funny: but always with the feel of authenticity and never sentimental. Highly recommended, as is his American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto (2002) and especially his recent (2006) Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor. In fact, the latter book could easily be read as a companion volume to Gang Leader for a Day.
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on July 20, 2009
Ever loved a song so much, you wish it had been written by a better band? That's what reading this book is like: Venkatesh gets three stars on the strength of his premise alone, but it only takes him about 4 chapters to spoil what he began. Here's what you can expect, once that 100 page honeymoon is over...

1.) Dialogue so false it makes George Lucas sound like a naturalistic writer. No disclaimer can excuse the dead ear Venkatech reveals whenever called upon to recount spoken words. The people with whom he interacts are voiced as sitcom-level caricatures; we meet the wise old woman who takes no guff, the insecure young tough, the smooth elder thug who maintains his rep with almost professional detachment, etc.

2.) A total lack of Academic responsibility. I'm not talking, as others have, about the moral questions raised by the author's witness of so many crimes - that's something you either forgive or not, before picking up the book. I'm talking about the fact that, for any given phenomenon, he only really entertains one theory, or one frame of explanation. The view of ghetto life he formed in the classroom is not one he's prepared to change, and he's really only interested in gathering details to fill out that view. But such is the problem - if you're not ready to change your mind on fundamental questions, then don't call it "research".

3.) An often shocking whiff of upper-middle class condescension. There is no easy way to this, so I'll just say it: the author treats his mostly black subjects with a smugness that is sometimes quite disgusting. It's a disguised, liberal kind of smugness, but it reveals what kind of expectations Venkatesh brought with him to the experience. He fawns over his subjects (never worse than with Ms. Bailey) so excessively, that it can only be the product of genuine surprise. Time and again, he seems to say: "Look at these wretches, how startling and cute it is when they say something clever!"

Now, in writing this I probably picked up a bit of steam, and overstated my case. No doubt about that, but in the interest of balancing so much uncritical praise, I'll let this stand...
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on May 8, 2016
I give this American sociological ethnography, researched in the Chicago housing projects, my highest recommendation for other readers. Written by an Indian sociologist, born in India, raised as an immigrant in California, and transplanted to Chicago, the book is riveting and nearly impossible to put down at each reading.

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.
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on May 7, 2016
Sudhir Venkatesh was a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, studying urban poverty. In an effort to interview those living in urban destitution, he grabbed a multiple-choice survey, and headed over to the Robert Taylor Homes - one of Chicago's most notorious housing projects.

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
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on May 21, 2012
Although this was required reading for a class, I found myself angry at the author. One for being so ignorant to get so caught up in the life of a gang leader. I also think in some ways he should have felt some punishment for all the crimes he saw and just sat as an observer. He was the biggest hustler and sadly all the money he made from this book furthered his life, but did not actually help one person from the story.

I feel like the only way the people survived in the Robert Taylor Housing Projects was to somehow find a family in the midst of a drug infested world. It also shows by giving so much and not expecting people to work, go to school and living off of the welfare system does not work. Not for those who go from one generation to the next. For those who leave the projects they always seem to come back. We as a society forgot what made this country great, hard work, morals and a pride in oneself.

Most of all it made me think that Chicago as most of our cities and local governments are run by seedy low life's whom we elect to lead us. Sadly as this book portrays our need for government is our biggest failure. For the professors of sociology this a wake up call, all of your essays and questioners have not helped anyone in the projects. Step outside and educate not study.
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on February 18, 2015
The author does a great job in opening a section of life in the U.S. and making it relate to people not in those circumstance. It takes a lot of work to be poor in America and the shadow economy that people live off of is out there if not easily apparent to those of us who have the usual job based economy. The other side of this book is very interesting in the job of being in a gang shown without the lurid qualities found in the papers or the books that flood the market. Well worth taking the time to read and you get a slice of Chicago history that is at least geographically in that city now long gone.
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on February 18, 2016
Outstanding book, fascinating read, provides a window into an extremely misunderstood slice of society and also into ethnographic research methods. I'm a social welfare scholar and will use it for my research methods and race and poverty classes.
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on November 30, 2015
I absolutely loved this book. It's been about a year since I read it but it still sticks in my mind and when someone asks for a recommendation I offer this up. It is a tre story and yet it pulls at your heart strings. You see relationships blossom, you read about the hard realities in poorer Chicago areas and even reading about the violence and gang activity, you still root for the author to make a difference.
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on April 2, 2015
I originally read this book because it was recommended by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg. I couldn't stop reading this book, and now I can't stop talking about this book. This book is a fascinating true-life account of why we never seem to turn the corner on street gangs, drugs, and entrenched poverty. I believe that this book is a must read for everyone.
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