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Eye Opening, Important Read
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 readingandmusing.com