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Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets

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Book Overview

A New York Times Bestseller "A rich portrait of the urban poor, drawn not from statistics but from vivid tales of their lives and his, and how they intertwined." --The Economist "A sensitive,... This description may be from another edition of this product.

Customer Reviews

5 ratings

Good for you *and* fun to read

This is a fascinating book. Venkatesh develops close relationships with the gang's leader and many others in that community, and he gives us a rare first-hand look at inner-city urban life. Venkatesh explores the economic, class, and racial tensions in that world but does so in a straightforward, no-nonsense manner free of any academic jargon or awkward theorizing. It's interesting to hear his description of the quantitative vs. qualitative split among sociologists. He concludes that mere data crunching and statistics are severely limited in their ability to provide true insights into the community he writes about. This book is compelling evidence that a qualitative approach can be much more effective. I'm also a big fan of the Wire, and Venkatesh's account confirms many of the observations made in that show: the futility of inner city life and the war on drugs, the sophisticated economic structure of the drug dealing gangs and the often brilliant management skills of its leaders, and the huge racial chasm that still exists in many parts of this country. Gang Leader For A Day, like Freakonomics--where I first read about Venkatesh and his gang experience--presents keen analysis as well as unpretentious, accessible writing. It's nice to have books that are good for you but also fun to read.

Not Just A Gang Book

I picked up this book expecting it to be solely about infiltrating a gang. Instead, I learned about all the different people living in the "projects" (gangs, tenants, prostitutes, vagrants, et al) and how they interact amongst themselves, their community (the housing authority, local shop owners and police) and those few outsiders (child services, reporters and politicians) who dare to enter their world. After reading this book I learned more about those people than any facts and figures could show... and that is one thing the author was trying to show. If you only want to read about gangs, drugs and violence, then this is not the book for you.

A Naive Graduate Student Learns about Life in the Projects

This book is as riveting an academic research report as you are ever likely to read. In Freakonomics, many people were fascinated by a section that described how most crack cocaine dealers lived at home with their mothers. Why? They make less money than minimum wage. The source of that factoid was research conducted on site by Sudhir Venkatesh, author of Gang Leader for a Day, who describes in this book how he did that research and came to make decisions one day for part of the Black Kings gang in Chicago. In the process of reading this book, you'll learn more than you ever expected to know about the ways that the poorest people support and protect themselves. You'll also find how drug-dealing gangs are both a help and a hindrance to the poor. More powerfully, you'll be exposed to the great difficulties involved in observing the lives of the poor and the gangs that spring from them. The moral and ethical dilemmas this book presents are almost beyond belief. Professor Venkatesh was a graduate student at the University of Chicago when his curiosity about the school's neighbors caused him to draft a questionnaire and head for the largest local housing project. Once there, he was detained by the gang whose territory he had invaded. Knowing nothing of gangs, he spent an uncomfortable night wondering what would happen to him. He piqued the curiosity of the gang's leader, J.T., and was granted ever widening access to the gang's activities and to the lives of those in their territory. Take a close look at those who need help before deciding you know the answers.


The author Sudhir Venkatesh is currently a professor of sociology at Columbia University. In 1989 when Sudhir undertook this brazen life-threatening, information gathering expedition deep inside of one of the worst ghetto's in America he was a mere first year grad student at the University Of Chicago. As he entered this epicenter of drugs, killings, crimes and powerful gangs, he was armed more with naiveté than with chutzpah or cojones. Sudhir had started attending seminars where the professors posed the classic sociological questions: "How do an individual's preferences develop? Can we predict human behavior? What are the long-term consequences, for instance, of education on future generations. The standard mode of answering these questions was to conduct widespread surveys and then use complex mathematical methods to analyze the survey data. This would produce statistical snapshots meant to predict why a given person might, say, fail to land a job, or end up in prison, or have a child out of wedlock. It was thought that the key to formulating good policy was to first formulate a good scientific study." He liked the questions, but compared to the living-breathing people he saw on the streets of Chicago, "the discussion in these seminars seemed cold and distantly, abstract and lifeless. He found it particularly curious that most of these researchers didn't seem interested in meeting the people they wrote about." Sudhir decided, perhaps naively, that he would simply "walk" to where the people that were being studied resided and ask them questions. He first struck up friendships with some older men at Washington Park which resided just across Cottage Grove Avenue from the University Of Chicago. One gentleman named Leonard Combs, aka "Old Time" told him, "Never trust a white man, and don't think black folk are any better." Another acquaintance Charlie Butler said, "You got two kinds of whites in this city, and two kinds of blacks. You got whites who'll beat you if you come into their neighborhood. Then you got another group that won't invite you in. They'll call the police if you come in their neighborhood - and the police will beat you up." As far as blacks; "You got blacks who are beating their heads trying to figure out a way to live where you live! Don't ask me why. And then you got a whole lot of black folk who realize it ain't no use. Sudhir started interviewing the men and Charlie could see how dismayed and dejected Sudhir was. "Before you give up," he said, "you should probably speak to the people who you really want to talk to - young men, not us. That's the only way you're going to get what you need." And that advice is what led to this "UN-FLINCHABLE", "UN-RELENTING", "UN-FORGIVING", "UNFORGETTABLE" book! Sudhir went to the University Of Chicago library and checked the census records to find a tract with poor black families with people between the ages of 16 and 24. This led him to the Lake Park projects Building Number 4040. Sudhir just

"Sudhir, you're getting into something you shouldn't be messing with..."

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 co
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