Sunday, February 24, 2008

Gangs of Chicago

On a fall day in 1989, Sudhir Venkatesh, a Master's sociology student at the University of Chicago, wandered into nearby housing projects, something he was explicitly warned against. Venkatesh was armed only with his wits and an old sociology survey, asking questions such as "What does it feel like to be black and poor?"

Fortunately, Venkatesh is nearly fearless and he's equally curious, because he came away from that night having met JT, a leader of the Black Kings, one of the biggest gangs in Chicago. He chronicled this story in Gang Leader for a Day, in which he described the five years he spent with JT and others in the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago.

This was an amazing book; Venkatesh, in addition to being fearless, curious and somewhat naive, is also one hell of a writer, and the final product is easy to read and well worth the time.

As he spent more time in the housing projects learning more about the inner workings of the gang, he also learned how the people living there deal with the presence of poverty and the crack-dealing gangs. He never glorified there life; in fact, Venkatesh was frequently uncomfortable around JT when he enforced his rules through violence or when he discussed aspects of the drug trade, and as he gained the trust of the residents, he lost the trust of the police assigned to the projects.

In the end, Gang Leader for A Day is a fascinating look at inner-city poverty, and how the residents, gangs, and others live and work together in a fragile, somewhat uneasy alliance.

1 comment:

Chilly said...

I am currently reading "Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor"

Its fascinating.