Aged 16, walking around Chicago in , I chanced upon a city within a city on the Southside called Robert Taylor Homes, the biggest housing project on Earth. Although built as recently as , and a place where a curious white kid was welcome for a chat at the Black Panther food distribution point, I was later advised in a 'garden' between the red-and-cream blocks to get my 'white ass in a yellow cab and out of black town', which I did. Twenty-eight years later, I returned to a ravaged and bullet-scarred Robert Taylor Homes to write for this newspaper about how the project stretching 28 blocks along State Street was due for demolition. Over Easter weekend that year, the estate had recorded firearms incidents and seen the 'Romeo and Juliet' shooting of two young lovers from blocks controlled by rival gangs, the Cobras and Disciples.
|Published (Last):||22 February 2010|
|PDF File Size:||10.98 Mb|
|ePub File Size:||15.33 Mb|
|Price:||Free* [*Free Regsitration Required]|
Aged 16, walking around Chicago in , I chanced upon a city within a city on the Southside called Robert Taylor Homes, the biggest housing project on Earth. Although built as recently as , and a place where a curious white kid was welcome for a chat at the Black Panther food distribution point, I was later advised in a 'garden' between the red-and-cream blocks to get my 'white ass in a yellow cab and out of black town', which I did.
Twenty-eight years later, I returned to a ravaged and bullet-scarred Robert Taylor Homes to write for this newspaper about how the project stretching 28 blocks along State Street was due for demolition.
Over Easter weekend that year, the estate had recorded firearms incidents and seen the 'Romeo and Juliet' shooting of two young lovers from blocks controlled by rival gangs, the Cobras and Disciples. Walkways that architects once called 'streets in the sky' had been caged with chain-link wire after two boys dangled and dropped a five-year-old boy to his death. I was one of what Sudhir Venkatesh calls 'the journalists and other outsiders who came by hunting up stories So, unlike him, I never knew what really happened behind the distress and chain-link mesh, about the guile and tribulation, and I never met 'JT'.
JT was local leader of the Black Kings crack-dealing gang at the time of my second visit and Venkatesh, an Indian from a squeaky-clean Californian suburb, is not a journalist; indeed, for years, he was barely an 'outsider' either, though he used to get called 'Ay-rab' and 'Injun'.
As a 'rogue sociologist' who contributed to the bestseller Freakonomics, he broke the academic and physical walls of a Southside fortress called University of Chicago, went under JT's wing and hung out with his expanding - then crumbling - fiefdom of gangsters, their entourage and victims and came up with this extraordinary document.
The story unfolds over perilous but fearless years of what in journalism would be called 'access' to JT's Black Kings. Whenever it occurs that Venkatesh is being voyeuristic, turning a blind eye to the ravages of crack, romanticising the gang lifestyle or endorsing it just by being there, he points out that very doubt himself. The two self-observations Venkatesh fails to make, however, are: his unpleasant equation of black life with crime and his estimable phlegmatic attitude to violence and squalor.
Page casually carries a crack recipe, while a shoot-out, oral sex in a church car park in lieu of cash or brass knuckles in a gut are ways to describe individuals, not big deals in themselves. The book is thus a highwire walk between observation, participation and the presence of a conscience that makes sure to never get in the way of the story. And what a rich, terrifying story of 'outlaw capitalism' and institutional corruption it is. The premium is on doing business, interrupted only when necessary - or so JT claims - by 'niggers misbehaving'.
Ubiquitous crime is a way of life: crack dormitories, prostitution, universal extortion, intimidation, carefully ranked salaries and duties in the apparent mayhem and gang mediation facilitated by pastors and the police. JT's vainglorious claim to Venkatesh's attentions drives the narrative, but his lieutenant, Price, is a major force and some of the most cogent passages concern women, both as hidden matriarchs behind gangland and as its wretched victims.
And, above all, the group that Venkatesh assembles for writing classes, whose lives with male violence, drugs and the gangbangers' children defy belief, as each woman assembles '10 rules for survival', which include ensuring 'plenty of cock' for Ms Bailey, your man's if necessary.
But the scenery is politics and most of this occurs with the blessing of the immediate authorities and absence of what emerges as the most powerful gang of all - the police department. JT's duties to his superiors involve voter registration and the brazen delivery of block votes, and criminal-political respectability is what he craves.
Bradley, in his gangster suit, fedora and gold tie, was the man tracksuited JT wanted to be. Bradley exactly echoed JT's outrageous pretension: 'You need to understand that the Black Kings are not a gang, we are a community organisation responding to people's needs', and Venkatesh, by his own admission, nearly falls for it out of curiosity.
Venkatesh writes that 'in front of me here was a movie come to life' - and without doubt that is what his memoir will become. But for now, we are concerned with a book and Venkatesh is not a great writer, apart from his semi-dramatised street dialogue.
Sometimes, his lexicon is awkward, even cliched, but, like his disarming naivety, this only works to the book's advantage, empowering its honesty. The flat, direct style pays highest dividends when, with brutal self-awareness, Venkatesh confronts 'deeply ambivalent' feelings about his own trajectory, 'making a name for myself in academia by talking about the inner workings of street gangs' at Ivy League universities.
Meanwhile, no improvement is achieved, as was Venkatesh's intention in his research, for relocated tenants once the Robert Taylor Homes were demolished. Caught between gangs and police, between JT and his troops - between his work and retentive university supervisors, indeed - Venkatesh asks himself: 'Was it possible to be in the projects for any length of time and remain neutral?
Topics Books The Observer. Society books reviews. Reuse this content. Most popular.
Gang Leader for a Day
Venkatesh got rid of the clipboard and the questionnaire, but not his fascination with life in the Chicago housing projects. In a bit of bravado Mr. Much like a journalist, he observed, asked questions and drew conclusions as he accumulated raw data. He also learned to hide what he was doing from his academic advisers. Venkatesh, reared in the comfortable suburbs of Southern California by Indian parents, crossed the line from observer to participant on more than one occasion as he penetrated deeper into the life of the Black Kings and its local captain, the ruthless, charismatic J. When a rival gang sweeps by, guns blazing, he dodges bullets and helps drag a gang lieutenant to safety.
At home with the Black Kings
The story of the young sociologist who studied a Chicago crack-dealing gang from the inside captured the world's attention when it was first described in Freakonomics. When Venkatesh walked into an abandoned building in one of Chicago's most notorious housing projects, he was looking for people to take a multiple-choice survey on urban poverty. A first-year grad student, he would befriend a gang leader named JT and spend the better part of the next decade inside the projects under JT's protection, documenting what he saw there. Over the next seven years, Venkatesh observed JT and the rest of the gang as they operated their crack selling business, conducted PR within their community, and rose up or fell within the ranks of the gang's complex organizational structure. Gang Leader for a Day is an inside view into the morally ambiguous, highly intricate, often corrupt struggle to survive in an urban war zone.
Gang Leader for a Day Reader’s Guide
The publisher of Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader for a Day is trying to flog it by its association with Freakonomics Venkatesh contributed to Steven Levitt's bestseller , but 20 years from now, the order of precedence will have been reversed. Venkatesh has written a work whose intellectual depth and immense humanity have few parallels in social science. The story begins in the s when Venkatesh now a professor of sociology at Columbia University was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and was sent off into the South Side projects with questionnaires on race and poverty. He stumbled into the Robert Taylor Homes, a high-rise city where 90 per cent of the tenants were on welfare, and crack was king. He was put under house arrest by a crack-dealing gang, the Black Kings, whose leader, JT, let him go the next morning with some methodological advice: "You shouldn't go around asking them questions So Venkatesh headed back and hung out with the Black Kings. JT, it turned out, made it out of Robert Taylor and went through college but abandoned life as a law-abiding citizen and returned to the South Side, where he steadily ascended the gang ladder.
Independent culture newsletter
Gang Leader for a Day recounts the day-to-day life of the urban poor, in which Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociology graduate student, headed to Robert Taylor Homes. His nearly decade-long research yielded valuable data, revealing the corporation-like workings of the street level drug trade, and serving as the basis of this book. The book is written as a first person narrative and incorporates some of the stylistic traits of fiction. The narrative then moves back in time, as we learn how Sudhir came to study the residents of Robert Taylor Homes.