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Off the Books: The Underground Economy of…
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Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor

by Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh

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A somewhat more academic look at a community adjacent to the one he addressed in Gang Leader for a Day, this book paints a clear picture of why urban poverty is so hard to escape. Reading it often reminded me of how President Obama cited research on decision fatigue when he was explaining how he tried to routinize as many aspects of his day as possible, given how many big choices he had: constantly having to reassess your options (usually a bunch of risky, bad ones) is exhausting, and leaves little energy for longer-term planning. Venkatesh emphasizes the extent to which there is almost no formal law in the poor Chicago community he studied: the police are unlikely to come for anything short of murder, so disputes have to be resolved in other ways, which means that even the mechanisms of dispute resolution are constantly up for negotiation.

Entrepreneurs, and there are many, have to confront not just the risks we associate with that term, but also the threat of extortion from various parties (official and un-), the need to seek credit from loan sharks, and the complications of dealing with loiterers who may also be customers when they come across some money. “Imagine not only facing the burden of keeping a business solvent, but also inventing the means by which to obtain redress should something go wrong. The added taks of having to mete out the law when, for example, a customer steals or does not pay, is no small endeavor ….” When a gang leader tried to take over new areas, the lack of rules created huge uncertainties for everyone: “there was no single system in place that the gang could identify, challenge, and usurp. It was not as if Big Cat was forcibly taking over an established criminal justice institution, with courts, procedures of punishment and redress, facilities for incarceration, and so on.” Venkatesh suggests that the flexibility that develops as a result is both a survival tool and a constraint: people can’t build credit histories or resumes if they’re always doing different jobs in the underground economy. Even those with enormous reserves of energy often use it up on survival, or mediating conflicts that don’t even get recognized outside the community. This happens with community organizations, not just individuals, and is a huge constraint on the development of human capital. Ultimately, he suggests, nothing will change unless society at large is prepared to invest more resources in these desperately resource-poor communities. ( )
  rivkat | Sep 25, 2012 |
Fascinating and depressing book about the underground economy in the Bronzeville (here called Maquis Park) neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. Docked .5 star for being a bit too dry and academic. ( )
  rameau | Aug 3, 2011 |
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From the Publisher
Sudhir Venkatesh takes us into Maquis Park, a poor black neighborhood on Chicago's Southside, to explore the desperate, dangerous, and remarkable ways in which a community survives. We find there an entire world of unregulated, unreported, and untaxed work, a system of living off the books that is daily life in the ghetto. From women who clean houses and prepare lunches for the local hospital to small-scale entrepreneurs like the mechanic who works in an alley; from the preacher who provides mediation services to the beauty parlor owner who rents her store out for gambling parties; and from street vendors hawking socks and incense to the drug dealing and extortion of the local gang, we come to see how these activities form the backbone of the ghetto econoLibrary Journal
ea. vol: Harvard Univ. Oct. 2006. SOC SCI Remember playing the board game Chutes and Ladders? Drawing on an eight-year study, Newman (sociology & public affairs, Princeton Univ.; A Different Shade of Gray: Midlife and Beyond in the Inner City) effectively uses ethnographic portraits to examine why some low-wage earners in New York's ghettos and beyond particularly African American and Latino service-sector employees have been experiencing a real-life version of the game. Some were able to capitalize on the economic prosperity of the late 1990s, often thanks to family, friends, and public subsidies; they went up the ladder, returning to school and obtaining trade certificates, high school diplomas, and even college degrees. Meanwhile, others, faced with family obligations, little or no training, and sheer prejudice, were not able to take advantage of these opportunities and moved downward. Similarly, sociologist Venkatesh (director of research, Inst. for Research in African American Studies, Columbia Univ.; American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto) looks at the impoverished residents of Southside Chicago's Maquis Park and the networks they have developed to cope with their devastating circumstances. For example, a mechanic works in an alleyway "shop," and gang-run businesses are an everyday affair. While Venkatesh has a more personal, compelling writing style, Newman's work offers appendixes rich in socioeconomic detail and will be of greater interest to policymakers. Both of these books are in the fine tradition of David K. Shipler's The Working Poor: The Invisible in America, and both deserve places in public and academic libraries. Ellen D. Gilbert, Princeton, NJ Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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  goneal | Feb 24, 2007 |
In this revealing study of a Southside Chicago neighborhood, sociologist Venkatesh opens a window on how the poor live. Focusing on domestics, entrepreneurs, hustlers, preachers and gangs linked in an underground economy that "manages to touch all households," the book reveals how residents struggle between "their desires to live a just life and their needs to make ends meet as best they can." In this milieu, African-American mechanics, painters, hairdressers, musicians and informal security guards are linked to prostitutes, drug dealers, gun dealers and car thieves in illegal enterprises that even police and politicians are involved in, though not all are criminals in the usual sense. Storefront clergy, often dependent "on the underground for their own livelihood," serve as mediators and brokers between individuals and gang members, who have "insinuated themselves—and their drug money—into the deepest reaches of the community." Although the book's academic tenor is occasionally wearying, Venkatesh keeps his work vital and poignant by using the words of his subjects, who are as dependent on this intricate web as they are fearful of its dangers. ( )
  addict | Nov 6, 2006 |
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In the early nineties, when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I spent much of my time with families in the Robert Taylor Homes, a poor public housing development on the city's Southside, gathering research material for my dissertation. [from the Prologue]
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0674023552, Hardcover)

Listen to a short interview with Sudhir Venkatesh
Host: Chris Gondek | Producer: Heron & Crane

In this revelatory book, Sudhir Venkatesh takes us into Maquis Park, a poor black neighborhood on Chicago's Southside, to explore the desperate, dangerous, and remarkable ways in which a community survives. We find there an entire world of unregulated, unreported, and untaxed work, a system of living off the books that is daily life in the ghetto. From women who clean houses and prepare lunches for the local hospital to small-scale entrepreneurs like the mechanic who works in an alley; from the preacher who provides mediation services to the salon owner who rents her store out for gambling parties; and from street vendors hawking socks and incense to the drug dealing and extortion of the local gang, we come to see how these activities form the backbone of the ghetto economy.

What emerges are the innumerable ways that these men and women, immersed in their shadowy economic pursuits, are connected to and reliant upon one another. The underground economy, as Venkatesh's subtle storytelling reveals, functions as an intricate web, and in the strength of its strands lie the fates of many Maquis Park residents. The result is a dramatic narrative of individuals at work, and a rich portrait of a community. But while excavating the efforts of men and women to generate a basic livelihood for themselves and their families, Off the Books offers a devastating critique of the entrenched poverty that we so often ignore in America, and reveals how the underground economy is an inevitable response to the ghetto's appalling isolation from the rest of the country.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:31 -0400)

Sudhir Venkatesh takes us into Maquis Park, a poor black neighborhood on Chicago's Southside, to explore the desperate, dangerous, and remarkable ways in which a community survives. We find there an entire world of unregulated, unreported, and untaxed work, a system of living off the books that is daily life in the ghetto. From women who clean houses and prepare lunches for the local hospital to small-scale entrepreneurs like the mechanic who works in an alley; from the preacher who provides mediation services to the beauty parlor owner who rents her store out for gambling parties; and from street vendors hawking socks and incense to the drug dealing and extortion of the local gang, we come to see how these activities form the backbone of the ghetto economy.--From publisher description.… (more)

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