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Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist…
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Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets (original 2008; edition 2008)

by Sudhir Venkatesh (Author)

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1,2494110,307 (3.94)40
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. This is the full story of how Venkatesh managed to gain entrée into the gang, what he learned, and how his method revolutionized the academic establishment. When first-year grad student Venkatesh walked into one of Chicago's most notorious housing projects, he was looking for people to take a survey on urban poverty. He never imagined that he would befriend a gang leader and spend the better part of a decade inside the projects under his protection. He got to know the neighborhood dealers, crackheads, squatters, prostitutes, pimps, activists, cops, organizers, and officials. From his position of unprecedented access, he observed the gang as they operated their crack-selling business and rose or fell within the ranks of the gang's complex organizational structure.--From publisher description.… (more)
Member:mfigroid
Title:Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets
Authors:Sudhir Venkatesh (Author)
Info:Penguin Books (2008), Edition: Reprint, 320 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:*****
Tags:Read in 2019, Non-Fiction, Social Science

Work details

Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets by Sudhir Venkatesh (2008)

  1. 00
    A World of Gangs: Armed Young Men and Gangsta Culture (Globalization and Community) by John M. Hagedorn (davidgn)
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    Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard by Laura Bates (Lorem)
    Lorem: Both deal with educated college-involved people who go into a misunderstood place and shed light on the raw beauty found there
  3. 00
    Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (wandering_star)
    wandering_star: Both authors have spent a long time with a community of the very poor and have produced sympathetic and very insightful books about how the "underclass" see, and manage their interactions with, the rest of society.
  4. 00
    Die Arbeitslosen von Marienthal by Günther Busch (jcbrunner)
    jcbrunner: Both Marie Jahoda and Sudhir Venkatesh went into the field to observe their subjects. Jahoda studied Austrian unemployed workers during the Great Depression, Venkatesh black kids in a Chicago ghetto, offering new perspectives into strange worlds.
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» See also 40 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 41 (next | show all)
Sudhir Venkatesh tells you a true story of him going into the ghetto where he tries to fill a survey in Chicago gangs given to him by his University. When he went into Chicago’s ghetto buildings and tried to interview some gang members about their interactions and day-to-day dealings within the crack industry he found out (surprisingly) that the people who live there don’t welcome stranger very kindly. During his first meeting he was held hostage for 24 hours without any harm but people were very unsure about his presence and didn’t know what to expect. Worth to say that he didn’t fit into the ethnical environment as he is an Indian.

Anyway, they held him for 24 hours till they could get the word that he was okay. Eventually, he went back to the same apartment buildings again and again until he established a relationship with the people who lived there and he learned a lot of things about living in the ghettos. It was really striking how the book reveals realities about life in very poor tenement buildings in which they have micro-economies and other small jobs such as cutting hair or fixing cars.

The major story is about how Sudhir Venkatesh was literally invited to play the role of the Chicago gang leader for a day when he had to make some decisions on behalf of the gang that lived in. Apparently, an easy role focused on goods, crack and money management. Eventually, it emerged that it’s more about micromanagement and hard decision about life and death of the other gang “family” members, competitors and other unrelated people.

In conclusion, the book offers an opportunity to see deep inside a Chicago gangs and the world in which the members live, as well as people outside the gang that interact with them. The book depicts the harsh gang reality full of brutality, poverty but also everyday aid... (if you like to read my full review please visit my blog: https://leadersarereaders.blog/gang-leader-for-a-day-a-rogue-sociologist-takes-t...) ( )
  LeadersAreReaders | Feb 19, 2019 |
The book is an account of almost a decade of living of black gang in one of the worst Chicago ghettoes – Robert Taylor project – where about 40`000 predominantly poor blacks lived. While the author is usually called a sociologist, his approach is more anthropological in nature – to live by and observe a day-by-day living. He specializes in gangs, but his description is much broader. A very interesting array of anecdotes, which gives a unique insight. Recommended. ( )
  Oleksandr_Zholud | Jan 9, 2019 |
Author Sudhir Venkatesh exhibited breathtaking naiveté when he chose public housing as a topic for his PhD research at the University of Chicago. Venkatesh had grown up in southern California, in an upper middle class neighborhood; his family was East Indian. It wasn’t so much as fish out of water when he walked up to a housing project and tried to interview people; it was fish on Mars. Fortunately he encountered “J.T.”, the local gang leader for the Black Kings, who was able to offer protection. (Venkatesh was never offered any overt violence during his research, although he saw a lot of it and actually participated once; he makes the points that the gangs didn’t want violence because it was bad for business – which was selling crack cocaine).


Gang Leader for a Day is both inspiring and tragic; being a middle class white from the Chicago suburbs myself I share some of Venkatesh’s surprise with conditions in the Robert Taylor Homes. I used to see the Robert Taylor homes frequently on trips to and from the University of Chicago (I usually used the longer but less threatening Lake Shore Drive route rather than the Dan Ryan Expressway). The Robert Taylor Homes were a set of twenty-six 16-story buildings stretched out along the Dan Ryan (which conveniently acted as a barrier to keep the inhabitants from the white neighborhoods to the west). Venkatesh was amazed to find that residents of the RTH didn’t even consider calling police or ambulance services (Venkatesh had to loan his car once to medevac a gang member who’d been shot in the leg in a drive-by; the act got him more street cred). He was confounded to find that many of the “how can people live like that” FAQs actually had understandable answers (for example, RHT residents urinated in the stairwells to keep drug users and prostitutes from using them; in Venkatesh’s first encounter with gang members they keep him in a stairwell for a day. He eventually realizes that the liquid slowly dripping from above isn’t water).


Being a sociologist Venkatesh gradually puts together the economics of the Robert Tailor Homes (actually just one building, which was enough). There’s a Chicago Housing Authority representative in the building, Ms. Bailey, who’s supposed to act as sort of an ombudsman for the tenants. Instead, Ms. Bailey collects “taxes”; if your window is broken and you want the CHA to fix it, you need to pay Ms. Bailey. If you want to operate an illegal business (all business is illegal in the Robert Taylor Homes) you need to pay Ms. Bailey varying amounts; your illegal business can be car repair in the parking lot, selling candy from your apartment living room, cutting hair, squatting in the building, or being a prostitute. The Black Kings provide Ms. Bailey with an enforcement mechanism, and the payment can be in kind; Venkatesh discovers that one of Ms. Bailey’s agreements with the Black Kings is that they provide her with a young gang member as a lover (Venkatesh notes that Ms. Bailey is 50ish and heavyset). Venkatesh, again exhibiting tragic naiveté, causes an enforcement incident himself; as part of his research he interviews a number of the “hustlers” in the building – the car repair guy, the handyman – and takes notes on their economics. He then, with the enthusiasm of researchers everywhere, reveals these numbers to J.T. and Ms. Bailey – who promptly raise the “taxes” of the affected parties, getting Venkatesh in trouble with his informants.


Venkatesh has some difficulties with other women in the Robert Taylor Homes; the prostitutes recognize him for a naïve suburban boy and are able to hustle him. He doesn’t admit to sex with any of them and it seems unlikely that any occurred, but he is hustled by one to provide food for her children even though Ms. Bailey had warned him about her. He describes how the apparently high and/or drunk and disorderly dressed prostitute moans that her children haven’t had anything to eat – so Venkatesh goes to a local store and buys them food. Latter Ms. Bailey smirks at him and says she fed those kids that very morning. Ms. Bailey’s secretary is an attractive young woman with writing talent; Venkatesh reads her essays and coaches her. She’s latter shot to death by her father. Another woman has a potential career as a model; her boyfriend seizes her earnings and beats her up when she complains. This becomes a Black Kings enforcement case; they grab the boyfriend to “discipline” him and Venkatesh kicks him in the stomach when it looks like he’s going to escape.


The “gang leader for a day” episode is relatively subdued. J.T. doesn’t actually let Venkatesh do anything important and overrules him (for example, Venkatesh is asked to decide discipline for a pair of drug dealers; one has kept back some money when another failed to pay him. Venkatesh goes for “offsetting penalties” but J.T. notes that keeping back money has to be punished; the offender gets two “mouth shots” and a week’s suspension).


Venkatesh notes the Black Kings are pretty disciplined. Dealers are not allowed to use drugs themselves. They are required to finish high school (leading to an incident where Venkatesh tries to teach during a teacher’s strike. He is unable to maintain classroom discipline; although as near as I can tell Chicago school teachers can’t either). They are not allowed to sell (“work”, in gang parlance) when children are around. They sponsor basketball and baseball tournaments. They see themselves as “community activists” rather than drug dealers – and, to a certain extent, they do provide services that the City of Chicago is unable or unwilling to provide.


It all eventually comes to an end; the Robert Taylor Homes are demolished and the residents are spread throughout the city (by giving them vouchers for apartments). Both J.T. and Ms. Bailey “retire” (at one point, Venkatesh half-jokingly suggests J.T. become his research assistant. Venkatesh, now at Columbia, apparently keeps in touch with J.T. and still considers him a friend.


At one point, the gang’s accountant (T-Bone) gave Venkatesh the gang’s financial records (T-Bone later died in prison). Venkatesh developed this to contribute to Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics. It turns out that low level drug dealers have very small incomes; what keeps them working is the chance to move up in the hierarchy (I’ve heard much the same about American management in general).

Venkatesh’s writing is understated but gripping; an easy one-day read. This is not a scholarly work (although Venlatesh has published such an account, American Project; I’ll have to read it). Venkatesh provides no answers; he doesn’t suggest what should have been done or what could have been done at the Robert Taylor Homes, just what was done. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 9, 2017 |
Review: Gang Leader For A Day by Sudhir Venkatesh.

This was an interesting book to read and it was a true story without labels, percentages and graphs, just everyday life living in Roberts Taylor Homes, which is located in Chicago housing projects. The story was told by a Sociologist graduate student Sudhir Venkatesh who was doing research for his final Doctorate Degree. Venkatesh spent nearly a decade observing these people and getting to know them to earn their trust.

Sudhir spent many days walking through the poverty stricken areas and was surprised when a gang leader JT from the Black Kings gang became his friend and would protect him when ever he came around. At first Venkatesh went into the projects with a multi-choice survey which didn’t go over well with the community. It didn’t take long for JT to express his thoughts about the survey. So, Sudhir asked for JT’s advice of what he should do to get the tenants to feel comfortable with him interviewing them. JT was up-front with Sudhir and told him to get rid of the survey and any other note pads and just hang out, communicate and observe. The people who lived there were already stressed because the city was planning on tearing down the buildings in the project to replace them with expensive Condo’s. So, everyone was going to be relocated to poverty stricken neighborhoods.

Each day when Sudhir was within JT’s world he would go home and write what he heard or seen that day. From a fortunate position Sudhir was able to observe gang and tenant’s activity, some legal but not everything. It was like they had their own rules to follow as gang leaders and a tenant in charge of different buildings. When thing got out of hand no one called the police. They had their own community meetings to settle rivalry, stealing, fighting and drive by shootings. The tenants even had rules to follow or the person in charge of a building would fine the tenants. If a tenant was making things and selling the items the head person of the building got a percentage for using the building to make money even when it’s their own apartment. The gangs who made and sold drugs from their apartments had to also pay dues.

Sudhir was amazed how they maintained the activities in the projects as their own little world. Some people had part time jobs and even had to hand over what they call dues to enter their own building. Sudhir Venkatesh was even a gang leader for a day but told JT he would not do anything illegal…. I thought the book was well written and informative, educational, intriguing, and insightful…. ( )
  Juan-banjo | May 25, 2017 |
This book gives an inside look of poverty in the Robert Taylor housing project in Chicago and how people living there do all sorts of things to survive. Police response to local incidents/crimes was very minimal which led to local gangs taking the role of the protectors, and in exchange for their protection, they imposed taxes on local business and everyone that was doing any work on the gang's territory... ( )
  d3vr | Dec 28, 2016 |
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During my first weeks at the University of Chicago, in the fall of 1989, I had to attend a variety of orientation sessions.
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