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 hoping to impress his professors with his boldness, he never imagined that as a result of the assignment he would befriend a gang leader named JT and spend the better part of a decade inside the projects under JT's protection, documenting what he saw there.
Over the next seven years, Venkatesh got to know the neighborhood dealers, crackheads, squatters, prostitutes, pimps, activists, cops, organizers, and officials. From his privileged position of unprecedented access, he 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.
In Hollywood speak, Gang Leader for a Day is The Wire meets the University of Chicago. It's a brazen and fundamentally honest view into the morally ambiguous, highly intricate, often corrupt struggle to survive in what is tantamount to an urban war zone. It is also the story of a complicated friendship between Sudhir and JT: two young and ambitious men a universe apart.
©2008 Sudhir Venkatesh; (P)2008 HarperCollins Publishers
"Gang Leader for a Day is an absolutely incredible book. Sudhir Venkatesh's memoir of his years observing life in Chicago's inner city is a book unlike any other I have read, equal parts comedy and tragedy." (Steven D. Levitt, co-author, Freakonomics)
A great listen. Anyone who's read Freakonomics will appreciate the full story that was touched on in Steven Levitt's book. Gang Leader for a Day is the in-depth look at the experiences of the author that was dealt with anecdotally in Freakonamics. This book will give you a much better understanding of the lives of tenants in Chicago Housing Authority projects. It will make understandable and logical the way people in poverty adopt coping strategies that seem outrageous to middle class folks who are unable to sympathize.
If you can't tell from the synopsis whether you'd enjoy this book, I highly recommend Freakonomics. It'll give you everything you need to know to realize that this book is worth the cost. If you're pretty sure you'll be getting BOTH those books, I'd recommend listening to THIS one first. The short treatment it gets in Freakonomics will just spoil the surprises in this one. Then you'll be able to skip over that section when get to it in Levitt's book.
Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
In the early 90s, Sudhir Venkatesh, an Indian-American graduate student with a certain naive bravado, decided to walk into one of Chicago's most notorious projects, a place where even ambulances wouldn’t go, and interview people who lived there, asking the sort of daft survey questions that only academics can dream up. Quickly, he was corralled by gang members and escorted to their leader, a man named (well, pseudonymed) JT. Though the gang members laughed at Venkatesh's naivete, JT was intrigued by his research, and permitted him a safe entree into the world of the projects.
That world is pretty fascinating. Though violence, drug abuse, and squalor abound, Venkatesh paints a picture of a strangely well-organized community, with its own leadership hierarchy, rules, underground economy, and politics. Without much in the way of police involvement and social services, the Black Kings gang fills the vacuum, becoming a sort of law enforcement body, community organizer (to the point of initiating voter registration drives), and resolver of disputes. As well a tax collector and, lest we forget, a peddler of a socially corrosive drug.
It was also quite interesting to learn of how businesslike the gang's internal operations were. JT, a guy with some college education, comes across as surprisingly pragmatic, intent on protecting his reputation, but preferring to avoid gang wars and the chaos caused by small criminals, both of which cost him customers and attract police attention. Sometimes, the BK’s meetings seem so businesslike, I wouldn't have been surprised if there had been powerpoint slides. The leaders rationalize their morally problematic trade with a perverse pride in themselves as a community institution and the belief that they’re only making addicts of people who have no self-control anyway.
Another fascinating figure is fierce building president Ms. Bailey, who puts the dilemma of the urban poor in blunt but Socratically eloquent terms. "If your family was starving," she asks, "and someone offered you a chance to make some money, would you stay in school?" She acts as a devoted community advocate, securing goods and services for those in need, often from the BKs, but is a bit of a tyrant in her methods, and seems to get a small piece of the action herself.
The easy cliches fall by the wayside pretty quickly. Everyone's interests are tied up in some way with everyone else's. Project residents tolerate the gangs (if grudgingly) because they're the only real order there is. As do, to some degree, the police. The gangs carry out a certain amount of PR because they're dependent on the goodwill of the other residents. Most people aspire to something better than what they have, but often, the only two options for getting ahead (for young men, anyway) are joining a gang and rising up within the ranks or getting out of the projects altogether. The latter, of course, is easier said than done. The bad choices being made become much more understandable in light of the few choices available.
If there’s a weakness here, it's that everything is filtered through the author’s subjective perspective. I wouldn't have minded a wider picture -- he never does get around to interviewing Chicago's bureaucrats, as Ms. Bailey suggests. I also would have liked to see his narrative build towards a firmer set of conclusions, rather than just dropping away when his graduate work comes to an end. What happened to all these people in the ten plus years that went by before he wrote and published this book?
Not huge complaints, though. It’s a very compelling read. The audiobook narrator isn’t bad but his choice of accent for JT is a little odd. The guy ends up sounding like a 1940s Hollywood gangster.
Like most middle-class americans who grew up in the 1980's, the only contact I had with a "Crack Economy" was through movies.
Sudhir Venkatesh really pulls off the veil and lets you into a world so shockingly different... well it made my jaw drop more than once.
Expertly read by Reg Rogers, "Gang Leader for a Day" is the kind of audio book that keeps you listening in the parking lot 30 minutes after you arrive.
A real treat was having the author read the last chapter of the book. Hearing his voice somehow changed the perspective, if just slightly. A nice touch.
Sudhir also wraps up the book by taking some of the characters forward after his time with the BK's, another nice touch.
A highly recommended listen.
As a middle class Chicago surbanite I have always been curious about gang life and the old Robert Taylor Homes. Curious if Chicago cops were really as currupt as Chicago's lower class black community made them out to be and just life in general as a gang me. My curiosities were satisfied in this book, extremely good. Worth the read (or listen).
I was excited to read this book since the chapter Why Crack Dealers Live with Their Moms was one of my favorite chapters of Freakonomics.
It didn't disappoint. All the characters were fascinating and I'd love to know more about where they ended up.
Having just finished the final episode of HBO's The Wire, this audiobook was the perfect desert to that fantastic series. They are both rich with complex characters.
This was one of the best audiobooks I've ever downloaded from Audible.
I'm not sure when I last listened to such a compelling book. Sudhir Venkatesh is honest about his naivete in getting involved with the Black Kings in Chicago's high rise public housing, and his evolution as a scholar is as fascinating as the evolution of the gangs and the economy of Chicago's poor. Very well read as well. Well worth your time.
I was amazed at the level of detail this person was able to gain from being so entrenched into the lives of so many people within the gang and projects. This books has many shocking stories and events is by far one of the most interesting books I've listened to so far. This is a must "listen" book!
I enjoyed this book from start to finish. The author takes us on an almost accidental step into life in the Chicago Projects. He shows us a world where good and bad - friend and foe, are far more complicated than we'd like to think. The author does not editorialize or present any feasible solutions, but rather presents a once-in-a-lifetime look into a world and lifestyle that is entirely foreign to most Americans. Should be required reading for students of sociology.
An interesting book, perhaps not great, but interesting for folks who haven't spent much time in a big city and have a suburbanite's curiosity about violent urban gangs. The narration is just awful, sounds like a guy trying to imitate Jimmy Durante or that actor in Star Trek, Avery Brooks. The narrator doesn't have an ear for urban rhythms, he just gets in the way.
The best book I’ve read all year. A young sociologist grad student spends 10 years hanging out with people in the poorest housing project in Chicago, befriending the residents and the gang that controls it. He gets so tight with the gang, the top guy allows Sudhir to be gang leader for a day and one of the gang’s top officers hands over all its ledgers, including how much it pays wholesale for cocaine, how much it retails it for, how much it costs to bribe the cops, etc. Fascinating from beginning to end. My favorite part were the discussions of how the female residents navigate poverty and interactions with the male-only gangs. Grade: A+
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