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)
Like many, I was introduced to Sudhir Venkatesh's work through Freakanomics. I was expecting a more detailed account of his economic studies but got so much more. The story was fascinating, exciting, funny, and sad. It is a unique look at a part of America that is seldom seen from an intelectual outsiders view. I see a movie in the near future.
If you liked Freakonomics you will love this book. It is a detailed view of a social scientist infiltrating gangs for the sake of knowledge.
Writer, Reader, Former Bookseller (RIP Borders)
I all but took the day off work to listen. It was fascinating, and enjoyable to listen to. I've heard better narrators, but I did not find the reading offensively bad or distracting. It's a terrifying adventure told over the shoulder of a young man with such audacity I was sure he was going to be killed, even though he obviously lived to write the book. Very good. Very much worth the time. Handles a topic with excellence that rarely gets right treatment.
The content of this book is interesting and excellent. But, who cast this narrator? The story is in the first person, and the author is a young, Indian-American grad student. The main characters are young black men. Who decided an older sounding narrator with an aristocratic voice was the best choice to read this book????
Venkatehsh's work is probably best known to most for being featured in "Freakonomics." (Why do crack dealers live with their mothers?) This book is a more in depth work at that same work—nearly 10 years studying and practically living with Chicago crack dealers in the now-demolished Robert Taylor housing project (read: Ghetto). It is an interesting, in-depth, serious academic look at the structure of Chicago crack gangs, the corruption and structure (or lack thereof) of the Chicago Housing Authority, and the effects of drugs, drug sales and general incompetence of public housing officials on the poor black Chicago population. Overall, excellent, also carefully discussing the effect of integrating so much with the Robert Taylor residents on losing academic objectivity, but also discussing how high-minded surveys, etc. really are useless for studying poorer subjects in sociology. Lacking: Venkatehsh is now a famous (and well-paid) sociologist at Columbia. He talks a lot about using sociology to help, but how did all this research really help Chicago’s poor?
I've lived in Chicago for about ten years and this book has shed so much more light into some of the history of the south side of Chicago. Once I started listening I couldn't stop. It was a great story. On the down side, and I can't believe someone else hasn't mentioned this...black people don't call other black people "n*gger". The term is "n*gga" Different spelling different meaning different word. One is not a slang version of the other. I know they have to enunciate when doing these readings but that was getting a bit annoying. Otherwise, it was a great book.
I enjoy sci-fi, fantasy, non-fiction, historical fiction genres. Liked Stormlight, Mistborn, GoT. Last read: Shadows of Self
I have always liked researches which give a complete new perspective rather than random and redundant data. S. Venkatesh falls under the former category. The book is well written and well read. I am glad the author did not read this one, the last chapter was read by the author and it got confusing which character was speaking. I definitely look forward to Mr Venkatesh's more research work like these. Unlike his counterparts, Levitt or Gladwell, Venkatesh focussed on only 1 category of black poor people in the south Chicago neighborhoods of the 90s. Although it is a little late for this research, it gives a very good idea how many of these families survived. The author's courage and determination is admirable as he went where many would ignore and back out for their safety.
I enjoyed this book and recommend it to you. It is an insightful and up close look at life in the projects in Chicago. I found in particular the relationship between the gangs and the communities to be very interesting. There is almost as much information on the projects as there is about the gang. The author is intrepid and gets close to the gang, becoming an insider and almost a mascot which allows him unparalleled access to the gang's decision making and activities. He hangs with them for a number of years which allows for perspective and not the typical 2 week parachute in and out.
I found the book to be overly long and enjoyed the first half much more than the second. I also found the author's naivete offputting and slightly unrealistic at times. Having said these, I still heartily recommend the book.
What an amazing read. Being a white woman from the rural hills of VA, the gang life is as foreign to me as mars. It was amazing the way Venkatesh took me into their lives and showed me a world I wouldn't even glimpse at unless I took a wrong turn off a freeway. It left me feeling I had a better, if still small, understanding of my fellow Americans, who sometimes seem a world away. Very touching, very brave, very non-judgmental, very powerful.
As an avid follower of the Freakonomics duo, I was anxious to read this book. I found the story was interesting and the characters compelling, but the story quickly devolved into a kind of "Lord of the Flies" tale--documenting how each person in the housing project used their arbitrary power over every other person they could. I found the ending rather abrupt and was left wanting to hear some sense of the sociological conclusions of the author. I got no sense that the author learned anything useful from the experience he so carefully describes in the book (beyond the economics of gang life already reported in Freakonomics). From a production standpoint, I think the author should have read the whole book, rather than just the last chapter and I think the musical interludes between chapters was bizarre.
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