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)
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.
This was a very insightful book into life in the "ghetto". There was never a dull moment in the book.
I realy enjoyed listening to the narrator and the voices used to give a vivid picture of how gang's interacted with the Robert Taylor tenants and others in this part of Chicago. A fascinating book.
This gives a true picture of gang life over an extended period of time. It is at once a sociological study and a very interesting narrative of every-day gang life and the surrounding poverty that supports and enables it.
I previously read Freakonomics so I knew part of the story about Sudhir Venkatesh. Gang Leader for a day was even more vivid and fascinating - frankly, no offense sociologists, but I was surprised the narration was so good. You really find yourself wondering how Sudhir had the nerve to put himself in the situations he did.
All in all great story.
As a former Chicagoan from the South Side (but never affiliated with a gang--honest), I really loved learning the detail of the gangs, who lived so close and yet so far away from the blue-collar, middle-class. Well written and constructed, empathetic yet calling out those who had self-serving agendas.
A superb excursion into the evolution of the gang scene in Chicago in recent decades! Having read There Are No Children Here by a Chicago Tribune journalist (sorry, name escapes me...) while in grad school, this was an awesome follow-up on how the residents in the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago have coped with the challenges of everyday life and the consequences of well-intentioned policy makers who just don't get it. Highly recommend reading the other book first, then listening to Sudhir's excellent ethnographic research to understand how intricate socio-economic networks have evolved and sustained themselves over time. Very eye-opening and a great read!!
a reader from NYC
This book is great!
Some may see it as outdated since the projects where it takes place have been demolished. But the insights it provides into the lives of the urban underclass are substantial and timeless, and told in a very engaging manner.
This was much more interesting than my dissertation research! I was sad when I had finished it as it had been perfect listening while walking.
The author's reports on his experiences while getting to know the entire community impacted by the gang made me wonder what is happening with these people now.
Say something about yourself!
what a great book. good idea for a story.. i loved how j.t. was precieved as a man after god's own heart.. this would make a good xmas gift for a tough guy teenager or a dad..
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