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Gang Leader for a Day [Paperback]

Sudhir Venkatesh
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
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Book Description

5 Feb 2009

Sudhir Venkatesh the young sociologist who became famous in Freakonomics (Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?) describes his time living with the gangs on the Southside of Chicago and answers another question: what's it like to live in hell?

In the Robert Taylor Homes projects on Chicago's South Side, Sudhir befriends J.T., a gang leader for the Black Kings. As he slowly gains J.T.'s trust, one day, in order to convince Sudhir of his own CEO-like qualities, J.T. makes him leader of the gang...

Why does J.T. make his henchmen, the 'shorties', stay in school? What is the difference between a 'regular' hustler and a 'hype' - and is Peanut telling him the truth about which she is? And, when the FBI finally starts cracking down on the Black Kings, is it time to get out - or is it too late?

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Product details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (5 Feb 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141030917
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141030913
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 74,772 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


'A rollicking read ! a vivid insight into gang culture' The Times 'Darkly entertaining ! an absorbing and self-effacing odyssey' The Guardian 'An absolutely incredible book ... equal parts comedy and tragedy ... I promise you will not be able to put it down' - Steven D. Levitt, co-author, Freakonomics

From the Author


I believe that Sudhir Venkatesh was born with two abnormalities: an overdeveloped curiosity and an underdeveloped sense of fear.

How else to explain him? Like thousands upon thousands of people, he entered graduate school one fall and was dispatched by his professors to do some research. This research happened to take him to the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, one of the worst ghettos in America. But blessed by that outlandish curiosity and unfettered by the sort of commonsensical fear that most of us would experience upon being held hostage by an armed crack gang, as Venkatesh was early on in his research, he kept coming back for more.

I met Venkatesh a few years ago when I interviewed him for Freakonomics, a book I wrote with the economist Steve Levitt. Venkatesh and Levitt had collaborated on several academic papers about the economics of crack cocaine. Those papers were interesting, to be sure, but Venkatesh himself presented a whole new level of fascination. He is soft-spoken and laconic; he doesn't volunteer much information. But every time you ask him a question, it is like tugging a thread on an old tapestry: the whole thing unspools and falls at your feet. Story after story, marked by lapidary detail and hard-won insight: the rogue cop who terrorized the neighborhood; the jerry-built network through which poor families hustled to survive; the time Venkatesh himself became gang leader for a day.

Although we wrote about Venkatesh in Freakonomics (it was many readers' favorite part), there wasn't room for any of these stories. Thankfully, he has now written an extraordinary book that details all of his adventures and misadventures. The stories he tells are far stranger than fiction, and they are also more forceful, heartbreaking, and hilarious. Along the way, he paints a unique portrait of the kind of neighborhood that is badly misrepresented when it is represented at all. Journalists like me might hang out in such neighborhoods for a week or a month or even a year. Most social scientists and do-gooders tend to do their work at arm's length. But Venkatesh practically lived in this neighborhood for the better part of a decade. He brought the perspective of an outsider and came away with an insider's access. A lot of writing about the poor tends to reduce living, breathing, joking, struggling, sensual, moral human beings to dupes who are shoved about by invisible forces. This book does the opposite. It shows, day by day and dollar by dollar, how the crack dealers, tenant leaders, prostitutes, parents, hustlers, cops, and Venkatesh himself tried to construct a good life out of substandard materials.

As much as I have come to like Venkatesh, and admire him, I probably would not want to be a member of his family: I would worry too much about his fearlessness. I probably wouldn't want to be one of his research subjects either, for his curiosity must be exhausting. But I am very, very happy to have been one of the first readers of Venkatesh's book, for it is as extraordinary as he is. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Chilling Journey Into the Projects 20 July 2008
By Steve Keen TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Some time ago The Economist ran an article about the market for drugs, describing the sophisticated marketing strategies adopted by sellers - entry level products, loss leaders, special offers - in order to reel in the punters. Only at the end did the piece carry the reminder that oh, by the way, all of this is also illegal.

In a reversal of the process, Sudhir Venkatesh presents a largely jargon-free account of his ten-year sociological study of urban poverty, and particularly the attendant gang culture, in the projects of Chicago.

Moving to the city as a graduate student in 1989, Venkatesh wants quickly to make a name for himself and to that end walks unknowingly into the territory of the Black Kings (BKs) to ask the folks therein what it's like to be black and poor. Initially suspected of being a spy for a rival gang and incarcerated overnight on a urine-soaked stairwell by the BKs, Venkatesh soon becomes in quick succession a source of entertainment for, potential immortaliser of, and most unlikely confidant to gang leader JT.

JT himself is both compellingly charismatic and chillingly brutal in the disposition of his duties as a Director of the local BK enterprise. Venkatesh finds himself constantly conflicted by the activities he witnesses, fascinated by JT's leadership abilities and nauseated by some of his methods. On the pivotal Day for which Venkatesh becomes "Gang Leader" he is given an intimate view of JT's day as he resolves dilemmas many managers will recognise - agency problems, motivational issues, supplier relationships - sometimes in ways most of us as managers don't (often, at least!) resort to.

But this is about more than gangs.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
This book is as riveting an academic research report as you are ever likely to read.

In Freakonomics, many people were fascinated by a section that described how most crack cocaine dealers lived at home with their mothers. Why? They make less money than minimum wage. The source of that factoid was research conducted on site by Sudhir Venkatesh, author of Gang Leader for a Day, who describes in this book how he did that research and came to make decisions one day for part of the Black Kings gang in Chicago.

In the process of reading this book, you'll learn more than you ever expected to know about the ways that the poorest people support and protect themselves. You'll also find how drug-dealing gangs are both a help and a hindrance to the poor.

More powerfully, you'll be exposed to the great difficulties involved in observing the lives of the poor and the gangs that spring from them. The moral and ethical dilemmas this book presents are almost beyond belief.

Professor Venkatesh was a graduate student at the University of Chicago when his curiosity about the school's neighbors caused him to draft a questionnaire and head for the largest local housing project. Once there, he was detained by the gang whose territory he had invaded. Knowing nothing of gangs, he spent an uncomfortable night wondering what would happen to him. He piqued the curiosity of the gang's leader, J.T., and was granted ever widening access to the gang's activities and to the lives of those in their territory.

Take a close look at those who need help before deciding you know the answers.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Solid Account of Life in the Chicago Projects 25 Jun 2008
Like many others, I found the chapter of Freakonomics based on Venkatesh's data on drug dealing to be the most compelling of the book. So I looked forward to picking up this extended account of his journey into the murky world of Chicago public housing and the research he did there from 1989-95. His entry into that world is a decidedly naive and somewhat accidental one, as he commences work toward his sociology PhD at the University of Chicago by assisting in a research project. This project requires him to go to several apartments in a public housing high-rise to administer a rather ridiculous questionnaire. Unfortunately, the resident drug gang suspects him of being a spy for a rival gang and holds him overnight until their boss can decide what to do with him.

Fortunately, the boss ends up taking a shine to Venkatesh and allows him to hang out around the gang and its slice of the Robert Taylor Homes housing project. This one decision (based at least partially on the gangster's belief that Venkatesh will use the material to write a biography of him), grants the student and budding scholar almost unprecedented access to the day-to-day functioning of a street gang, as well as a passport to the roam around the projects talking to the residents about their daily life. Venkatesh is very up front about his naivety, his discomfort with the role he was playing to gain the trust of people, the complexity of needing to befriend them in order to hear their stories, and the benefit his access to their stories has had on his academic career. In the end, he concludes that he is just as much a "hustler" as those he meets throughout his seven years, taking advantage of others as needed, in order to survive.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Great
Brought as a good read for personal statement.
Published 1 month ago by Sally R
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
great book
Published 1 month ago by paul forrester
4.0 out of 5 stars good product
good product
Published 1 month ago by Adam Lancaster
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, upsetting and even a little laugh-out-loud humour
This book was referred to in a Sociology class I took in relation to covert participant observation. I am so glad that I decided to find it and consequently read it. Read more
Published 3 months ago by B2013
5.0 out of 5 stars thumbs up!
Great book, especially for aspiring sociologists who want to think out of the box and move out of their comfort zone.
Published 4 months ago by Liza Liew
4.0 out of 5 stars brave
very brave some might say stupid thing to do,a whole other world goes on whilst we look the other way!
Published 21 months ago by chellebelle68
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping and interesting
I bought Gang leader for a day after a recommendation and I was not disappointed. it is written in a first person easy to ready style and contains the right amount of intrigue and... Read more
Published on 27 Aug 2010 by Dr. A. DEWITT
4.0 out of 5 stars Great if you are studying Sociology!
This book has been read by Sociology teachers and set for work on research methods but it is appealing to the general reader who is interested in the less sensational aspects of... Read more
Published on 27 July 2010 by Linda
5.0 out of 5 stars review of 'gang leader for a day'
very interesting and thought provoking read. in depth study with real-life being put very much into perspective!
highly recommended
Published on 5 Dec 2009 by Ms. Carly J. Skillett
3.0 out of 5 stars Read it in Freakanomics
Anyone who has ever watched The Wire : Complete HBO Season 1 [DVD] will recognise the street scenes described in Gang Leader for a Day - just swap Baltimore for Chicago. Read more
Published on 20 April 2009 by susie
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