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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
This review is from: Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Crosses the Line (Hardcover)
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.

The focus of the book is on his interaction with the "Black Kings" gang, however, much of the material on their workings is interesting but not necessarily revelatory Basically, if you've seen season one of The Wire, you'll be more or less equally up to speed on the mechanics of drug slingin' street gangs. This is at least partially due to the rather edited view of operations the gang afforded him. What's more surprising in his account is the naked power over daily life in the projects wielded by the female middle-aged president of the tenants association, who comes across as just as venal and egocentric as the gang leader. Indeed, she and the gangster had an established rapport and arrangement, in which she could tap the gang for "donations" for community events, or to police the buildings, in exchange for not raising a fuss about their drug dealing. Venkatesh also spends a fair amount of time with the regular "citizens" of the projects, as well as a few community workers and one policeman. A striking absence from his fieldwork is any attempt to interact with the Chicago Housing Authority, under whose auspices the Robert Taylor Homes falls, and whose utter ineptitude and corruption pervades the entire book.

The cumulative effect is a rare look at the networks of power within a poor urban community, as well as a cautionary tale about the strengths and weaknesses of the ethnographic process. I found myself rather more drawn to his stories of the various licit and illicit hustles people run in order to make ends meet -- it turns out these are the focus of an earlier work of his called "Off the Books," which I'll probably end up reading at some point.

Note: As at least one other reviewer has noted, those interested in the "participatory observation" approach to studying gangs would be well-advised to check out Martin Sanchez-Jankowski's Islands in the Street, based on ten years of fieldwork among 37 gangs in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston. Rather oddly, Venkatesh never refers to it.
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A. Ross
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Location: Washington, DC

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