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Gang Leader for a Day Paperback – 5 Feb 2009
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'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
FROM THE FOREWORD BY STEVEN J. DUBNER:
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.See all Product description
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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. Venkatesh also details the complex social network that exists within the projects: the role the gangs play as enforcers in the absence of the police, the mutual support that exists particularly among the women, the operation of the informal economy, and the role of the various power brokers, official and self-appointed.
Sadly, the whole fragile structure unravels before our eyes as the authorities, in the name of progress, demolish the projects without the mitigation of providing an alternative for the powerless residents.
Through all this the author is both the key witness and also a vital participant: as with any research, it is impossible for him to have no impact on his subjects, and that impact is sometimes benign, sometimes detrimental. But there is little sense of excessive self-regard for his own role, and in fact he is quite open about his own inadequacies when confronted by the day-to-day challenges of project life.
All of this adds up to a compelling and sometimes disturbing peek into a life most of us will hopefully never have to experience. Venkatesh has done a good job of relating the tale, and at the end I found myself joining him in wringing hands with frustration that the world's most powerful economy has as yet shown neither the ability nor the will to eradicate the poverty that is all too prevalent within its own borders.
Aside from learning all about life in the Projects and enjoying the story of getting to know the people in this book, I learned several important things which I never realized before.
This book showed me what life was like in every primitive society before the rule of law. One can either have a society where the Rule of Law is enforced, or one where the Law of Power is enforced.
Where we have the Rule of Law, everyone is subject to the rule, and laws and contracts are enforced. This protects the general public against HUMAN PREDATORS as THIEVES, as well as those engaged in "OUTLAW CAPITALISM."
What we have here in the Projects is a TRIBAL SOCOETY, where the leader (warlord) manages with a combination of POWER and CHARISMA. He takes a cut (like a 'federal' tax) off of EVERY activity that goes on in the complex, from selling candy, washing cars, prostitution, sub-lets, and of course, drug sales. There are smaller community leaders (smaller warlords, male and female) who also take cuts off a number of smaller activities (like 'local' taxes).
Reading this book helped me better understand the piracy in Somalia and why we are unlikely to see it eliminated in our lifetimes. Once a society has collapsed, it goes back to this warlord model. It takes a long time for a society to build out of that; such a society cannot easily be put back together. In fact, this model probably applies to more human societies, even today, than does the democratic model.
This book helped me to better understand government corruption in the developing world. A democratic model is trying to be imposed upon peoples who behave in a tribal and/or predatory manner with each other.
This is a model that the middle and upper classes in America are far enough removed from that they don't understand it. The whole model makes it difficult for people to get out of this life paradigm.
I especially learned that the MOST important business of government--more important than defense, or infrastructure--is REGULATION. Here we have everyone needing to be a "hustler" in order to survive. We have capitalism at it's most extreme and unregulated form. This book really showed me why it is important that capitalism continue to be regulated.
This book also had a lot to say about everyday micromanagement of the drug trade on the street level. It covered a different facet than many other books on the drug trade, which concentrate on the lives of the top bosses. I learned that selling drugs on a street corner is actually the drug industry's minimum-wage job, also undertaken for the maximum risk.
Anyone interested in these subjects should definitely read this book.
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