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A Chilling Journey Into the Projects
on 20 July 2008
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. 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.