The greatest danger of a book like this is that it could become catastrophe tourism — the sort of book that you read, then recite to your friends with excessive condescending blinking that says, “Yeah, it’s real tough out there in the shit, man.” Fortunately, [book: Gang Leader for a Day] is very much not like that. The author himself also isn’t trying to impress you with the friends he made in the gang, and he removes himself as much as possible from the story. That story is about the people living in the projects; the author only appears when he explains — always briefly — how he got the access he did.
Venkatesh entered graduate school in sociology at the University of Chicago in the early 90s, he tells us, and rapidly found himself dissatisfied with the rarefied, high-level statistical approach to understanding groups of people. In order to feel that he knew something about these groups, he had to get to know actual people. So off he goes to the now-demolished Robert Taylor Homes, on the south side of Chicago. He walks into one of the homes, and just happens to run into a charismatic gang leader named JT. JT is central to the rest of the book: he shows Venkatesh how gangs work at the lowest levels, he eventually introduces Venkatesh to the very wealthy men at the top of the Chicago gang pyramid, and — as the title suggests — he lets Venkatesh “run” the gang for a day.
Let’s back up a little bit, though. The remarkable thing about this introduction is how short it is: there’s only a few pages between the start of the book and when Venkatesh starts spending serious time with JT. A more self-absorbed author would have spent lots of time laboring over the start of grad school, and would have even celebrated his remarkable stroke of luck at happening upon JT so quickly. But no: Venkatesh is in a hurry to tell us about the people he met. He’s got a heck of a story to tell, so he dives right in.
The eventually goal of his Ph.D. dissertation was to map out how the underground economy in the projects works. Central to that economy is the utter failure of official institutions to support a humane life. I would say that Venkatesh “portrays” the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) as hopelessly corrupt and inept, if it weren’t, instead, that Venkatesh takes this as a basic fact of life. Everyone in the book knows that the CHA is a massive scam, and besides: the book offers endless examples of its criminality. Why bother arguing a point when you can instead show its obvious truth?
The folks living in the projects know, for instance, that the CHA will never replace the front doors to their apartments if those doors get busted down. On freezing, windy, snowy Chicago winter days, with the homeless and the drug-addicted squatting in the hallways, the missing doors can be fatal. Here’s where the gang, and Ms. Bailey (the grand dame of her swath of the Robert Taylor Homes) move in. Favors get traded: the CHA and Ms. Bailey have an I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine policy going, someone knows someone else, someone else owns a spare door, someone else can offer a temporary apartment while the one’s getting repaired.
There are shootings and stabbings all over the place, but no one expects that the police will come investigate them. There are rumors, in fact, that a crooked cop forced one of the project’s women to perform oral sex on him in front of her boyfriend. The police are mostly not the projects’ friends: they stay away when they’re needed, and abuse the residents when they do stop by.
There’s no legal support for the poor folks there. The CHA provides almost no housing support. Upwards of 90% of the projects’ residents are unemployed; those who do manage to get an education and a job leave and never come back. … Well, except for JT: he left the projects, got a business degree, and returned to a managerial role within the Black Knights gang. I couldn’t help but picture Stringer Bell from [film: The Wire] playing the role of JT, almost from the start of the book.
In fact, I couldn’t help imagining [film: The Wire] as a film adaptation of [book: Gang Leader for a Day]. The guiding idea behind [film: The Wire] is that there aren’t good guys and bad guys; there are just forces operating on everyone from above and below. You do certain things to placate your boss at your company, and your boss is doing things to placate his. Go up a few levels, and the CEO is trying to get what he wants, subject to the whims of his board and the stockholders. Turns out the same thing is true in the Robert Taylor Homes: JT and the other managers are trying to keep their gang wars as quiet and contained and predictable as possible, because there’s nothing the police hate more than unpredictable violence that spills beyond the confines of the projects. CHA employees don’t need to demand the occasional sexual favor from Taylor Homes residents, but everyone knows that nothing’s going to get done if those favors aren’t forthcoming. (There’s a lot of casual prostitution in the Homes. It’s not a job; it’s a response to a pressure.)
Of course Venkatesh is subject to his own pressures. He has to get out a Ph.D. thesis. And it takes him a while to realize that he should consult a lawyer: he can’t watch over the illegal activities of a drug-selling gang without eventually inviting a police inquiry. In a really astonishing passage, he realizes that everyone else within the Homes has known this from the start. From the start, they’ve been keeping the really incriminating stuff away from him. Everyone other than Venkatesh is aware of the [film: Wire]-like world they’re living in.
Which makes sense, of course: most of the book’s readers live in a world with well-regulated, formally contracted transactions between well-behaved actors. Things break; we get them repaired. We hear gunshots, we call the cops, the cops come. Enough middle-class white people band together to make the South End a nice place, and eventually it works out. Ours is a world where everything functions more or less as it should. Peel back just a layer or two, though, and you lay bare the [foreign: quid pro quo] underlying it all. Informal institutions subject to their own rules govern everything, because the formal institutions have utterly failed. (This book makes economics look comical. Economics often studies only rigorously formalizable contracts; it’s as though medicine only studied diseases that aren’t cancer.)
I can’t recommend [book: Gang Leader For A Day] highly enough. Like [book: Common Ground], it ends up speaking larger truths by never wavering in affection for its subjects. This affection translates into a relentless need to portray them honestly, warts and all. It’s a triumph of storytelling.
I read this book a couple of years ago but you make it make more sense than it did at the time. But then I can’t recall the “astonishing passage” you mention, which of course sounds like a key to the whole book.
I was also very impressed (and enjoyed it too – it’s quite a page turner isn’t it?) and agree about the writing and the author, and the healthy perspective Venkatesh has about his own role. At a similar time I read Elizabeth Pisani’s “The Wisdom of Whores” and thought they had similar strengths. If you haven’t had the chance, I recommend that Steve Reads it.
Yeah, “Wisdom of Whores” is great. I reviewed it here:
Should have known you’d seen it already.
A tantalizing review. I went to Amazon to check it out. Sounds really compelling. Though I wonder how you might comment on the following criticism that was raised by a number of commenters on Amazon: The fact that Venkatesh does not recognize his legal liabilities, fails to report serious crimes that he has knowledge of, and misleads his primary subject about the purpose of his work, seriously undermines the credibility of the author. Obviously, there is a story here that needs to be told, but a story isn’t worth any cost, right?
It’s not clear that he fails to report serious crimes that he has knowledge of. He met with high-level druglords, for instance, and he knew they were druglords. Especially after the book was published, I find it really doubtful that the police kept away from him.
He didn’t mislead the primary subject about the purpose of his work, though I guess there’s a slight argument that he did. The primary subject, JT, thought that the book would largely be a biography of him (i.e., of JT). Eventually Venkatesh got around to telling him that it wouldn’t work out that way. As for any other misleading that Venkatesh may have done: the people living in the projects knew whom he was selling out better than he did. No one was especially misled, seems to me. If anything, the book suggests that Venkatesh only learned these things as he went along. That could be a clever way for him to paint himself as a naif rather to avoid suffering the consequences of his actions, but I doubt it.