Title: Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets
Author: Sudhir Venkatesh
Genre: Memoir; Sociology; Crime
Pub. Date: January 19, 2008 (hardcover); December 30, 2008 (paperback)
Wow! The simple quote by The New York Times on the cover describes this perfectly... "riveting"!
And in the first line of the foreword, Freakonomics co-author, Stephen J. Dubner, states, "I believe that Sudhir Venkatesh was born with two abnormalities: an overdeveloped curiosity and an underdeveloped sense of fear."
That hooked me! Did it get you too?
In 1989, Sudhir Venkatesh was a typical sociology graduate student at the University of Chicago when he decided to join a research project on urban poverty. With surveys in hand, naive Venkatesh headed over to the projects of Chicago, widely known as the most dangerous in the country, to question some residents on their thoughts of being "black and poor". He quickly (and I'm talking immediately in this first interaction) realizes his research isn't going to be so easy. But, ultimately, Venkatesh builds a friendship with the local Black King's leader, J.T., who, under the assumption that Venkatesh is writing J.T.'s biography, allows Venkatesh access to all types of gang activity. Venkatesh maintains his research for almost a decade, and is confronted with some scary moments, some realizations, and a new reality of the life of urban poverty.
There were moments in this book that outright shocked me. It's funny because there was a part of me that wondered if, on a very small scale, I might be able to relate at all to Venkatesh's story. By no means have I had the type of access he had to the inner workings of a gang, but with my various jobs as a social worker and currently as an in-home community therapist, I have spent a large amount of time in homes in neighborhoods and "projects" throughout the Orlando area that are less than desirable. I've interacted with kids with quite the criminal histories but with whom I felt comfortable (and protected). My friends have remarked with a variety of concern and bewilderment at this aspect of my job(s), and I have always maintained that I typically have felt comfortable and at ease in most of these homes because the people have almost always been very cordial and welcoming to me. Although, I do realize that neighborhoods are often on their best behavior when social workers show up. But I've also had some scarier moments; and I'm not fond of the neighborhoods where everyone hangs out by their cars whilst blasting rap music and staring me down, or sitting in stairwells watching me as I walk to the door. But, here's where I was naive because whoa, the situations Venkatesh found himself in were scary and unequivocally dangerous. In fact, after the first scene of the book with what happens to Venkatesh when he tries to ask some gang members to fill out a survey, I was shocked and can't believe he had the cojones (hehe, love that I fit that word into my review, lol) to return! (I don't want to spoil what happens in this first interaction, but the author does talk about it in the video about the book on amazon...)
What Venkatesh ended up learning, though, was that the intricate workings of a large gang operate much like a business and often are depended on by neighbors for safety. It was quite the complex operation! And the way they look at their life and the "good" that they believe comes from selling crack to drug users. The lives of the individuals were fascinating as well. In fact, J.T., the gang leader Venkatesh befriended, had a college degree and had returned to the projects voluntarily. Some other members were currently in school, and some did have aspirations beyond the gang.
Venkatesh could truly have filled volumes with his experiences. He interacted with so many different factions of the gang, and his whole experience lasted just under a decade. But he was disciplined in condensing his experiences to fit the needs of a memoir. (Don't you hate when memoirs become self-aggrandizing and go on for too long?) Well, this book doesn't do that at all. In fact, there are a few moments in the book where Venkatesh refers to previous incidents he had seen or of which he had been a part; these were moments that were in themselves surprising and crazy, yet with everything else he discussed, he didn't even need to include these moments in the main part of the book -- even for the shock value.
I really enjoyed this fascinating read that was both shocking and revealing in more than one way. Definitely read this if any of these topics are of interest to you!