Sudhir Venkatesh is the young sociologist who became famous in Freakonomics (Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?)
Gang Leader for a Day is a gripping journey of discovery about life on the wrong side of the tracks.
When naïve sociology student Sudhir Venakatesh went to find out more about urban poverty in Chicago, the last thing he expected was to be held hostage by a gang. And he never guessed that, after being released, he’d want to return to find out more about them, ignoring everyone’s advice and entering a dangerous world beyond anything he’d ever experienced.
In the Robert Taylor Homes projects on Chicago’s South Side, Sudhir befriends J.T., a gang leader for the Black Kings. As their friendship grows, he slowly gains J.T.’s trust, until one day, in order to convince Sudhir of his own CEO-like qualities, J.T. makes him leader of the gang. Deciding who cleans up the buildings after a party gets out of hand is one thing, but what do you do when Billy says that Otis lied about how much crack he sold, and somebody needs to be punished? What’s more, why does J.T. make his henchmen, the ‘shorties’, stay in school? When will T-Bone (in charge of gang security, takes his job very seriously) intervene in a mob lynching? Just who does C-Note have to pay if he wants to carry on washing cars? What is the difference between a ‘regular’ hustler and a ‘hype’ – and is Peanut telling him the truth about which she is? Why is Moochie sleeping with Ms Bailey, the all-powerful president of the building, thirty years his senior? And, when the FBI finally starts cracking down on the Black Kings, is it time to get out – or is it too late?
Incredibly funny, and heartbreaking, this is a story of one man’s commitment really to cross the line, to understand how the people he is studying live day to day. What he doesn’t expect is to become part of their lives.
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'A rich portrait of the urban poor ... drawn from vivid tales of their lives'
" 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
"Whether you enjoy fiction, history, or biography you'll be drawn to Venkatesh's gripping retelling of his experiences in the Robert Taylor Homes." -- Congressman Jesse L. Jackson, Jr.
'A fascinating and full access look at survival in an urban war zone' -- The Herald
'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 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.
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