Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh

I just finished Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day and am amazed. I did not expect it to be so interesting. I knew about Sudhir Venkatesh from his appearance in Freakonomics (the book) and knew he was an interesting figure with some extraordinary experiences to tell of. However, where Freakonomics were a bit dull and drawn out in parts, Gang Leader for a Day is interesting and facsinating throughout. Notwithstanding, the comparison is unfair; Freakonomics is about applied economics and some surprising and amusing conclusions thereof while Gang Leader for a Day is mostly descriptive of gang life in Chicago, in all facets.

Sudhir Venkatesh tells the story of when he, as a graduate student in sociology at the University of Chicago, wanted to study poor, black people in Chicago and ended up hanging out with and befriending a drug gang operating out of a public housing project. From being treated as a potential danger and an alien, he ends up tagging along as the leader of the gang rises in the city-wide gang network. On the way, he sees the interplay between the gang and the wider community, for good and for bad.

On of my favorite passages in the book:

J.T. [the gang leader] was far more enthusiastic about my project [to study the informal economy of public housing projects; how people survive] than I’d imagined he would be, although I couldn’t figure out why.
“I have a great idea,” he told me one day. “I think you should talk to all the pimps. Then you can go to all the whores. Then I’ll let you talk to all the people stealing cars. Oh, yeah! And you also have folks selling stolen stuff. I mean, there’s a whole bunch of people you can talk to about selling shoes or shirts! And I’ll make sure they cooperate with you. Don’t worry, they won’t say no.”
“Well, we don’t want to force anyone to talk to me,” I said, even though I was excited about meeting all these people. “I can’t make anyone talk to me.”
“I know,” J.T. said, breaking into a smile. “But I can.”
I laughed. “No, you can’t do that. That’s what I’m saying. That wouldn’t be good for my research.”
“Fine, fine,” he said. “I’ll do it, but I won’t tell you.”

Read this book; I cannot imagine it not being interesting to anyone.


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