A newly-minted graduate student in sociology at the University of Chicago, the Indian-born Californian walked up to residents at the notorious housing project holding a survey from MacArthur Award-winning professor William Julius Wilson.
“What does it feel like to be black and poor?” read the first question, which Venkatesh earnestly if naively tried to have the residents answer.
Far from answering, Venkatesh’s subjects proceeded to hold him hostage for close to a day, debating whether to kill him before releasing him with a clear warning not to return.
Steven Levitt told the story first in the bestselling Freakonomics, which included a chapter about the economics of drug dealing based, it turns out, on data Venkatesh said he got during his subsequent research.
Gang Leader for A Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets is Venkatesh’s turn to tell his own story of that first day, as well as of many of the ones that followed during his six and a half years of research during his doctoral studies. And tell it he does, in a book that both intrigues with its memorable and intricate description of a community many people never enter, yet disappoints slightly with its incomplete moral reckoning.
Venkatesh’s relationship with J.T., a Black Kings leader, is at the book’s center.
It is J.T. who intervenes on Venkatesh’s behalf to end his hostage saga. After finding the pluck to go back to Robert Taylor, Venkatesh eventually gains access, with J.T.’s approval, both to the projects and to much of the gang’s operations. Venkatesh makes it clear that the gangs see themselves as community leaders, providing jobs, mediating disputes and keeping order in the area in a way that no one else can. Venkatesh does talk about the violence he hears about, witnesses, and, in one instance, even participates in, while also discussing the managerial structure and continual decisions a leader must make.
The relationship with J.T. is not an easy one for many reasons, and J.T. makes it clear early in the story that Venkatesh must decide whether he is with J.T. or with other elements of the community. (Venkatesh eventually branches out, but appears comforted when he is planning to move to Boston at the end of the book that J.T. is writing a letter of introduction to East Coast members, saying, in essence, “Sudhir is with me.”) Venkatesh depicts in extensive detail both the myriad mundane decisions gang leaders must make and the violence that underpins relationships within the gang and in the community.
J.T. eventually comes to trust Venkatesh, believing that Venkatesh is writing a book about his life, and supplies him with access to events that would otherwise be impossible to attend. The title, which is a bit misleading, refers to a day when the gang chief and his associates appoint Venkatesh the leader for a day – but only after they have accepted his unwillingness to mete out or assign physical punishment. Within the parameters he has established for himself,Venkatesh’s judgment and instincts are solid, according to J.T.
Although central to the narrative, J.T. is just one of many characters in Gang Leader for a Day. Other memorable people include T-Bone, the gang’s bookish accountant who supplies Venkatesh with four years of records of the gang’s finances; J.T.’s warm-hearted mother, always ready with a smile a plate of home cooked fun and homespun wisdom; and Ms. Bailey, the Local Advisory Council leader and one of the most compex people in the book.
Ms. Bailey does tend to the needs of the families in her building largely by dealing with the gangs. In one memorable scene, she chews out Venkatesh when he feels she has been hoodwinked by a drugged mother whose children Venkatesh buys groceries for, telling him that no one in her building goes hungry. Because he had such extensive access, Venkatesh is able to create the feeling of an entire world in which strong community ties and chilling violence coexist, in which cops are more feared than criminals and in which connection to political leadership and traditional sources of resources is utterly nonexistent.
Gang Leader for A Day came out of research Venkatesh did from 1989 to 1996, and is by far his most personal work to date. American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto was converted from his dissertation and told the history of the Robert Taylor Homes from its inception through its planned destruction under the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan For Transformation. While a major contribution to several bodies of literature and far more readable than many converted dissertations, the book was far from intimate in tone and substance.
Off The Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, an examination of the underground economy in “Marquis Park,” the thinly veiled pseudonym of a South Side neighborhood, was Venkatesh’s second look at the community, and one in which his voice appeared more frequently. To his credit, Venkatesh includes a number of excerpts of interviews in which residents tell him that, despite his having been in the community, he still “doesn’t know shit.”
Gang Leader For A Day’s signature strength is in its depiction of the world inside the Robert Taylor Homes and in the gang members’ lives. Far from being caricatures, many people in Venkatesh’s book have hidden desires for a different path that often do not get realized. One gang member confesses that he wants to leave the gang and start teaching dance, for instance.
Venkatesh also effectively shows just how tricky moral judgments can be, especially when applied by an outsider to the community. As in Off the Books, Venkatesh includes the voices of women who prostitute themselves to help pay for the children’s needs are not judged negatively by the community, but a drug-consuming mother who does not tend to her children is.
Venkatesh does not back away from depicting his own moral quandaries, which are many and, at times, unanticipated. An example of the latter comes when he shares the substance of his conversations with residents about their underground economic activities with J.T. and Ms. Bailey. This leads to both shaking down residents for money they didn’t know was coming in and to Venkatesh being perceived as a snitch. Venkatesh’s years-long misleading of J.T. about his plans to write about him is another. (He appears to have written the book in part to honor his earlier commitment.).
But the most basic dilemma, of course, is how Venkatesh strikes an uneasy balance between his fascination with gang life, his admiration for J.T.s charisma and leadership and his revulsion both with the violence that undergirds their community control and the drug dealing that drives their income. At different times in the book, Venkatesh takes solace in also being seen as a hustler of a different stripe who won’t take no for an answer. J.T.’s having left the gang and gone straight, but more particularly, appearing not to be bitter that Venkatesh has continued on his path toward academic stardom and has moved on to other research subjects is another source of comfort.
Venkatesh does an effective job of articulating the moral challenges he encounters, but he does far less well reckoning with the implications of what he has seen and learned for his responsibilities as a scholar, a citizen and his allegiance to his moral code. This is a significant omission, both because his insights would be valuable and because judgment of these actions raises questions of responsibility and accountability for Venkatesh and the people with whom he interacts so extensively.
Ironically, several of the residents nudge Venkatesh in that direction. One woman states emphatically the first time she meets Venkatesh: Don’t treat us as victims. We know what we are doing.
Venkatesh, however, does not apply the same standards to himself. While he clearly would be overstepping his boundaries were he to offer sweeping conclusions that could be widely applied from his experience, his failure to apply the same compass to himself that the woman urges him to bring to bear on community residents leaves an unsatisfying savory taste in the reader’s mouth.
A vivid description of a world many people never see, and one that in a certain way has been altered fundamentally with the destruction of the Robert Taylor Homes through the authority’s plan, Gang Leader for A Day feels in the end more an exercise in personal catharsis than moral reflection and confrontation.