Tag Archives: Sudhir Venkatesh

Last building at Cabrini-Green, public housing resources.

The last building of the Cabrini Green housing project will demolished Monday.

Karl Klockars has a touching piece in today’s Chicagoist with an accompanying striking picture of Cabrini Green suffused in light in which he discusses the final building at the housing project being demolished on Monday and a public art installation that will honor it.

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Cecile Marotte’s Quest to Bring a Park to Haiti

Cecile Marotte wants to help build Haiti’s first park in one of the country’s roughest neighborhoods (Photo courtesy of Jeff Kelly Lowenstein.)

One of the many things Dunreith and I love about Evanston is the parks.

There are close to 100 of them in our small city, a number that includes one that is literally in our backyard and is a rectangle enclosed by a gravel road, the backs of houses and a parking garage.  The green space has swings and a field where Aidan and I for years threw the football around after school and on vacations and weekends.

The small park represents more than the total number of such spaces in the entire country of Haiti, but Cecile Marotte and a dedicated group of people are working to change that.

A French native who was trained in the United States in philosophy and ethnopsychiatry, Cecile has lived in Haiti for close to a quarter century.  We met during the past two weeks at the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma.

Cecile and other members have received a four-year grant from the Open Society Institute to design, develop community support for, and oversee construction of, the nation’s first park.

It is an undeniably stiff task.

Haiti has no shortage of issues, between the earthquake that rocked the city in January, the cholera that is wreaking additional havoc and the upcoming elections.   And Cecile is working in Martissant, a suburb of Port-au-Prince previously known as the ‘Area of No Rights.”  Even in one of the world’s poorest countries, this community stands out as having no government services.

There are no schools or running water.

Trees grow on garbage.

And murder is common.

Cecile and the other workers, all of whom are Haitian nationals, have held a series of meetings with a wide range of groups in the community, including gang leaders, who said they would like to create the park. Each meeting is recorded and minutes are distributed to all who have attended.

The ultimate vision is to create a safe and beautiful space monitored by gunless guards where people can visit, chat and tell their stories.  In so doing, they have the potential to help the community heal from its many wounds, create the basis to push for greater levels of justice and possibly even contribute to reducing violence.

Sudhir Venkatesh wrote in Off The Books about the challenges and compromises that often accompany working with gang leaders, and Cecile is well aware of them.  Still, to me there is something compelling about this plan, which is like a shoot growing up the cracks of cement, vulnerable to being crushed and also containing with it the seed of transformative beauty.

I’ll let you know about what I learn as the project progresses.  In the meantime, I will walk around Evanston with Dunreith and an even greater appreciation of our green spaces.


Brad Hunt’s Take on CHA’s Decline

Brad Hunt's richly informative book adds to our understanding of Chicago public housing.

Brad Hunt's richly informative book adds to our understanding of Chicago public housing.

The Chicago Housing Authority has been a potent symbol of urban neglect and the source of significant books for decades.

My former teacher Alex Kotlowitz wrote movingly about life in the Henry Horner Homes in There Are No Children Here, while Sudhir Venkatesh used his doctoral studies at the University of Chicago under William Julius Wilson to launch his meteoric rise in academia with American Project, his book about the Robert Taylor Homes.

For many, the explanation for the squalid conditions has been a simple case of racist abuse starting with former Mayor Richard J. Daley, under whose tenure much of the State Street corridor, including the Robert Taylor Homes, were opened and then largely abandoned.  Some have even advanced a conspiratorial argument, saying that the whole goal of the high-rises was to warehouse poor black voters while providing them with few, if any, city services and surrounding infrastructure. 

Others like James Fuerst have pointed to public housing’s origins as a gateway, largely for veterans, to homeownership and entry in the middle class.  His book When Public Housing Was Paradise, is an oral history that contains many fond reminiscences of an easier, brighter, more optimistic and communal time. 

Brad Hunt, an associate professor at Roosevelt University, worked with Fuerst on his book.  His book, Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing ,  seeks to complicate the picture further by extending the time frame he considers to the 1930s and by looking at the intersection of federal and local policies forged in part by progressives that helped create the sordid mess in which so many residents lived and forged community.

It is an intricate tale that begins with the Housing Act of 1937

This landmark piece of housing legislation was the product of a half-century of advocacy by progressive reformers and was predicated on what Hunt calls a “market-failure” ideology in which market supply does not match demand and thus requires federal intervention.  The act also contained provisions about rent that later would prove significant as well. 

Against this federal backdrop, Hunt explores the local policy of slum clearance that generated so much ire among the people displaced, but was, at base, he says, an approach also advocated by progressives.   He spends extensive time talking about former CHA leaders Elizabeth Wood and Robert Taylor and their support, especially Wood, for these policies.

Hunt does not back away from talking about the racially-informed actions of the first Daley as well as his predecessors, anddoes within the context of design choices like the high-rises that have far-reaching and negative consequences.  Hunt also explores the impact of CHA leadership, from long-time head Charles Swibel, who was able to withstand concerted tenant revolts, to the disastrous tenure under Harold Washington of Renault Robinson, to the term of Vince Lane, which started on a promising note, but ultimately turned sour.

Hunt also examines factors outside of the projects that informed residents’ experience like the departure in large numbers from the city of middle class African Americans as well as the different vision of residential integration held by black and white residents (He writes that “progressive” whites were generally more supportive and desirous of integration than the black residents and their families.).

One of the book’s most interesting sections in that regard is Hunt’s look at the Gautreaux law suit and the role of the relentless Alex Polikoff, who waged what is now a 40-year legal battle to fight the unfair conditions in which so many black residents lived.  Yet at the same time Polikoff’s solution, to eliminate the high-rises and have residents move to suburban or scattered site locations, generated little enthusiasm from black leaders who did not support the notion that the best way for residents to improve their situation was to leave black communities and enter white ones.   

In a sense, the discussion of Polikoff encapsulates many of Blueprint’s strengths: emphasis on a more complicated explanation than previously offered; the inclusion of progressives as part of the picture; and the different vision of community and solution between many black and white people.  The book is meticulously researched, well-written and moves briskly along, even though the content is quite dense. 

Hunt largely gives residents a pass for having any responsibility in the projects’ conditions and what happened there, saying that they were not so much victims, but largely unable to convert the agency they had into meaningful change in the homes in which they lived.  To me, this seemed a bit easy for such a thoughtful scholar, and detracted slightly from the work’s quality. 

Hunt also goes a bit easy on the Plan for Transformation forged by the second Mayor Daley, saying that it is too early to see its long-term outcome, even as he does write that the plan largely makes public housing residents invisible. 

These problems aside, Blueprint for Disaster is a richly informative and welcome addition to the literature about public housing, an experiment that began with positive intentions but turned out far worse in many cities than originally hoped.

Peter St. Jean pushes on the broken windows theory.

Sociologist Peter St. Jean challenges the broken windows theory of policing and social disorder by examining life in one Chicago neighborhood.

Sociologist Peter St. Jean challenges the broken windows theory of policing and social disorder by examining life in one Chicago neighborhood.

Broken windows have long been a visceral symbol of social disorder.

In early November 1938, the tw0-day, Nazi-sponsored rampage through Jewish neighborhoods, businesses and synagogues led to so much devastation that it was later called “Kristallnacht,” or the night of the broken glass.

In the 1980s, former Boston Police Department Deputy Superintendent William Johnston came to a home of Vietnamese immigrants who had had a rock thrown through a living room window. 

“The rock shattered more than a window,” Johnston would say, in essence, later.  “It also shattered a family.”

And for scholars James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, in a famous 1982 Atlantic Monthly article, broken windows, and an active police and community response to them, provided the key to neighborhood crime reduction.

The “broken windows” theory of policing, held that a firm, vigilant and communal response to seemingly minor social disorder like a broken window could forestall later, more substantial problems like murders, drug dealing and the like.

According to the theory, criminals carefully monitored neighborhood landscapes, becoming emboldened by the perception that community members did not care, as evidenced by the lack of response to an event like a broken window.

Many in the policing community found the argument persuasive, and major districts across the country adopted this approach to policing.

But Peter K. B. St. Jean is not convinced.

His doctoral work at the University of Chicago examined and challenged the broken windows theory.  His book, Pockets of Crime: Broken Windows, Collective Efficacy and the Criminal Point of View is a useful if morally complicated look at the theory’s limitations and how criminal actually perceive their opportunities.

Pockets of Crimes is a converted dissertation, and its language bears  the imprint of that type of work.  

The prose is a bit leaden in places and one is more than aware that St. Jean has at many points in the work demonstrated his ability to fulfill necessary criteria for obtaining the degree. This lends the book a slightly stilted quality which interferes at times with the reader grappling with the substance of St. Jean’s argument.

The structure is similarly formulaic. 

St. Jean spends the early chapters explaining broken windows theory and the importance of the community’s response-researchers call this ‘collective efficacy’-before going on to describe the Grand Boulevard neighborhood in Chicago where he conducted his research. 

In on of the book’s most interesting, he then tests the theory against how criminals says they perceive the opportunities for drug dealing, robbery and battery by having them look at footage of the neighborhood and say how they evaluate the possibilities for crime.  This final chapter contains before general policy and programmatic thoughts.

These necessary and somewhat unavoidable challenges aside, Pockets of Crime has a number of features to recommend it.

To begin, St. Jean’s work is a creative methodological stew. He uses quantitative data, his role as participant observer-a sociological staple-video footage of the community that is both a basis for the chapter in which he describes the community and conversation with criminals, and interviews with the people who commit the crimes. 

I enjoyed this holistic approach because it led to a more textured analysis than a simple reliance on any single form of gathering information and making an argument.  This approach also augurs well for St. Jean’s subsequent work.

The substance of his findings are provocative, too. 

St. Jean advances the argument that broken windows theory is deficient in a number of important ways, not the least of which is that it fails to include the perspective of the criminal.

Many criminals, he maintains, do not attribute the lack of response to a broken window as a lack of caring, but rather to negligence from city authorities. 

Even more central perhaps is his point that the individual space of the broken window must be considered within the larger context of the area in which it is located.  Thus, broken windows on a busy street, for example, may be less attractive or inviting to a drug dealer or would-be robber than than a similarly broken window in an abandoned building.

This point is well taken, and is connected both to St. Jean’s insertion of the “criminal point of view” into the conversation and to the point he advances in the book’s final section that any discussion of community response to crimes must be within the context of broader economic development.

St. Jean closes the book with a quote from Icepick, a former murderer, pimp, drug dealer and one of his most active collaborators in the book:

“You know, I tell you, this is way it gone be unless they get some jobs up in her and help us strengthen families.  How you gone try to take what I gat to feed my family when you took away the little jobs that I once had?  What did you expect?  Then you call me a monster, when you are the one that done made me so from the time I was little!  How can you be so scared of something you done made?”

For St. Jean, Icepick’s thoughts, which are part of a larger excerpt from one of their many conversations, is an illustration of  “the multifaceted character of the problem and possible solutions.” 

Yet this formulation of shifting responsibility for individual action onto others seems a little too easy, especially when there are many, many residents who grew up in similar circumstances yet did not take the same path or make the same choices.

While St. Jean adds a valuable set of voices to the conversation, my sense is that he does not apply his same level of rigor to examining the thoughts and ideas of the criminal he cities as he does to other community members and elected officials.  

This is an unfortunate omission that I have also noticed in some of Sudhir Venkatesh’s work, most notably in his third book, Gang Leader for A Day.  While a different kind of book than Pockets of Crime, both are linked in my mind by relying excessively on the participant observer position as necessarily nonjudgmental. 

While freely admitting that I am not a sociologist, I would argue that the work would be even stronger if St. Jean had pushed harder on the criminal’s choices, rather than moving to predictable if arguably necessary call for community economic development. 

What do you think?

To what degree are we responsible for our choices?

Does being a sociologist mean a suspension of moral judgment?

Am I being unfair to St. Jean and Venkatesh? 

How do criminals evaluate physical landscapes and what can be done to prevent them?

Sudhir Venkatesh’s Vivid Description, Incomplete Reckoning


Sudhir Venkatesh's third book has plenty of action, but little moral accountability.

Sudhir Venkatesh’s third book has plenty of action, but little moral accountability.

Sudhir Venkatesh’s first trip to the Robert Taylor Homes, once the nation’s largest housing project, is the stuff of legend.

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.