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Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets

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The story of the young sociologist who studied a Chicago crack-dealing gang from the inside captured the world's attention when it was first described in Freakonomics. Gang Leader for a Day is the fascinating full story of how Sudhir Venkatesh managed to gain entrée into the gang, what he learned, and how his method revolutionized the academic establishment.

When Venkatesh walked into an abandoned building in one of Chicago's most notorious housing projects, he was looking for people to take a multiple-choice survey on urban poverty. A first-year grad student, he would befriend a gang leader named JT and spend the better part of the next decade inside the projects under JT's protection, documenting what he saw there.

Over the next seven years, Venkatesh observed JT and the rest of the gang as they operated their crack selling business, conducted PR within their community, and rose up or fell within the ranks of the gang's complex organizational structure.

Gang Leader for a Day is an inside view into the morally ambiguous, highly intricate, often corrupt struggle to survive in an urban war zone. It is also the story of a complicated friendship between two young and ambitious men, a universe apart.

302 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2008

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About the author

Sudhir Venkatesh

13 books230 followers
Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh is William B. Ransford Professor of Sociology, and the Committee on Global Thought, at Columbia University in the City of New York.

His most recent book is Gang Leader for a Day (Penguin Press), which received a Best Book award from The Economist, and is currently being translated into Chinese, Korean, Japanese, German, Italian, Polish, French and Portuguese. His previous work, Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor (Harvard University Press, 2006) about illegal economies in Chicago, received a Best Book Award from Slate.com (2006) as well as the C. Wright Mills Award (2007). His first book, American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto (2000) explored life in Chicago public housing.

Venkatesh’ editorial writings have appeared in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Washington Post. He writes for Slate.com, and his stories have appeared in This American Life, WIRED, and on National Public Radio. His next book, under contract with Penguin Press, will focus on the role of black market economies—from sex work and drug trafficking to day care and entertainment—in the revitalization of New York since 1999.

Venkatesh is completing an ethnographic study of policing in the Department of Justice, where he served as a Senior Research Advisor from 2010-2011.

Venkatesh’s first documentary film, Dislocation, followed families as they relocated from condemned public housing developments. The documentary aired on PBS in 2005. He directed and produced a three-part award winning documentary on the history of public housing for public radio. And, he recently completed At the Top of My Voice, a documentary film on a scholar and artist who return to the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia to promote democracy and safeguard human rights.

Venkatesh received his Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Chicago. He was a Junior Fellow at the Society of Fellows, Harvard University from 1996-1999, and an NSF CAREER award recipient in 2000. He holds a visiting appointment in Columbia University’s Law School and he is a voting member of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,955 reviews
December 4, 2020
Sudhir Venkatesh had a problem when researching and writing this book. It was supposed to be pure sociology but turned out to be gonzo journalism. Venkatesh simply enjoyed being with the gang members. He enjoyed, it seemed, all aspects of gang life except the crime and violence. He liked the macho all-boys-together, he liked the idea of it being an alternative economy run by people who are not more or less corrupt and violent than the legitimate one. Some of them were even involved in charity work within the projects they lived in. He especially liked the idea of being 'special' being as near as dammit actually in the gang, being accepted. And maybe that is the key to joining gangs, all of his feelings, but the price is you have to participate in crime and violence, except if you are a sociologist. His get-out clause was that he was going to portray the individuals in a heroic light. And he did.

It was a good book but lacked a lot of detail. Although the personalities and their families were interesting, I wanted to get in closer, the broad brush strokes of description only whetted my interest for detail.

<>My close-up encounter with San Diego gang members I'd never actually met someone in a gang until a couple of years ago when I was in San Diego. My son and I got on a bus and it was full of people strap-hanging, apart from the rear seats which were almost empty. The whole rear of the bus was occupied by two obvious gang members in their rap-star clothes and bad-attitude glares. They were lounging with their legs wide apart, taking up all the space, the two of them controlling the three big bench seats at the back.

So we made our way past the standing people and sat down next to them. One of them got off shortly and I asked the other one where I should get off for the place I was seeking. He told me it was quite a way and not to get off at the stop the driver told me but the next one as it was closer. My son and I looked at the scenery (we were tourists) and chatted and saw the man next to me writing in a notebook. A couple of stops later he ripped out the page from the book where he'd drawn a map for us of exactly where we would need to go and got off. So much for the fear the other people had of sitting next to these men. I've never had anyone go that far helping me find my way before. What a nice man.

It probably helps that people who wear low-slung pants, hoodies and various other gang symbols in the Caribbean are considered a bit immature, going in for style-and-fashion to an extreme, and no one pays them any mind. So seeing a couple of big black guys all dressed up like that didn't push any buttons for me or my son. Just because someone lives in a place that is the subject of inflammatory documentaries, sensationalised videos and books that purport to be sociological testaments but actually seek to thrill and shock, doesn't mean the denizens of the ghetto are any less kind and thoughtful than anyone else.

Three and a half stars for an interesting book that I liked, upgraded to a 4.

I also read a book about girl gangs, 8 Ball Chicks.

3 Dec 2020 - anecdote added because it fit.
Original review 3 Sept 2013
Profile Image for Carmen.
2,056 reviews1,855 followers
November 28, 2020
This author is a moron. Even after spending years in the projects, he still doesn't know how things work. I was really blown away by his naivety and lack of common sense. He's surprised that gangs use violence. He's surprised when he finds out the gang has dealings in prostitution. He's happy when the gang leader takes an interest in the author's pet project to find out exactly how much everyone's earning and then is shocked, shocked I tell you, when the gang leader uses that to extort more money from people and beat people who have not been paying him enough (this is beyond being dumb – I can't believe anyone wouldn't see that coming! Especially after interacting with the gang for about three years at this point!) He's scandalized when he finds out *gasp* not all cops are good! There are corrupt cops! I mean, the book goes on and on like this, with Venkatesh reaching each new “revelation” lightyears after the reader has already figured it out. I just am very thankful he didn't get killed or seriously injured, which could have happened easily at about a billion points in the book. I mean, he just has NO common sense. None. He doesn't even know, until years later, that there might be legal repercussions to the crimes he is a.) witnessing, b.) hearing being planned out, and c.) participating in. REALLY?!!?!?

There's also a lot of talk (in the community, in real life - not in the book) about him exploiting people in the course of making this book. He gets to experience the thrill of being a gang member, then go home to his safe home in a safe neighborhood. He also, more importantly, goes on to enjoy fame, acclaim and riches from using these people's stories while they get shot, go to prison, or at best, stay below the poverty level. I guess by the time U of C found out what he was doing, it was too late? Or too promising and exciting to demand that he stop? I don't know exactly what was going on there.
Profile Image for Marci.
25 reviews7 followers
April 23, 2008
There is so little information about and so many stereotypes within mainstream America about how ghettos function, even though thousands of Americans live in them, that this book is a welcome contribution to poverty literature. As a sociologist-in-training, Sudhir Venkatesh stumbles upon a unique opportunity to gain a lense into the inner workings of the American ghetto when he wanders into one of the worst housing projects in Chicago clutching pens and a survey that asks, "How does it feel to be black and poor?" He spends the night parked in a urine-stained, concrete stairwell guarded by gun-toting, teenage members of the Black Kings gang. (In answer to the survey's question, they explain that they're not black or African American, that they are niggers.) Sudhir's persistence pays off when, upon his return to the project, the gang's leader invites the impressionable young sociologist to write his biography, and he spends the next seven years immersing himself in this underclass.

I often wished while reading this book that its author was a better writer, so that he could have portrayed the emotional complexity of his characters, especially since these are people who are so often portrayed as stereotypes. The book reads like mediocre pulp fiction with the author's relationship to J.T., the gang's leader, providing weak emotional drama. Much like its title, Gang Leader for a Day exaggerates the author's own role. He spends his day as "gang leader" tagging along with J.T. and his henchman, who make him the butt of jokes for his inadequate decisions on gang issues while allowing him to hover out of range as they beat up miscreants. Later, we see the author pulling a wounded gang member out of the range of bullets in the middle of a drive by, but mostly he hangs around the projects eating J.T.'s mother's food and gaining the trust of tenant leaders, hustlers, and crack hos. His conversations with these people should have provided the raw material for the book, but he's so preoccupied with the lives of the gang members, especially J.T., that he shortchanges these characters, and, consequently his readers, to focus on the "action".

The book presents surprisingly little analysis of the obvious issues of race, gender, and, even, class. A South Asian Indian American, the author never addresses his own race, and its influence over how he is viewed by the project's exclusively-black residents. I wondered if it would have been possible for him to integrate himself as completely as he did with the project's residents, even being securely middle-class, if he had been white. Despite his character's reactions to his ethnicity - he is variously referred to in the book as "nigger," "white," and "Ay-rab" - Venkatesh writes the book as if he considers himself white. Similarly, while the book does not shy away from showing violence towards young women, and is open about the project's exchange economy based on acts of prostitution, the author never delves into issues of power and control over women. Finally, although many gang members, including J.T., have had some college education (J.T. actually has a college degree), there is no discussion about why their education was inadequate to propel them out of the projects. The author mentions former residents who now reside in nearby working-class neighborhoods, without providing a context for their movement out of the ghetto.

The book was ultimately disappointing, and didn't provide me with what I hoped for. I hope that the experiences recounted in the book did provide Venkatesh with a unique perspective on poverty to inform his academic work, but this book was mostly a failure. It did make me appreciate good literature. I ended it thinking about Sapphire's Push , a termendous work of fiction about roughly the same subject matter. It's not "true", but it's much, much more real.
Profile Image for Diane.
1,080 reviews2,653 followers
April 29, 2019
This is an amazing story of how a grad student stumbled across a drug-dealing gang in Chicago and ended up spending several years with them as part of a research project.

Venkatesh was studying sociology at the University of Chicago when he visited a housing project to administer a survey about poverty. However, he was confronted by a group of gang members who thought he was from a rival gang, and they held kept him overnight. Eventually the gang leader, nicknamed J.T., believed that Venkatesh was just a grad student and allowed him to learn more about the gang and their underground economy.

The story of the cautious friendship between J.T. and Venkatesh is the heart of the book and made it a more meaningful read. It was also interesting to read about how the gang dealt with its many problems, including police, politicians, the Chicago Housing Authority, and the other tenants in the housing project. I also appreciated Venkatesh's critical assessment of the typical types of sociological research, and the limitations of such work. Recommended.
Profile Image for Kressel Housman.
972 reviews223 followers
June 22, 2017
If you’ve read Freakonomics, then you’ve already been introduced to this amazing story. As a grad student in sociology, Sudhir Venkatesh naively walked into a Chicago public housing project with the aim of researching urban poverty. Armed with a survey, he proceeded to interview the first people he saw, who just happened to be young, crack-dealing gang members. Because he is a dark-skinned ethnic Indian, neither white nor African American, the gang members assumed he was a Mexican from a rival gang sent out to spy on them. They held him hostage in a stairwell for hours, interrogating him about what he knew about the rival gang, which, of course, was nothing. He kept insisting, truthfully, that he was a grad student who had come to do research. Eventually, their leader, J.T., showed up, and not only did he believe Sudhir, he liked the idea of having a publicist around, so he let him hang out with the gang for the next seven years. Probably no sociologist before or since has enjoyed such access to the underworld, and the result is this book as well as the body of academic work that has made Professor Venkatesh’s career.

Fortunately, the tone of the book is anything but academic. It is written in the first person narrative and is as much about Sudhir’s growth as it is life in the projects, so it reads like a novel, complete with peppery dialogue, suspenseful action, and a good dose of self-doubt from the protagonist/author. The contrast between naïve, educated Sudhir and streetwise J.T. and Ms. Bailey, matriarch of the building, illustrates the class divide in this country like nothing I’ve ever read. Sudhir, having grown up middle class, is appalled by the level of neglect in the projects. The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) doesn’t do basic repairs, and police and emergency medical services can’t be relied on to show up when called. Ms. Bailey is one of the leaders who steps in to fill in the gap, organizing food and clothing drives and advocating for the tenants when she can, but she’s not all charity. Sometimes they have to pay her a little something for her time and effort. J.T. presents similar moral contradictions. He portrays himself as a community activist, and shockingly, there’s some truth to his claim. Since a police presence would be bad for his business, he uses his underlings as a sort of police force to control petty crimes in the building. He can also be generous with his wealth, which he shares with Ms. Bailey toward her efforts. It may be dirty money, but Ms. Bailey will do whatever it takes to help people survive.

The book affected me more strongly than any book I’ve read in a while. I’ve been to Professor Venkatesh’s website, listened to all his interviews and his presentation on public housing. Perhaps one of these days, I’ll write him a personal letter. He’s everything I wish I could be: an academic whose work has actually done something to solve society’s problems. The book doesn’t shy away from anyone’s faults, including his own, but ultimately, by showing the good side of people, particularly the creative ways the tenants pool resources, he conveys a beautiful, humanitarian message.
Profile Image for James Dittmar.
68 reviews4 followers
March 6, 2016
How embarrassing! I can't believe Sudhir believes that this account is even remotely scholarly (as it should be, coming from an "expert" in the field--he has a responsibility to portray his research accurately as a representative of his discipline, even if this is meant for a popular audience).

There are several points that made this book ridiculous:
1. Sudhir clearly idolizes JT and I think this clouds his ability to view JT and his work objectively
2. Sudhir painfully recollects his utter lack of social intelligence many, many times
3. His aspirations about gang life are petty and superficial
4. His attitude that he is a "rogue" and that all of the other sociologists in his field are "doing things the wrong way" is annoying -- especially when he makes these remarks as a 1st/2nd/3rd year graduate student with a limited understanding of the field and despite his lack of prior knowledge about anything remotely sociological
5. There was very little insight into poverty or gang life. This book read more like a teenage girl's diary. He doesn't make any substantive observations besides those of his own emotional reactions. He recounts in detail situations where he was afraid (like when he, for example, kicked a man on the ground during an altercation involving the gang and one of the residents), but fails to talk about some of the more mundane details of gang life that are important to offer a representative picture.
Profile Image for Caroline Stevens.
5 reviews4 followers
September 30, 2009
I had mixed feelings about Venkatesh's book. It exposed and detailed a world that I knew nothing about, and peaked my curiosity to look into the subject matter of gangs and life in the projects in greater detail. Venkatesh did an excellent job of explaining the inner workings of life in the projects - the hierarchy in a gang, how a gang works with the surrounding community, the role the police play . . . the economics that drives everything.

However, he brought up a lot of important issues but made no effort to discuss potential solutions. He calls himself a "rogue sociologist". I would agree with his use of the word rogue to describe himself: "a dishonest, knavish person; scoundrel". However, I wouldn't be so quick to call him a sociologist. My understanding of what sociologists do, is studying people in society with the ultimate goal of making advancements in how we function as a society. Instead, Vankatesh is simply a self serving and misleading reporter. He goes into the Robert Taylor homes allowing people to believe that he is there to help them. Instead he uses these people to make him stand out to his U of C teachers - ultimately landing teaching jobs at Harvard and Columbia. He pushed himself ahead at the expense of deeply impoverished people who had kindly taken great risks exposing the details of their lives to him. When he had completed his research he left all of his friends behind - clearly not understanding the bigger picture.

Obviously, Vankatesh's story is an interesting one: a U of C student hanging out in the ghetto. The more amazing stories though are those of the people actually living there. But the focus never really goes off of Vankatesh. Overall, Gang Leader for a Day touches upon many important issues. But it could have done so much more. Instead of just reporting on issues he should have gone into greater depth . . . answered more questions . . . offered solutions.

And how does Robert Taylor compare to other housing projects in Chicago and elsewhere? How do the Black Kings differ from other gangs - past and present? How does statistical research of the area compare to his ethnographer's approach? It's a blockbuster book. And like many blockbusters it only goes skin deep - though it does tell a fascinating story. It just needs a different narrator.
Profile Image for Anna.
936 reviews105 followers
March 28, 2008
Gang Leader for a Day is hands down one of the best books I have ever read. Sudhir Venkatesh, whose research on gangs was first made famous in Freakonomics, wrote this memoir of how he came to become an active observer of the drug trade in Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes (infamous public housing project) in late 1980s/early 1990s. Although it's nonfiction, the book reads like a narrative and it's incredibly engaging and page-turning suspenseful. Knowing that the events are real actually builds more suspense and curiosity because although I know what happens with the Robert Taylor Homes (they eventually get torn down), I am dying to know what happens to the characters in the book.

Venkatesh's writing takes on a style that I can only compare to that of the HBO show "The Wire." His characters are neither "good" nor "bad," but always something in between, and nothing is really truly black or white. But they are genuine and they all have stories that often go untold.

This book focuses on the "gray area" of society as a whole. He asks questions about issues that matter -- what public policies can and should be put into place to help poor African-Americans? How come our public housing system is so screwed up? What is the role of the police and who do they really serve and protect? Who has power/control and what do they use it for?

One of the greatest things that this book taught me is that it's not really an "us against them" problem, no matter how much we may want to think it is. Simplifying it like that makes it easier to digest the fact that modern urban crime is a tough (impossible?) problem to solve, but it's naive to try to act like there are simple solutions. I'm not sure we'll ever see a solution to things like drugs and gangs and bribery and violence. I think that what I took away from this book is that this whole issue of how to "help" people in the projects is way more complicated than we can possibly ever imagine it to be. But if we ever hope to come closer to solving it, understanding how it works (and this book does a great job of explaining) is probably pretty important.
Profile Image for Maciej Nowicki.
74 reviews50 followers
May 7, 2019

Sudhir Venkatesh tells you a true story of him going into the ghetto where he tries to fill a survey in Chicago gangs given to him by his University. When he went into Chicago’s ghetto buildings and tried to interview some gang members about their interactions and day-to-day dealings within the crack industry he found out (surprisingly) that the people who live there don’t welcome stranger very kindly. During his first meeting he was held hostage for 24 hours without any harm but people were very unsure about his presence and didn’t know what to expect. Worth to say that he didn’t fit into the ethnical environment as he is an Indian.

Anyway, they held him for 24 hours till they could get the word that he was okay. Eventually, he went back to the same apartment buildings again and again until he established a relationship with the people who lived there and he learned a lot of things about living in the ghettos. It was really striking how the book reveals realities about life in very poor tenement buildings in which they have micro-economies and other small jobs such as cutting hair or fixing cars.

The major story is about how Sudhir Venkatesh was literally invited to play the role of the Chicago gang leader for a day when he had to make some decisions on behalf of the gang that lived in. Apparently, an easy role focused on goods, crack and money management. Eventually, it emerged that it’s more about micromanagement and hard decision about life and death of the other gang “family” members, competitors and other unrelated people.

In conclusion, the book offers an opportunity to see deep inside a Chicago gangs and the world in which the members live, as well as people outside the gang that interact with them. The book depicts the harsh gang reality full of brutality, poverty but also everyday aid... (if you like to read my full review please visit my blog: https://leadersarereaders.blog/gang-l...)
11 reviews
December 15, 2020
Having relied heavily on Venkatesh's American Project for background on my own college thesis, I had high hopes for Gang Leader. As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, Venkatesh gained groundbreaking access to the Robert Taylor Homes. Robert Taylor was a notorious public housing project in Chicago that symbolized both the failure of public housing and the rise of violent drug gangs in the 1980s and 90s. Venkatesh's access enabled him to develop a comprehensive and unique understanding of both the underground economies that sustain the urban poor and the gangs that occupied public housing in the 90s.

In contrast with his scholarly work on American Project, Gang Leader for a Day was a thorough disappointment. Gang Leader is not a scholarly work but instead a sloppy memoir of Venkatesh's years at Robert Taylor. Billing himself as a rogue sociologist, Venkatesh cashed in on the more salacious anecdotes that had no place in American Project and instead haphazardly strung them together in Gang Leader.

Gang Leader's one strength is its premise: an Indian American grad student from Southern California goes to Chicago to study to become a sociologist, and, in the process, wanders onto gang turf armed with only a survey and considerable naivete. I have to imagine that Venkatesh and his editors considered the possibility of an adapted screenplay based on this book. If you're willing to give him the benefit of a significant doubt, Venkatesh's early ignorance of the danger that he encounters is plausible.

What is less than credible is that it continues for several years. Three years into his residency with the Black Kings, Venkatesh agrees to serve as a gang leader for a day. In a curious attempt to justify his own actions, Venkatesh limited the parameters of his leadership by refusing to direct any violent crimes during his stint at the helm of one of the nation's most violent drug enterprises. Drug sales? Ok. Drive-bys, not so much. This exercise in moral gymnastics is less than convincing.

Later in the same chapter, Venkatesh describes in vivid detail a beating that he helped deliver to a suspected rapist. Having joined a vigilante posse on the hunt in Robert Taylor for the alleged rapist, Venkatesh delivers a kick to the suspect's stomach as he resists the citizens' arrest.

Perhaps the most shocking incident occurs four years after he first began visiting Robert Taylor. Venkatesh had developed deep sources among the hustlers who operated Robert Taylor's underground economy. To impress his gang patron, J.T., and his building council patron, Miss Bailey, Venkatesh describes off-the-books businesses to them in vivid detail. This stunning act of betrayal burned Venkatesh's sources by revealing their shadowy business operations to two figures who immediately shook down the building hustlers for street taxes. Venkatesh blithely chalks this betrayal up to the fact that he is a hustler, too.

Venkatesh is also brazen enough to mislead J.T., the local Black Kings leader. Despite his frequently expressed esteem for J.T., Venkatesh leads J.T. on by allowing him to believe that Venkatesh is writing his biography. Unwilling to tell J.T. the truth, Venkatesh eventually assumes that J.T. knows this will not happen.

In addition to Venkatesh's unlikely ignorance, there are other failings with Gang Leader. For example, the Black Kings are not a real gang. Venkatesh's desire to protect his sources by changing names is understandable, but several major reviews of Gang Leader (e.g. the Wall Street Journal) discuss the Black Kings as if that is the name of an actual gang. If major media outlets didn't notice the note at the end of the book indicating the name changes, chances are that many other readers will miss the note as well.

Also, Venkatesh made sure to include an example of how he "helped to save a life." This consisted of helping drag a shooting victim to safety, which is admirable enough. The other element of Venkatesh's heroics was that he let someone borrow his car to drive the shooting victim to the hospital! Wow.

Venkatesh is certainly not the first ethnographer who found himself crossing ethical boundaries with the subjects of his research. What makes him unique is how far he strayed and how disinterested he seems in a thorough self-examination. A far more honest look at this problem is Philippe Bourgois's Selling Crack in El Barrio. And Alex Kotlowitz's There Are No Children Here is a more sympathetic portrait of the desperation of life in Chicago's gang-infested housing projects in the 1990s.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Casey .
79 reviews4 followers
June 30, 2012
If you live in Chicago, or have any interest in the lives of poor people in cities in the US you must read this book. Gang Leader for a Day is engaging, powerful, and believable. The only times I did not enjoy this book were when I couldn't deal with the difficult realities it laid out. This is not to say that it is bleak or a slog. The book moves at a cracking pace. The stories are personal and specific while painting a picture of a much larger world.
Profile Image for Alex.
30 reviews3 followers
March 21, 2008
This is a book that I’m glad I heard about first on the radio, because it is not represented well by its title or cover. The Sudhir Venkatesh on the book jacket, in his vintage leather coat with the collar up, arms folded in tough guy stance in front of derelict seeming housing projects slightly out of focus in the back ground, seems like a wannabe bad ass. And that’s not at all the impression you get from the memoir inside the book.

And the title—“Gang Leader for a Day”—makes it sound like you’re going to get a sensational fantasy trip into a criminal netherworld, like playing the Godfather on your Playstation. (Which is a good time in its own right.) But in fact, you get an interesting look into a world that exists in every major city in America, that we use as an avatar for all kinds of social ills, but that few people on the outside really go to lengths to understand.

In a way, the book recalls Mountains Beyond Mountains, I had a brief infatuation with the idea of studying medical anthropology.) If you’ve ever worked in a job or been in a situation where you have to try and quickly ingratiate yourself with people who are not like you, you’ll identify with Venkatesh. Showing up with a clipboard and ponytail and interrupting a drug deal to ask what it feels like to be black and poor is hardly a show of bravado, but his earnestness, sincerity, and willingness to connect is palpable. Though he has published more scholarly works based on this field work (and clearly done well in the academy as a result) this book shows that he also recognizes the power and impetus of recording life in stories, not just statistics. It’s what brings humanity to his research subjects, and levels the playing field, both for Venkatesh (who comes to recognize himself as a hustler like most everyone else in Robert Taylor) to the rest of us who get not just a voyeuristic thrill out of his accounts, but a chance to drop the stereotypes and see the real human complexity of his subjects.
Profile Image for Eapen Chacko.
41 reviews
August 22, 2016
Sudhir Venkatesh must have grown up in a bubble in California, which certainly has really vicious gangs in Compton and in East LA. A son of an academic, he arrives at the University of Chicago to do his Ph.D. in Sociology, and then ventures outside of its bubble into the Chicago ghetto, and to the Taylor housing projects. He knows nothing about urban blacks, apparently, and nothing about gangs, drugs, and projects.

Nonetheless, he spends six years interviewing people in the projects who initially view him with the scorn deserved by the gang of usually white, do-gooders who write about ghetto folks without talking to anyone outside of a controlled environment. To his credit, Venkatesh does "Go and see for himself," as Sam Zemurray recommends in a great book, "The Fish That Ate the Whale."

His journey and continued reporting are made possible by his friendship with, and protection by, J.T. a leader of the Black Kings, who thinks that Venkatesh is ultimately going to write his biography. As six years go by, Venkatesh develops his niche within the U of Chicago Sociology community, finishes his Ph.D., writes a book that portrays him as "gang leader," which he wasn't, and a "bad ass" in a leather jacket, which he wasn't in the book. He goes on to Columbia, movin' on up, as the Jeffersons would say.

The projects are torn down by the Clinton Administration in an attempt to clean up what the government power structure sees as an eyesore and a political embarrassment. A problem is that it disrupts what had become a somewhat stable, self-correcting, ecosystem of competing gangs, corrupt officials and cops on the take, activists taking their share from the tenants and the government, and hustlers of both genders making do by providing and bartering for goods (clothing, books, food) and services (child care, auto repairs, transportation, and shopping) and making a very few tax-free bucks in the process.

Sudhir never wrote J.T.'s biography, and he half-heartedly admits that he hustled information from all his "friends" that profited him, but which ultimately made no difference in their lives at all. So, just like other, self-satisfied authors of books like "Nickeled and Dimed," who belabor the obvious for their own insular crowds, I was really disappointed by this book. The project seemed like a fraud, intellectually and emotionally. It may sound harsh, but there it is.

If you would like to read a book about the baddest gangs and about a courageous author who gets engaged with the gangs, brings something of himself and God into their lives and still makes a real difference, read "Tattoos on the Heart," by Greg Boyle.

Profile Image for Melissa.
21 reviews
October 19, 2018
As a recent Chicago resident, I found this book fascinating (and a pretty horrifying at times). It made me feel more compassion towards those impacted by violence that happens in the city and more aware of the complexities of helping impoverished communities.

Heads up- there is an obscene amount of profanity in conversations Venkatesh recounts.
Profile Image for Rick Wilson.
646 reviews226 followers
July 14, 2022
I really liked this.

Sometimes there’s a sort of vulnerability in liking things. It seems easier to be cynical and to point out flaws and something than to say “hey this is cool.” Because as soon as you say you like something, there’s a sense of ownership for it. Other peoples criticisms become criticisms of you in a proxy due to your liking of this thing.

I think it’s sort of a byproduct of the hyper online Internet world. Putting yourself out there as supporting something kind of unintentionally, maybe intentionally, is saying that “this thing I like is part of my world. “

I usually find it easier to write a criticism of something that is to write a positive review. Some most impactful books probably are that way due to a sense of luck, being the right type of story at the right time in my life where I was receptive to it. I reread old man and the sea, a book I absolutely adored as an 18-year-old and thought it was pretty meh last year.

Anyways it’s a really roundabout way to say I like this book, I really respect the author for putting himself firmly inside of the communities he was studying. Ignoring the huge glaring problem of methodology as this is entirely partial research filtered through one person. But I don’t really care. The narrative arc here and the personal stories shared, end up having more impact than I think any sort of statistic that could possibly be statistic-ized. All around, fantastic nonfiction book.
Profile Image for Katie.
299 reviews
June 17, 2015
Not a fan of this book. I find his methods ethically suspect mostly because of the power dynamics between researcher and subjects - it's never clear whether Venkatesh would go to bat for the Black Kings or the residents of the Robert Taylor homes if pressed by law enforcement. The fact that he is constantly agonizing about morality and ethics made it even worse. Dude, if you know you're bending the rules for your own benefit, maybe stop? I think my favorite moment in the book was when Venkatesh gets called out by one of the residents as a "hustler" - using others to propel himself to the top of the academic world.

In addition to the ethical issues, I was disappointed in the lack of sociological analysis. I realized about halfway through the book that this was not the book version of his dissertation, but rather something more like a memoir of his time in the projects. To be honest, it felt more like a vehicle for both self-absolution and self-aggrandizement than an ethnography. The book was a chance for him to share "war stories", but also to lament how ethically torn he was during the project.

I did enjoy his writing style - it was very accessible and the stories were compelling. I was just hoping for a little something more.
Profile Image for Jamie.
1,182 reviews70 followers
May 18, 2009
After Lee Anne recommended this to me, I then uncovered his "what do real thugs think about the Wire" on the Freakonomics blog. So I finally read it. I can safely say I would have read it in 1 sitting if I hadn't taken breaks to watch the Euro. It is THAT good and currently sitting as my favorite book of the year.
It's a fascinating peak into "real people" in the Robert Taylor housing projects, and it would be depressing (so many instances in which people accept such horrible injustice as just their fate) but it is mostly simply fascinating. I think Venkatesh really DID capture information that public policy makers could use to aid in urban poverty, but lets be honest, everyone is in on the scams. And they're pervasive.

This formed a nice contrast between A Hope in the Unseen, which I'd recently read. That book takes a kid from the inner city and follows him on a journey to Brown. Unfortunately, I found most of this book dry and dull, while Gang Leader for a day crackled with energy.

Nonfiction booklist.
Profile Image for Leah.
335 reviews
Want to read
September 3, 2013
Without reading a word I have to say I HATE uncritical ethnographies...without an explicit inclusion of the researcher's positionality to their participants I find it highly unethical...it's academic imperialism to me...but I'm going to give this a chance hoping for something good.
Profile Image for Armen Grigoryan.
9 reviews5 followers
January 16, 2018
I think since 2008 it has been said thousands times that this a must read for anyone who is conducting research in social science, but let me add my voice to those folks and say read and enjoy this eye-opening and mind-altering book.
Profile Image for Maggie.
31 reviews
May 7, 2016
Sudhir Venkatesh was a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, studying urban poverty. In an effort to interview those living in urban destitution, he grabbed a multiple-choice survey, and headed over to the Robert Taylor Homes - one of Chicago's most notorious housing projects.

After a tense introduction, Venkatesh befriended JT, a leader of Chicago's Black Kings gang. This book is Venkatesh's account of the decade he spent observing gang life in the projects. He followed JT around Robert Taylor Homes, witnessing crack-making and selling, prostitution, and an overabundance of violence -- both gang related, and not. He witnessed life in public housing for those who partnered with the gang, and for those who tried to avoid the gang at all costs.

The subject matter of this book is one that has always intrigued me - in high school, I read a book called There Are No Children Here (also set in Chicago), which highlighted the lives of children growing up in a blighted and failing housing system. I chose the college I did because I had originally planned to major in Urban Studies and Sociology (I majored in English). Though I didn't study urban plight as I had originally planned, my interest in the subject hasn't waned, and I anticipated loving this book. I didn't. But, I did enjoy it, it was a quick read, and I learned much about the decay of our urban settings.

The main issue that I had with this book, is that Venkatesh struck me as painfully naive. He walked into a housing project with a multiple choice survey that asked questions like, "How does it feel to be black and poor?" and actually expected people to respond. What were they supposed to say? "Oh, I love being black and poor. It doesn't bother me at all that I'm a marginalized person, living in a dilapidated building."? Come now.

I don't feel like one needs a Mensa caliber brain to realize that these questions are silly and insulting. And yet, Venkatesh was Ph.D. level student at a renowned institution. It just reminded me never to take my common sense for granted.

This event took place in the first chapter -- and I didn't really feel that his naivety improved. Venkatesh spent the better part of a decade observing these people, interviewing them, getting to know them, and earning their trust, but, I never felt that he truly understood them. And in fairness, maybe that understanding was never a true possibility.

At one point, he broke away from JT for a few days, and interviewed some of the others living in the building. He asked them questions about their "jobs," and their abilities to make a living in this setting. They answered his questions honestly, telling him of the various underground money-making projects that they participated in. Venkatesh knew that JT and his gang "taxed" all the residents who used the building as a place to make money -- and JT was apparently unaware of many of these schemes. Yet, Venkatesh still told JT about these different projects, and then was genuinely surprised when the tenants were angry at him for running his mouth. I wanted to scream at him, "You're a damn fool Sudhir, come on!"

During his tenure with the gang, Venkatesh learned so much about how the gang worked and operated, and saw that the gang functioned with the gusto of a Fortune 500 company. JT was the leader of his faction; he had an accountant and a planner. He had worker-bee foot soldiers who stood on the street and sold the product (crack), and he had a whole variety of customers. But, above JT, there was an entire upper-level hierarchy to strive for. The Black Kings were a nationwide gang, and they held leadership meetings all over the country. Venkatesh was fascinated by this -- and so was I.

It's not a surprise that the Black Kings cropped up in these buildings. The Robert Taylor Homes were deplorably set-up -- they stretched from 39th Street to 54th, running alongside the Dan Ryan Expressway. In other words, in order for the tenants to LEAVE their housing, they had to literally cross the highway. Many of them did not have cars. They were effectively isolated from the rest of society. The buildings themselves were high rises of 16 stories each - with outdoor hallways. Outdoor. Like a motel. In Chicago.

If you haven't been to Chicago -- I'll paint this picture for you: in the winter, Lake Michigan, a huge lake, freezes over. Solid. I've had the wind in Chicago rip at my face so severely that my eyes streamed like I was sobbing, with those tears then literally freezing to my face the second they left my eyes and hit the air. It's cold. It's so. frigging. cold. And, their hallways were outside.

After children began plummeting to their deaths from the upper floors, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) begrudgingly put chain-link fences up along the corridors. So, these people lived in buildings, with outdoor hallways, enclosed by the beauty of chain-link metal.

Outdoor hallways aside - the CHA built these buildings, crammed the people inside, and then left, never to come back or administer the required up-keep. Doors fell off the hinges. Water stopped running in many apartments. The elevators sometimes just, went into a free-fall, killing everyone inside -- and this was only if they were working at all. Appeals to the CHA for help went unanswered. It's not surprising that impoverished people, in run-down buildings, with little access to the city, began organizing themselves into street-gangs.

But, with all of this said, can gang members be absolved of their multiple misdeeds? I don't personally believe so, and Venkatesh struggled with this also. I don't think he wanted to absolve them; it was clear that he understood that gang-life wasn't a sustainable lifestyle. Gang members weren't long for this world, and unfortunately, neither were the innocents that they came in contact with. The members of this particular gang often said, "You need to understand that the Black Kings are not a gang; we are a community organization, responding to people's needs," and Venkatesh admitted his skepticism about this many times.

The gang felt that it provided its tenants "safety," and "employment." They also conducted "community outreach," by going door-to-door and encouraging people to register to vote (once they were signed up, the gang told them who they were to vote for. The Chicago political machine is alive and well, even in the 'hood).

The gang may have provided "protection" to the tenants of their building, but they were also targets of drive-by shootings --in which innocents were killed. The gang may have employed people, paying them money to sell drugs -- but in this they were perpetuating addiction. For each "service" that they provided, they inflicted a world of pain. The cycle was never-ending, and vicious.

My favorite part of this book though, was the illumination of city-wide, governmental corruption. The CHA wouldn't conduct repairs when most tenants called, but they accepted bribes from some of the "building leaders" in exchange for vaguely explained services.

There were police officers that would come into the buildings and beat drug dealers, then raid their apartments, stealing their drugs and their money, but without issuing an arrest. They didn't actually have interest in getting them off of the streets (otherwise, how could they get their cut of a rather lucrative drug trade)?

The Aldermen were terrible too. They could be bought by the gang leaders -- they would keep well-meaning police officers away from parks where the dealers would be selling their drugs. It was frustrating.

Eventually, the Robert Taylor homes were torn down, and all tenants were "relocated." Many moved to different poor neighborhoods, continuing their life in the projects. Some of JT's gang members joined other gangs to ensure their own safety. The CHA was responsible for relocating the tenants, but it shirked this duty along with all of its others, and the tenants did what they could on their own to find places to live.

This book was frustrating, eye-opening, and disheartening. Yet, I recommend it. For more of my reviews, go to readingandmusing.com
Profile Image for Deepak Thomas.
Author 2 books21 followers
April 20, 2019
Gang Leader for a Day is an autobiographical account of a sociologist's six years of living with and studying of the residents of a housing project called Robert Taylor in Chicago.

The book deals with how sociological studies purely based on statistics are not sufficient to explain or resolve poverty. There is a human aspect to it that is needed to be understood to present the whole picture.

The author narrates with a fluid style which is more reminiscent of a novel rather than a memoir. Which is great for the general reader because the book is always engaging. The characters he builds are vivid and you are transported to the world.

The black economy, the strange cultural mores, the improvised code of conduct which springs up when a whole society is shunned by the system at large is all memorably explained.

Though I will concede that a lot of the book seems to be ...exaggerated (the author does admit he is reconstructing stuff from memory) as a general primer to the situation of the poor side of America it is a very good book.

I would love it if someone did a similar study with the poorest of India. A book based in the slums or in the rural hinterland.

Sociologists of India...Unite!

PS. If you have read Freakonomics ... the chapter about drug dealers was based on a paper written by Steven Levitt and Sudhir Venkatesh. And Sudhir got his data when he was working with the residents of Robert Taylor.
6 reviews
September 18, 2008
*Note: The author of this book, Sudhir Venkatesh, has a very long name. There are way too many letters in Venkatesh for me to type it over and over. In fact, my fingers are exhausted from the three times I've already typed it. Therefore, the author will be referred to as S.V. from here on out.*

One of the most popular chapters in Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's book Freakonomics centers on the economics of a Chicago street gang. So you can imagine people were excited when they got word of Gang Leader for a Day, written by the man responsible for the studies profiled in that chapter. The book is a chance for this self-styled 'rogue sociologist' to take us deeper into a world many know nothing about. (In fairness, the whole 'rogue sociologist' thing could be a marketing ploy - Freakonomics' subtitle refers to a 'rogue economist.' I, for one, am somewhat alarmed at the sudden rise in rogue -ists running around the streets of our nation. Someone should do something.)

And, as an expansion on that same Freakonomics chapter, I suppose S.V.'s book is OK. There are many more pages to work with here, so we get more time, more characters, and more anecdotes. But I had several problems with the book that kept me from enjoying it as a much as I wanted to.

Power. No matter how embedded he was or felt, S.V. was not black. He was not poor. He neither lived in nor grew up in the projects. And, unlike the residents of Robert Taylor Homes, he could leave whenever he wanted. Even when he didn't want to leave, the gang members would often shield him from especially brutal or sensitive events. Is any of this particularly S.V.'s fault? No. We're all stuck with our own perspective. Forgive the moment of solipsism, but no one can ever truly transcend the blessing/curse of subjectivity. S.V., though, is so far out of his element that it feels like anthropomorphizing when he attempts to talk about people's motives. He dehumanizes in his very attempt to humanize.

Numbers. Maybe I'm a geek. Maybe I would have been better off reading his dissertation. But Gang Leader for a Day seemed surprisingly low on data. This is a book of stories, not information.

Motive. On multiple occasions, S.V. wonders why he is studying this community, and what he hopes to get out of his research. Even with these doubts, we see him crossing lines to get what he needs. He indulges residents' delusions of grandeur by allowing them to believe he's writing about them individually, rather than the community as a whole. He betrays people's confidence when he thinks it will help his research. Eventually, he justifies his actions by deciding that, like many of the buildings residents, he's a hustler. To make matters worse, that isn't even his own conclusion, but something told to him by one of the residents, and he clings to the idea like a life saver.

As I said earlier, I really wanted to like this book. Maybe I went in with unrealistic expectations, but I left feeling hollow and disappointed, like I had just eaten a candy bar when what I really wanted was something salty. Don't get me wrong - S.V. did something fascinating in exploring the lives of a hidden segment of society. But Gang Leader doesn't do it any justice.

Personally, I might have liked the book better if he had gotten his ass kicked at least once for his impudence, his naivete and his condescension, a la the late Dr. Hunter S. Thompson in Hell's Angels.
Profile Image for Fryeday.
114 reviews11 followers
March 16, 2016
This book was recommended by a friend who had just finished it as well as Freakonomics.

We meet Sudir as a new grad student at the University of Chicago. We learn that he grew up I think both in NY and LA, but in middle class suburbs of both. He finds a professor who wants to study the poor after venturing out into the southside neighborhoods of Chicago and deciding he wants to do something in that vein. He goes to an almost condemned project building with a very funny and subjectively offensive questionnaire and that is where he meets JT (gang leader) and eventually gains front row access to a southside Chicago gang that eventually takes him into the Robert Taylor homes for 6 years.

The concept of this book alone seems really interesting and fascinating even. We learn that JT is a college grad who left the corporate world because he wasn't making enough money and goes back to the neighborhood to rise within the ranks of the gang. I saw very quickly how JT's ego was key to Sudir's research and therefore this book. I also really respected the fact that JT wanted the gang structure chronicled. It made me wonder if his education played a part in him feeling that was important. Maybe a combo of ego and education because he was successful as a leader/manager and wanted to be credited as such.

There's a lot of specific info in this book about gang habits, gang tactics, gang impact, etc on most levels of the hierarchy. The book lacks info/research as one goes higher up the chain, which we learn is super rare. I would've been interested in that.

Central to the book is Sudir's relationship with JT. JT wants to be Sudir's only access to the gang and to the projects and once Sudir begins to gain his own independent access, their relationship deteriorates some. There were times where I really did forget that Sudir was a student doing research and I can tell he and JT had the same experience.

I was struck by how much people want to tell their story. You have this picture of people in gangs being closed off and I'm sure they are to outsiders, but Sudir was able to disarm gang members, prostitutes, hypes very quickly. Just reminded me of the humanness of people that society seems to work to dehumanize.

In the end, I'm not sure what effect the research had except that it was groundbreaking, unorthodox and interesting. I don't know if there was an impact. In the end the Robert Taylor homes were torn down and Sudir and JT's relationship pretty much seemed to dissolve with them, which I was really disappointed by. Like weirdly disappointed by. I think, for me, their relationship was the part of the book that most fascinated me.

All in all, it was great, on the ground history for someone like me who grew up on the southside and spent my whole life passing by the Robert Taylor homes, never entering them and remembering vividly what the city looked like with them and then even more vividly recalling the emptiness of that stretch of State St when they were gone. Good book to read.

63 reviews
October 23, 2018
Interesting book. Always interested in different cultures and the way people live. However, this is a extremely vulgar book. I listened to it and my ears hurt from time to time.
Profile Image for Neil Hepworth.
229 reviews47 followers
May 4, 2014
How does one go about reviewing a book whose major premise is that, unless you live it, you can’t understand it? Oh...um...hrm…Dude, I don’t know what to say.

Gang Leader for a Day is a gritty read - not for the gentle of heart - yet it is very accessible and easy to read, though you won’t want to plow through it in one sitting. It provides just what the back blurb promises: a look into the Chicago Projects and into a world most of us literally cannot imagine - nor would most of us want to. You’ll meet residents of every stripe and career in Robert Taylor, the Project du jour. As you read, you’ll feel anger, shock, frustration, confusion, irritation, and exasperation - and then you just won’t know what you’re supposed to think. And when you go to bed at night, you’ll say an extra Prayer of Thanks for your home, safety, and family.

On a side note, to those who are upset because this book doesn’t present the residents with more depth, I think you’re missing the point. The residents Venkatesh studied for this book do not explain their life to those on the outside, and as he points out again and again, many of stories the residents did tell were larger than life or ornamented in any number of ways. I think the only way for Venkatesh to communicate what he experienced was to just relate to the reader what he saw and felt - no one could get into the heads of his subjects or do them justice. The whole point of the book is to show that no matter what people on the outside say or do, they won’t, can’t, understand or help. The Community serves and helps itself in spite of the world at large. At least, that’s how it came across to me.
Profile Image for Bogdan Teodorescu.
94 reviews87 followers
April 1, 2020
Hell, I really enjoyed this. I enjoyed Sudhir's style. I enjoyed his story. I enjoyed how he made us understand, as he did at some point, the reasons behind these people's actions. And yes, sometimes there is no good reason. But their life is the way it is for no good reason too.

At times, you won't get things. And what's funny is that you don't get them because the author himself didn't get them. That is what I meant when I said I loved his style. He makes us follow the pace he himself did, and that is great.

I saw people saying everything was stereotypical. Don't find that true. Check out for yourself. The story is as real as it should be. In the end, you will have the feeling that you understood some of how life goes for these people. And it's a great feeling. But it's just a feeling. You didn't understand shit

“As he met now with each sales director, J.T. would begin by grilling him with a standard set of questions: You losing any of your regulars? (In other words, customers.) Anybody complaining? (About the quality of the crack.) You heard of people leaving you for others? (Customers buying crack from other dealers.) Anybody watching you? (The police or tenant leaders.) Any new hustlers been hanging around? (Homeless people or street vendors.) You seen any niggers come around? (Enemy gangs.)”
Profile Image for Reggie.
45 reviews1 follower
February 25, 2008
I thought the chapter in Freakonomics on why drug dealers live with their mothers was fascinating. For that reason alone I had been looking forward to reading this book. It did not disappoint. I literally could not put this book down.

The book presents an enthralling inside look at life in Chicago's now defunct Robert Taylor Homes during the height of the crack epidemic of the late 80s to mid 90s. The primary focus is on the author's almost unfettered access to the Black Kings (a street gang responsible for much of the crack distribution in parts of the Robert Taylor Homes), their leader J.T., and the various other ghetto power brokers who were complicit (albeit necessarily so) in the entrenchment of the Black Kings and their enterprise.

In many respects the author's relationship with J.T. reminded me of the young Scottish doctor's relationship with Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Mr. Venkatesh's mere presence appears to feed J.T.'s ego and at times he acts against his better judgment, putting himself in harms way and on an unstable moral footing.

Profile Image for Michael Flanagan.
494 reviews22 followers
April 8, 2015
Sudhir Venkatesh once again shows his ability to take academic learning from the classroom to the streets and put a real life spin on it. In this book he takes sociology to a whole new level by becoming a part of the community he was studying. Ignoring all safety warning Sudhir enters the projects to see how it works from the street level.

I can hear all the academic minded screaming "NO, NO, NO" you cannot become a part of what you are studying. To them I say this book is a shining example of what can be produced when you immerse yourself into your subject why maintaining an objective view.

The inner workings of the projects are truly mind-boggling and had me thinking how can society turn a blind eye to the goings on in these lower social economic areas. Often left to look after themselves the communities developed are complicated and the line between legal and illegal are blown away. This book goes way beyond the gangs and lets the readers into the inner workings of a part of society many would prefer to sweep under the carpet.

Profile Image for Lindsay.
1,124 reviews
December 5, 2016
This started out as a rip-roaring read for me. Venkatesh's moxy (or naivete) certainly sets out for a sensational premise, in every sense of the word. I began to falter about halfway through when I felt like it was more anecdotal than anything, and I found myself craving more synthesis on his part. I also became really frustrated about just how naive he was...I suppose he couldn't have gotten himself into his position had he not been, but man, you can see him screwing with the tenants' lives from a mile away.

All in all? Looking past my qualms, it's a good read and especially eye-opening for people who aren't as familiar with the social structures of urban poverty. I'd recommend steering clear of the audiobook--I started with it, but the reader was really one-note and, consequently, incredibly condescending.
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