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

4.05  ·  Rating details ·  21,758 ratings  ·  1,833 reviews

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 Venkate

Hardcover, 302 pages
Published January 10th 2008 by Penguin Press (first published 2008)
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Jay Mahannah It's as relevant today as it ever was. Look at community police relations and you will see why Black Lives Matter exists. These stories detail the dis…moreIt's as relevant today as it ever was. Look at community police relations and you will see why Black Lives Matter exists. These stories detail the disconnect between parts of America where some trust government and some mistrust. If people want to understand each other instead of race-bashing, it starts with a willingness to understand. Sudhir's example of humility and JT's earnest desire to matter are relevant today. (less)

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Petra X is feeling very sad
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 wo ...more
Nov 13, 2013 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: People curious about life in the projects and/or gang life
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 mone ...more
Apr 22, 2008 rated it it was ok
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 b ...more
Apr 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
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 wa
Kressel Housman
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 g ...more
James Dittmar
Apr 19, 2013 rated it did not like it
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 o
Caroline Stevens
Aug 17, 2009 rated it liked it
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 m
Maciej Nowicki
Dec 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing

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 ver
Mar 18, 2009 rated it did not like it
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Feb 03, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: urbanists, Chicagoans
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 mor ...more
Mar 18, 2008 rated it really liked it
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’r
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. ...more
Oct 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
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.
Jun 15, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: everyone (especially Pamela)
Recommended to Jamie by: Lee Anne
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 t
Sep 03, 2013 marked it as to-read
Shelves: academic-me
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's academic imperialism to me...but I'm going to give this a chance hoping for something good. ...more
Armen Grigoryan
Jan 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: politics-and-ir
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.
Jun 02, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Simply put - a must read if you live in America.
Apr 25, 2016 rated it really liked it
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 Ta
Eapen Chacko
Aug 21, 2016 rated it did not like it
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 initiall
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 ...more
Deepak Thomas
Apr 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 i
Sep 08, 2008 rated it it was ok
*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 Gan
Mar 16, 2016 rated it really liked it
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
Zach Morrell
Oct 17, 2018 rated it liked it
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.
Neil Hepworth
Apr 26, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
How does one go about reviewing a book whose major premise is that, unless you live it, you can’t understand it?…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’l
Jan 28, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: anyone
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 resp
Michael Flanagan
Mar 19, 2015 rated it really liked it
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 wh
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 fro ...more
May 16, 2008 rated it really liked it
A fascinating account of how this Indian-American grad student at the University of Chicago who grew up in the Cali suburbs befriends a gang leader (JT) in the Robert Taylor housing project and spends years getting to know him and the community.
Good cops. Bad cops. Drugs. Prostitution. Building Maintenance. Gang Turf. Soul Food. This book has it all. Through his experiences Mr. Professor paints a picture of the realities of what it means to live in the projects, how it feels to be black in a ne
Oct 09, 2012 rated it really liked it
Venkatesh begins his story as a university student who (stupidly) wanders into the Robert Taylor Homes of Chicago for a sociology project and ends it as a Sociology professor and a trusted confidant of a major Chicago gang leader. In between he befriends the residents of the ghetto, listening to their stories,interacting in their lives and humanizing them in the process. The book is very accessible, the narrative is tight and exciting and the characters are vivid. The lurid nature of inner city ...more
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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 wo

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“I'm not sure I'm ready for another big research project just yet," I said.
Oh Yeah?" he said, handing me one of the beers. "What else you going to do? You can't fix nothing , you never worked a day in your life. The only thing you know how to do is hang out with niggers like us."
I nearly choked on my beer when he summarized my capacities so succinctly - and, for the most part accurately.”
“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.)” 1 likes
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