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

3.98 of 5 stars 3.98  ·  rating details  ·  14,022 ratings  ·  1,335 reviews
First introduced in Freakonomics, here is the full story of Sudhir Venkatesh, the sociology grad student who infiltrated one of Chicago's most notorious gangs

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 s
Hardcover, 302 pages
Published January 10th 2008 by Penguin Press (first published 2008)
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Best Non-Fiction (non biography)
188th out of 3,588 books — 5,488 voters
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Community Reviews

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Petra X
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
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 28, 2015 Carmen rated it 2 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: People curious about life in the projects and/or gang life
Recommended to Carmen by: Library
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
Mar 14, 2008 Jill rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Sociologists, and All Those Who Love an Unusual Read
Wow. I wasn't sure how I would feel about this book, since I tried one of the author's earlier books, and liked the concept, but felt that it was a little too academic. This book, however, I thought was an amazing read.

Sudhir Venkatesh, while a graduate student in sociology, accidentally finds himself befriending a gang leader, JT, at the height of the crack epidemic. The gang leader gives him an unprecented look at both life in the gang, and life in the projects for everyone where it is a majo
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
Caroline Stevens
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
James Dittmar
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. There is a strong current of homoeroticism between Sudhir and JT that is unresolved and clouds his ability to view JT and his work objectively
Mar 27, 2008 Anna rated it 5 of 5 stars
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
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
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
May 17, 2009 Jamie rated it 5 of 5 stars
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
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.
Sep 03, 2013 Leah 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.
Neil Hepworth
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
Feb 24, 2008 Reggie rated it 4 of 5 stars
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
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
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
Danielle Kim
Pretty crazy experience. A good story but wasn't academic enough for me.
Simply put - a must read if you live in America.
Michael Flanagan
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 book was on Mark Zuckerberg's "A Year of Books" list. I was intrigued by the title. A sociologist sets out to write his dissertation on his experiences and interactions with bang members. He immerses himself in an in-depth study on poverty and its economics in the Chicago Robert Taylor Housing projects. It's sad to see how the police, landlords, tenants, gangs, and other authority in the neighborhood work together. It's horrific corruption, extortion, and a dead end for those that want to g ...more
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
Derek Warnstedt
In Gang Leader for a Day, Sudhir Venkatesh tells the story of himself, a college student at the University of Chicago. The reader follows Sudhir Venkatesh witness and participate in the lives of a group of drug-dealers in the Rob Taylor Homes in the south side of Chicago during the 1990’s. Sudhir Venkatesh befriends the leader of the most notorious gang in Chicago, Black Kings, a man by the name of J.T. Venkatesh was originally assigned by his professor to survey the people living in the Robert ...more
I had to set this down for a while, not because it was such a slog, but because there was no benefit in me ever finishing it, and I only picked it back up because I challenged myself to read 100 books in 2K14, and I was either gonna have to read the last third or so of this or read something else in its entirety in order to complete it. (I'm also maybe 700 deep into Richard Ben Cramer's notoriously lengthy What It Takes, but obviously that wasn't about to happen.) As seemingly every other review ...more
What do people know about the Robert Taylor Homes? Mostly that it was considered to be one of the worst places in the country.

What do people know about the people who lived there? Almost nothing.

People in America need to know more about the lives of poor people. In this book, Sudhir Venkatesh recounts his six years of spending time with gang leaders, community leaders, and families at the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. He stumbles into his situation by encountering a group of young black men in
I wouldn't say "rogue sociologist" as much as "naive and foolish sociologist who was awful damn lucky." I found this book fascinating, as he was a U of C student at the time I lived in Chicago (near the U of C), studying gangs and the projects a little over a mile from where I lived. I don't believe that the gang he was studying was the same one that ran my high school (I *believe* that was an offshoot of the Gangster Disciples), but it's all the old names and concepts that I was familiar with. ...more
Sudhir Venkatesh was a graduate student in sociology when he became interested the plight of poor African Americans living just blocks away from the University of Chicago and wealthy, upper class, Hyde Park. Sudhir started hanging around in a nearby Chicago housing project and talking with some of the people who lived there. He even tried to administer one of the surveys put together by his department, but the residents of the project laughed at his questions (what does it feel like to be black ...more
A fantastic book. The author, Sudhir Venkatesh, is fearless, both in his willingness to go where most peers wouldn't and in his honesty in analyzing himself and his role in what he studies.

Unlike most sociologists, Venkatesh values the personal story over the story of data. That might make him a "bad" sociologist, but it offers the average reader honest insight into what is one of the most misunderstood aspects of American socioeconomics: the urban housing projects. If, like me, you didn't grow
*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
I really enjoyed this book. I felt like the author portrayed the world of the urban poor in a way that most middle class Americans never see. Every one living in Robert Taylor projects in Chicago is just trying to survive and enjoy life to the best of their abilities. The pimps, the young moms, the prostitutes, the drug lords, the gang foot soldiers, the squatters, the elderly... They do what they can to make their lives tolerable, if not a bit enjoyable. The author, Sudhir, sees that everyone l ...more
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Ninjas Be Reading: Week 1 discussion points 1 8 Apr 02, 2013 03:49PM  
  • High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing
  • In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance
  • More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City
  • There are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America
  • Our America
  • Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America
  • All Our Kin: Strategies For Survival In A Black Community
  • Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse
  • Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan
  • Urban Villagers: Group and Class in the Life of Italian-Americans
  • Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence
  • King of the Godfathers
  • Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town
  • Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City
  • Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America
  • Making Malcolm: The Myth And Meaning Of Malcolm X
  • Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City
  • Chicago: City on the Make
Sudhir 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). Gang Leader 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 wor
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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.”
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