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Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor

3.71  ·  Rating details ·  763 ratings  ·  86 reviews
In this revelatory book, Sudhir Venkatesh takes us into Maquis Park, a poor black neighborhood on Chicago’s Southside, to explore the desperate, dangerous, and remarkable ways in which a community survives. We find there an entire world of unregulated, unreported, and untaxed work, a system of living off the books that is daily life in the ghetto. From women who clean hous ...more
Hardcover, 426 pages
Published October 16th 2006 by Harvard University Press
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Jun 07, 2010 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Jamie Dimon
Shelves: economics
I'll never look at a ghetto the same way again. Much of what sociologist Venkatesh found during his deep immersion into one of Chicago's south side neighborhoods isn't surprising; what did surprise me was the degree of symbiosis among the various players in the underground economy. Street hustlers - often homeless - might hawk merchandise, but also be employed by store owners to hand out flyers, or even to sleep in the store at night as security. A store owner might provide a ready bathroom to t ...more
Sep 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I'm not really sure why so many Goodreaders were expecting a Harvard University Press' publication of a qualitative study of illicit economies to be targeted for the reading level of The da Vinci Code... Let's be clear, this is the publication of a multi-year survey by an academic on an academic press.

And it's an incredibly important study. Most scholarly output on the urban poor draws either from statistical estimates of activity or on political polemics disguised as original research. This is
Apr 14, 2009 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: sociologists
Shelves: nonfiction
The topic is important (urban poverty) and the book is informative. The degree to which police are complicit in the underground economy by their simple refusal to interact more with poor communities was an eye opener. But the book was too long, mostly due to unnecessary wordiness and repetition of arguments--it should have been about 3/4 or even 1/2 as long as it is. He seems like a good academic writer but doesn't make the transition to a wider audience very well--it definitely could have used ...more
Feb 16, 2009 rated it really liked it
Probably the best account I've seen of life in the slums.

The author tells interesting stories about how welfare mothers "manage the household".
Getting a few dollars here, there, and anywhere to pay the bills.

Every adult who lives in the home is expected to contribute,
either money, a car, services, something.
Even grandparents have explicit mandatory contributions.

One woman kicked her grandfather out of the home six times for up to a month because he was not putting in his share.

The author r
Mike Morita
Oct 03, 2007 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: if you liked Freakonomics, and enjoy reading academic papers.
Shelves: sciences, nonfiction
Freakonomics is a huge bestseller, the successful collaboration of an economist and a journalist (Levitt & Dubner). This book screams for such a collaboration.

Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor is authored by an economist and colleague of the better known Levitt, and explores similar "real-world" economics that the public is now familiar with. The author entered Chicago's tough area and, after gaining the trust of the locals, began to observe the interrelated economic activ
Anya Weber
Oct 29, 2008 rated it liked it
I'll admit that I only read about the first half of this book. It's a fascinating topic: the underground, unreported, illegal commerce that goes on in the inner city. And Venkatesh definitely knows his subject; he spent about a decade getting to know this one Chicago ghetto community, and I completely trust his stats and judgments about how people there make ends meet.

Unfortunately, Venkatesh's writing style is a bit pompous at times, and he throws in scholarly terminology when it's not really n
May 09, 2009 rated it really liked it
Off the Books is still a book for the lay reader but it is clearly a deep dive into the economics and sociology of the urban ghetto. The book explores how various actors in the ghetto economy work with each other from people just trying to get by to prostitutes, pimps, street preachers, homeless, local business owners, itinerant hustlers, and gang members selling crack on local sidewalks.

On the good side, it is peppered throughout with very specific examples and excerpts of interviews and conve
Living in and around Chicago for almost my entire life, I was particularly interested in what Venkatesh had to say about the inner city experience here. He did not disappoint. Venkatesh uncovers a world that is barely visible in the evening news reports of murder, drugs and meyhem in neighborhoods like Garfield Park and Englewood. I now completely understand why people living in these communities are so hesitant to implicate the murderers in their midst. I understand now how clergy became entang ...more
Aug 31, 2007 rated it it was ok
While Off the Books can be a little dry at times, it was still an interesting look into daily life for the urban poor on Chicago's South Side. Some of it was what I was expecting (pimps, hos, drugs, and gangs) but a lot of it was news to me (a homeless guy with a thriving auto repair practice).

What was particularly interesting was that the book covered events from the late nineties up until 2004, so a lot of what was discussed is fairly recent history.

Venkatesh has a tendency to hammer a point h
Dec 23, 2008 rated it it was amazing
One of the best books on poverty I've ever read. Venkatesh spends over a year in a small (several blocks) section of south Chicago learning about the complicated "underground economy"--how drug dealers make their money, how single mothers negotiate with those drug dealers for economic assistance in exchange for allowing them to sell drugs on a certain corner, etc. If you've ever wondered how people survive on $203/mo (the amount of welfare given to a single adult, for example, in Minnesota), rea ...more
Dec 12, 2014 rated it liked it
Venkatesh has masterfully produced what is both effective and persuasive in his work “Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor.” It is effective in that he captures the essence of a plighted people and place, and persuasive because some kind of personal change will be experienced in the range of time before the book is read to after it is finished. He shows that there is good, there is bad, and there is ugly existing in Maquis Park, just like every other neighborhood across the ...more
Margaret Sankey
Sep 15, 2019 rated it liked it
Like Gang Leaders for a Day, this is the product of Venkatesh's field work in the southside of Chicago, in this case, several blocks of businesses and houses renamed Marquis Park. The usefulness of this is showing the necessary intertwining of licit and illicit business, from the local gang charging protection money and running gambling and drugs to people being hired under the table to work service jobs and squatting in abandoned buildings. Venkatesh finds a natural end to his study in the viol ...more
Amanda Bivens
Jan 02, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2017
I began this book with great excitement. The first few chapters were engrossing. However by the time I made my way to the chapter on gang contribution, I felt the information was becoming circular. No new insight was gained because everything had been laid out in pieces within previous chapters. I did thoroughly enjoy the part about pastoral contributions to the underground economy and overall found the work to be fascinating and refreshingly unsentimental.
Ashleigh Summerlin
Mar 01, 2017 rated it liked it
Not very well written, redundant, and overly detailed. Then again, it is the authors thesis and culmination of years of research, so I shouldn't be so harsh
Mar 26, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I'll try not to repeat what the other reviewers have already said and
just express my opinion on the book.

It is sad but all too true that the poor seldom speak for
themselves. And even though they may live a few blocks away, it
requires a prolonged ethnographic study like Venkatesh's to get
the picture of their daily lives and economic relations.

And the picture he paints is indeed fascinating. Sterile academic
words like "gang activity" or "narcotics" that Venkatesh uses contrast
with the stark realit
Holly Wood
Mar 02, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: sociology
In the early nineties while researching the Robert Taylor Homes project complex located in Chicago’s Southside, Sudhir Venkatesh felt compelled to confront the popular notion that the ghetto constituted something of an economic doldrums; instead, he spent many years embedding himself within the complex underground economy of a nearby neighborhood, Marquis Park, familiarizing himself with its participants, its codes and its volatility. In this way, he fashions himself a story-teller of sorts, ill ...more
Gene Taylor
Jun 13, 2016 rated it really liked it
Off the books is an engaging account of life in and around the underground economy in an American ghetto. The author, Sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh , spent a large amount of time in the Chicago Southside neighborhood of Marquis Park, establishing relationships with residents and
observing their daily life. This provided him with the ability to write a fly on the wall account of the web of exchange in the neighborhood that is occurring outside of the formal economy.

The ghetto presents a range of o
May 12, 2010 rated it liked it
I have a particular rule that applies to managing my bibliophilia, which is that any book I leave in a Macy's fitting room while trying on new pants to replace the ones that I tore that day on the way to work, is not a book that I need to replace in order to say that I have finished it.

I will admit this is a rule set more by recent precedent than by any codified regulation as such.

Off the Books is not a book that anyone needs to finish without utterly compelling reasons such as survival, signi
Jan 12, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I highly recommend this book to those interested in a understanding the dynamics of the life among the urban poor. Folks that navigate this economy are faced with situations and decisions that those of secure in our middle class lives can't begin to comprehend. The book explains the critical role that the storefront preachers play in the community. Moms in poor communities want the same thing as Moms everywhere--good schools, a safe community, and better life for their children. Unfortunately, t ...more
Dec 16, 2007 rated it liked it
This book takes you inside an urban neighborhood in Chicago's southside as the author explores how various people make money to get by. As the reader quickly discovers, nearly everyone is involved in an underground economy, from the woman who sells soul-food from the back of her kitchen and doesn't report the revenues, to the street hustlers and gang members. More interesting, everyone's activities are inexplicably intertwined in a profound and intricate way and it becomes near impossible to dif ...more
Oct 16, 2008 rated it liked it
This serves as the smart companion to Venkatesh's other work, Gang Leader for a Day . Not to say the other book wasn't smart, but it was more dedicated to character studies and had a little more action. This book gives you more depth to the economic and social background to the parts of Chicago in Gang Leader. Many of the same character types show up in both works. This one goes deeper into the reasons behind community interactions and examines the research about poor inner city communities. ...more
Vasil Kolev
Aug 17, 2010 rated it really liked it
The book explains the internal dealings of a poor black community in Chicago, showing the webs of connections between the residents. The different kinds people that inhabit and influence the society are well describer - residents, clergy, gangs, homeless people, activists.

There's no recipe for how to solve anything, it's just plain history and direct observations of the people and their interactions. The insight the book provides is useful for initial understanding of the culture of these gettos
David Gross
Venkatesh stumbled on the underground economy of a poor neighborhood in Chicago and “saw a world open in front of me whose significance I couldn’t have imagined. The innumerable economic exchanges that took place every hour, every day, no longer seemed random or happenstance. There was a vast structure in place, a set of rules that defined who traded with whom, who could work on a street corner or park bench, and what prices could be set and what revenue could be earned. There were codes in plac ...more
Don Monson
Dec 24, 2007 rated it really liked it
Not for the faint of heart - or those bored by statistics - this book is a gripping peek inside a struggling community that the vast majority of us will never experience or comprehend. Venkatesh allows us to come as close as print will let us. Venkatesh's casual treatment of the harder aspects of life in maquis park only mirrors their own casual treatment. But the picture that emerges is of a life that is far more vibrant than one would anticipate. However, that life sows the seeds of its own pe ...more
Jan 30, 2008 rated it liked it
After completing his doctorate at the University of Chicago, Venkatesh wrote this book in an effort to describe his experiences with the Urban poor in the South Side of Chicago. While insightful, the organization of the book leaves much to be desired. The messages he takes from his experiences are simple and powerful, but are often over explained leaving the last half of each chapter and especially the last half of the book repetitive and dull.
I would still recommend this book to people who are
Apr 23, 2008 added it
A tedious 382 pages: Mr. Venkatesh obviously immersed himself in the daily life of the urban poor, and certainly has an interesting five page journal article here, unfortunately he also has an addional382 pages of tedious, repetitive anecdotes from his time interviewing the urban poor. After reading a story about someone illegally repairing a car in an alley for the 100th time (probably not an exaggeration) you start to feel like you are not really getting the full scope of the story.

The limit
Jun 06, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: recently-read
During the course of reading this book, I kept thinking, "Damn, I wish this was written by a journalist rather than a sociologist!" That was my quibble with the book, that it put such an academic frame on an incredibly human subject.

But Off the Books was not without its merits. Venkatesh lays out the truth of life in this extremely impoverished neighborhood just as he sees it, no censoring. In the end, he connects all the dots and manages to make me see why the current/traditional methods of com
Jan 08, 2012 rated it really liked it
The story he's telling is important, and when he's narrating directly, powerfully written. The idea of a widespread underground economy in low-income neighborhoods has incredible relevance to policy debates on everything from taxes to zoning to policing, etc. It even gets to the very idea of what law is -- what these people are doing is setting up alternative methods of enforcing contracts and keeping the peace, outside the state. This is a book I will definitely think about for a long time.

Mar 30, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This was a very interesting book. The people in this community are connected and dependent on one another in ways I could not have imagined. Before reading this, I had a poor concept of what hustling entails, and how many different ways it manifests. To see the ways in which gang activity is embedded, and possibly essential, in the community was fascinating.

The only fault is that the writing is pretty academic - dense and repetitive - reads like perhaps it was written for Venkatesh's dissertatio
Jul 29, 2007 rated it liked it
Honestly, I didn't finish this...well written enough, fascinating topic...but I didn't feel like I needed to finish it to "get it."

I wasn't sure what else I was supposed to grok...(of course, without finishing it I won't know ;)) but it might be more interesting to those in sociology who do those kinds of studies...

I would probably be more interested in a book about the inevitability of the marketplace, no matter what the community...perhaps this book was just a little too dry for my summer read
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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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