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Book Review

Inside drug-infested world of Chicago's most dangerous projects

For half a decade, Sudhir Venkatesh followed the Black Kings gang. For half a decade, Sudhir Venkatesh followed the Black Kings gang. (melanie dunea/creative photographers inc.)
Email|Print| Text size + By Matthew Shaer
March 3, 2008

Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets
By Sudhir Venkatesh
Penguin, 302 pp., $25.95

On a cold morning in the fall of 1989, Sudhir Venkatesh walked the 2 miles from his University of Chicago dormitory to the Lake Park projects, on the city's outskirts. The area had a reputation for rampant gang activity. Venkatesh, a graduate student in sociology, was armed with only a pen and a notebook. Stumbling up a dark stairway, "thick with graffiti" and dark like "a vibrating catacomb," he collided with a group of drug dealers. One man flashed a gun, and another a knife.

Undeterred, Venkatesh began reading from a prepared questionnaire: "How does it feel to be black and poor? Very bad, somewhat bad, neither bad nor good, somewhat good, very good."

The resulting scene - rife with the potential for catastrophic violence - is recalled at length in Venkatesh's riveting new book, "Gang Leader for a Day." He survives, it turns out, but he is delivered a swift, and brutal, lesson in etymology: "I'm not black," says one man. "I'm not African-American either. I'm a [epithet]."

It's a distinction less racial than economic. "African-Americans live in the suburbs," a gang leader explains, and "African-Americans wear ties to work." Residents of Lake Park, on the other hand, can barely find enough food to survive. They hole up in the shadow of Chicago, amid an industrial wasteland - forgotten by the city government and largely ignored by the police. They are exiles.

Venkatesh, now a professor at Columbia University, is well versed in the intricacies of project life. He began his studies in Chicago in 1989, and in the '90s he published a series of influential papers on urban poverty. Two years ago, he achieved non-academic celebrity when he was profiled in Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt's best-selling "Freakonomics."

As Dubner writes in the foreword to "Gang Leader for a Day," Venkatesh fascinated many readers of "Freakonomics," because he was able to humanize a story "far stranger than fiction." For half a decade, Venkatesh frequently visited Chicago's most dangerous projects and tracked the movements of a single gang, the Black Kings, who were moving millions of dollars of crack cocaine across the city. He befriended prostitutes, foot soldiers, vagrants, and police officers; he weathered a drive-by shooting.

"Gang Leader for a Day" is a detailed account of his journey, by turns harrowing and heartbreaking. It begins on that cold evening in 1989, when Venkatesh disposes of the questionnaire - and with it, his reliance on established sociological theory.

"No one is going to answer questions like that," a dealer named J.T. explains. "You need to understand how young people live on the street."

Venkatesh's ticket is J.T. himself, a college dropout and a rising star in the Black Kings leadership. He is willing to take Venkatesh under his wing but tells his friends and family that "the professor" is writing "my story."

J.T., in other words, wants to be immortalized, in a world where death and destruction are the only constants. Venkatesh doesn't argue, though he doesn't demur either, thus becoming partly complicit in his own kind of hustle. He allows J.T. to escort him around the Robert Taylor Homes, observing deals and the Machiavellian machinations of the Black Kings leadership. "It was as if they were playing a life-size board game, the rules of which were well established and immutable," Venkatesh reports.

Soon he is playing his own game. His strategy is to parlay one source into another, listening and jotting down sheaves of notes, and never fully disclosing his motives. By the final pages of "Gang Leader for a Day," he assembles a vivid portrait of project life, and in exchange, gives up nearly all of his objectivity. He observes drug deals - some gone sour - and a few beatings; he becomes physically involved in a stairwell brawl. Rarely does he step back to look at the wider implications of the Black Kings' presence in the projects: a multimillion-dollar business, dedicated to furthering addiction among young, poor blacks.

But Venkatesh's book is best read as a memoir and not as a political manifesto or a sociological study. There are more than enough of those, Venkatesh writes, reliant on "dry statistics of unemployment, crime, and family hardship." The achievement of "Gang Leader for a Day" is to give the dry statistics a raw, beating heart.

Matthew Shaer is an editor at The Christian Science Monitor.

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