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 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 hoping to impress his professors with his boldness, he never imagined that as a result of the assignment he would befriend a gang leader named JT and spend the better part of a decade inside the projects under JT's protection, documenting what he saw there.
Over the next seven years, Venkatesh got to know the neighborhood dealers, crackheads, squatters, prostitutes, pimps, activists, cops, organizers, and officials. From his privileged position of unprecedented access, he 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.
In Hollywood-speak, Gang Leader for a Day is The Wire meets Harvard University. It's a brazen, page turning, and fundamentally honest view into the morally ambiguous, highly intricate, often corrupt struggle to survive in what is tantamount to an urban war zone. It is also the story of a complicated friendship between Sudhir and JT-two young and ambitious men a universe apart.
From the fall of 1989 through the fall of 1998, Sudhir Venkatesh, now a sociologist at Columbia University, hung out -- often for many days in succession -- with a gang called the Black Kings, in the largest and most infamous of Chicago's large and infamous housing projects, the Robert Taylor Homes. Gang Leader for a Day is the third book by Venkatesh to grow out of this decade of immersive observation of life in these (now razed) buildings. The first two were forthrightly academic: American Project: The Rise and fall of a Modern Ghetto took a global and historical look at the projects. Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor examined, with specific details and inside knowledge, the interconnected methods, licit and otherwise, by which the residents of Robert Taylor tried to make a living -- from drug dealing to back-alley car repair to prostitution to selling home-cooked meals. One aspect of his economic findings -- the discovery that many low-level, low-income drug dealers live with their mothers -- also found its way into Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner's huge bestseller Freakonomics. The success of that book might have provided part of the impetus for Venkatesh to return to this subject in a more literary way.