Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Crosses the Line (Anglais) Relié – 30 avril 2010
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FOREWORD by Stephen J. Dubner
I believe that Sudhir Venkatesh was born with two abnormalities: an overdeveloped curiosity and an underdeveloped sense of fear.
How else to explain him? Like thousands upon thousands of people, he entered graduate school one fall and was dispatched by his professors to do some research. This research happened to take him to the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, one of the worst ghettos in America. But blessed with that outlandish curiosity and unfettered by the sort of commonsensical fear that most of us would experience upon being held hostage by an armed crack gang, as Venkatesh was early on in his research, he kept coming back for more.
I met Venkatesh a few years ago when I interviewed him for Freakonomics, a book I wrote with the economist Steve Levitt. Venkatesh and Levitt had collaborated on several academic papers about the economics of crack cocaine. Those papers were interesting, to be sure, but Venkatesh himself presented a whole new level of fascination. He is soft-spoken and laconic; he doesn’t volunteer much information. But every time you ask him a question, it is like tugging a thread on an old tapestry: the whole thing unspools and falls at your feet. Story after story, marked by lapidary detail and hard-won insight: the rogue cop who terrorized the neighborhood, the jerry-built network through which poor families hustled to survive, the time Venkatesh himself became gang leader for a day.
Although we wrote about Venkatesh in Freakonomics (it was many readers’ favorite part), there wasn’t room for any of these stories. Thankfully, he has now written an extraordinary book that details all his adventures and misadventures. The stories he tells are far stranger than fiction, and they are also more forceful, heartbreaking, and hilarious. Along the way he paints a unique portrait of the kind of neighborhood that is badly misrepresented when it is represented at all. Journalists like me might hang out in such neighborhoods for a week or a month or even a year. Most social scientists and do-gooders tend to do their work at arm’s length. But Venkatesh practically lived in this neighborhood for the better part of a decade. He brought the perspective of an outsider and came away with an insider’s access. A lot of writing about the poor tends to reduce living, breathing, joking, struggling, sensual, moral human beings to dupes who are shoved about by invisible forces. This book does the opposite. It shows, day by day and dollar by dollar, how the crack dealers, tenant leaders, prostitutes, parents, hustlers, cops, and Venkatesh himself tried to construct a good life out of substandard materials.
As much as I have come to like Venkatesh, and admire him, I probably would not want to be a member of his family: I would worry too much about his fearlessness. I probably wouldn’t want to be one of his research subjects either, for his curiosity must be exhausting. But I am very, very happy to have been one of the first readers of Venkatesh’s book, for it is as extraordinary as he is.
I woke up at about 7:30 A.M. in a crack den, Apartment 1603 in Building Number 2301 of the Robert Taylor Homes. Apartment 1603 was called the “Roof,” since everyone knew that you could get very, very high there, even higher than if you climbed all the way to the building’s actual rooftop.
As I opened my eyes, I saw two dozen people sprawled about, most of them men, asleep on couches and the floor. No one had lived in the apartment for a while. The walls were peeling, and roaches skittered across the linoleum floor. The activities of the previous night—smoking crack, drinking, having sex, vomiting—had peaked at about 2:00 A.M. By then the unconscious people outnumbered the conscious ones—and among the conscious ones, few still had the cash to buy another hit of crack cocaine. That’s when the Black Kings saw diminishing prospects for sales and closed up shop for the night.
I fell asleep, too, on the floor. I hadn’t come for the crack; I was here on a different mission. I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and for my research I had taken to hanging out with the Black Kings, the local crack-selling gang.
It was the sun that woke me, shining through the Roof’s doorway. (The door itself had disappeared long ago.) I climbed over the other stragglers and walked down to the tenth floor, where the Patton family lived. During the course of my research, I had gotten to know the Pattons—a law-abiding family, it should be said—and they treated me kindly, almost like a son. I said good morning to Mama Patton, who was cooking breakfast for her husband, Pops, a seventy-year-old retired factory worker. I washed my face, grabbed a slice of cornbread, and headed outside into a breezy, brisk March morning.
Just another day in the ghetto.
Just another day as an outsider looking at life from the inside. That’s what this book is about.
How Does It Feel to Be Black and Poor?
During my first weeks at the University of Chicago, in the fall of 1989, I had to attend a variety of orientation sessions. In each one, after the particulars of the session had been dispensed with, we were warned not to walk outside the areas that were actively patrolled by the university’s police force. We were handed detailed maps that outlined where the small enclave of Hyde Park began and ended: this was the safe area. Even the lovely parks across the border were off-limits, we were told, unless you were traveling with a large group or attending a formal event.
It turned out that the ivory tower was also an ivory fortress. I lived on the southwestern edge of Hyde Park, where the university housed a lot of its graduate students. I had a studio apartment in a ten-story building just off Cottage Grove Avenue, a historic boundary between Hyde Park and Woodlawn, a poor black neighborhood. The contrast would be familiar to anyone who has spent time around an urban university in the United States. On one side of the divide lay a beautifully manicured Gothic campus, with privileged students, most of them white, walking to class and playing sports. On the other side were down-and-out African Americans offering cheap labor and services (changing oil, washing windows, selling drugs) or panhandling on street corners.
I didn’t have many friends, so in my spare time I started taking long walks, getting to know the city. For a budding sociologist, the streets of Chicago were a feast. I was intrigued by the different ethnic neighborhoods, the palpable sense of culture and tradition. I liked that there was one part of the city, Rogers Park, where Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis congregated. Unlike the lily-white suburbs of Southern California where I’d grown up, the son of immigrants from South Asia, here Indians seemed to have a place in the ethnic landscape along with everyone else.
I was particularly interested in the poor black neighborhoods surrounding the university. These were neighborhoods where nearly half the population didn’t work, where crime and gang activity were said to be entrenched, where the welfare rolls were swollen. In the late 1980s, these isolated parts of the inner cities gripped the nation’s attention. I went for many walks there and started playing basketball in the parks, but I didn’t see any crime, and I didn’t feel particularly threatened. I wondered why the university kept warning students to keep out.
As it happened, I attracted a good bit of curiosity from the locals. Perhaps it was because these parks didn’t attract many nonblack visitors, or perhaps it was because in those days I dressed like a Deadhead. I got asked a lot of questions about India—most of which I couldn’t answer, since I’d moved to the States as a child. Sometimes I’d come upon a picnic, and people would offer me some of their soul food. They were puzzled when I turned them down on the grounds that I was a vegetarian.
But as alien as I was to these folks, they were just as alien to me.
As part of my heavy course load at the U of C, I began attending seminars where professors parsed the classic sociological questions: How do an individual’s preferences develop? Can we predict human behavior? What are the long-term consequences, for instance, of education on future generations?
The standard mode of answering these questions was to conduct widespread surveys and then use complex mathematical methods to analyze the survey data. This would produce statistical snapshots meant to predict why a given person might, say, fail to land a job, or end up in prison, or have a child out of wedlock. It was thought that the key to formulating good policy was to first formulate a good scientific study.
I liked the questions these researchers were asking, but compared with the vibrant life that I saw on the streets of Chicago, the discussion in these seminars seemed cold and distant, abstract and lifeless. I found it particularly curious that most of these researchers didn’t seem interested in meeting the people they wrote about. It wasn’t necessarily out of any animosity—nearly all of them were well intentioned—but because the act of actually talking to research subjects was seen as messy, unscientific, and a potential source of bias.
Mine was not a new problem. Indeed, the field of sociology had long been divided into two camps: those who use quantitative and statistical techniques and those who study life by direct observation, often living among a group of people.
This second group, usually called ethnographers, use their firsthand approach to answer a particular sort of question: How do people survive in marginal communities? for instance, or What makes a government policy work well for some families and not for others?
The quantitative sociologists, meanwhile, often criticized the ethnographers’ approach. They argued that it isn’t nearly scientific enough and that the answers may be relevant only to the particular group under observation. In other words, to reach any important and generalizable conclusion, you need to rely on the statistical analyses of large data sets like the U.S. Census or other massive surveys.
My frustration with the more scientific branch of sociology hadn’t really coalesced yet. But I knew that I wanted to do something other than sit in a classroom all day and talk mathematics.
So I did what any sensible student who was interested in race and poverty would do: I walked down the hallway and knocked on the door of William Julius Wilson, the most eminent living scholar on the subject and the most prominent African American in the field of sociology. He had been teaching at the U of C for nearly twenty years and had published two books that reshaped how scholars and policy makers thought about urban poverty.
I caught Wilson just in time—he was about to go to Paris for a sabbatical. But he was also about to launch a new research project, he said, and I could participate if I liked.
Wilson was a quiet, pensive man, dressed in a dark blue suit. Although he had stopped smoking his trademark pipe long ago, he still looked like the kind of professor you see in movies. If you asked him a question, he’d often let several long moments of silence pass—he could be more than a little bit intimidating—before offering a thoughtful response.
Wilson explained that he was hoping to better understand how young blacks were affected by specific neighborhood factors: Did growing up as a poor kid in a housing project, for instance, lead to worse educational and job outcomes than if a similarly poor kid grew up outside the projects? What about the difference between growing up in a neighborhood that was surrounded by other poor areas and growing up poor but near an affluent neighborhood? Did the latter group take advantage of the schools, services, and employment opportunities in the richer neighborhoods?
Wilson’s project was still in the planning stages. The first step was to construct a basic survey questionnaire, and he suggested I help his other graduate students in figuring out which questions to ask. This meant going back to earlier studies of black youth to see what topics and questions had been chosen by earlier sociologists. Wilson gave me a box of old questionnaires. I should experiment, he said, by borrowing some of their questions and developing new ones as needed. Sociologists liked to use survey questions that their peers had already used, I learned, in order to produce comparable results. This was a key part of the scientific method in sociology.
I thanked Wilson and went to the library to begin looking over the questionnaires he’d given me. I quickly realized I had no idea how to interview anyone.
Washington Park, situated just across Cottage Grove Avenue from the U of C, is one of Chicago’s stateliest parks. Designed in the 1870s by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, it has a beautiful swimming pool, indoor and outdoor basketball courts, dazzling flower gardens, and long, winding paths that crisscross its nearly four hundred acres. I liked to go running on the clay track that encircled the park, a track that decades earlier had hosted horse and auto races. Until the 1940s the surrounding neighborhood was mainly Irish, but when black families started buying homes nearby, most of the white families moved away. I was always surprised that the university actively dissuaded its students from spending time in Washington Park. I failed to see the danger, at least in the daylight.
After my run I sometimes stopped by the broad, marshy lagoon in the middle of the park. The same group of old black men, usually a half dozen or so, congregated there every day—playing cards, drinking beer, fishing for bass and perch in the lagoon. I sat and listened to them for hours. To this point I had had little exposure to African-American culture at all, and no experience whatsoever in an urban ghetto. I had moved to Chicago just a year earlier from California, where I’d attended a predominantly white college situated on the beach, UC San Diego.
I had been reading several histories of Chicago’s black community, and I sometimes asked these men about the events and people of which I’d read. The stories they told were considerably more animated than the history in the books. They knew the intricacies of machine politics—whom you had to befriend, for instance, to get a job or a building permit. They talked about the Black Panther Party of their youth and how it was radically different from today’s gangs. “The Panthers had breakfast programs for kids, but these gangs just shoot ’em and feed ’em drugs,” one man lamented. I already knew a bit about how the Panthers operated in Chicago during the civil-rights era. What little I knew about modern gangs, however, came from the movies and newspapers—and, of course, the constant cautions issued by the U of C about steering clear of certain neighborhoods.
I was particularly intrigued by the old men’s views on race, which boiled down to this: Whites and blacks would never be able to talk openly, let alone live together. The most talkative among them was Leonard Combs, a.k.a. Old Time. “Never trust a white man,” he told me one day, “and don’t think black folk are any better.”
Old Time came to Washington Park every day with his fishing gear, lunch, and beer. He wore a tired beige fishing hat, and he had lost so many teeth that his gums smacked together when he spoke. But he loved to talk, especially about Chicago.
“We live in a city within a city,” he said. “They have theirs and we have ours. And if you can understand that it will never change, you’ll start understanding how this city works.”
“You mean whites and blacks will never get along?” I asked.
A man named Charlie Butler jumped in. “You got two kinds of whites in this city,” he said, “and two kinds of blacks. You got whites who’ll beat you if you come into their neighborhood. They live around Bridgeport and on the Southwest Side. Then you got another group that just won’t invite you in. They’ll call the police if you come in their neighborhood—like where you live, in Hyde Park. And the police will beat you up.”
Charlie was a retired factory worker, a beefy man with tattooed, well-developed arms, a college football star from long ago. Charlie sometimes came to Hyde Park for breakfast or lunch at one of the diners where other blacks hung out, but he never stayed past sun-down and he never walked on residential streets, he said, since the police would follow him.
“What about blacks?” I asked.
“You got blacks who are beating their heads trying to figure out a way to live where you live!” Charlie continued. “Don’t ask me why. And then you got a whole lot of black folk who realize it ain’t no use. Like us. We just spend our time trying to get by, and we live around here, where it ain’t so pretty, but at least you won’t get your ass beat. At least not by the police.”
“That’s how it’s been since black folk came to the city,” Old Time said, “and it’s not going to change.”
“You mean you don’t have any white friends?” I asked.
“You have any black friends?” Old Time countered with a sly grin. I didn’t need to answer. “And you may want to ask your professors if they have any,” he said, clearly pleased with his rebuke.
From these conversations I started to gain a bit of perspective on what it was like to be black in Chicago. The overriding sentiment was that given how the city operated, there was little chance for any significant social progress.
This kind of fatalism was foreign to me. When you grew up in affluent Southern California, even for someone as politically disengaged as I, there was a core faith in the workings of American institutions and a sustaining belief that people can find a way to resolve their differences, even racial ones. I was now beginning to see the limits of my narrow experience. Nearly every conversation with Old Time and his friends wound up at the intersection of politics and race. I couldn’t follow all the nuances of their arguments, especially when it came to local politics, but even I could see the huge gap between how they perceived the world and how sociologists presented the life of urban poor people.
One day I asked Old Time and his friends if they’d be willing to let me interview them for Professor Wilson’s survey. They agreed, and I tried for a few days. But I felt I wasn’t getting anywhere. Most of the conversations ended up meandering along, a string of interruptions and half-finished thoughts.
Charlie could see I was dejected. “Before you give up,” he said, “you should probably speak to the people who you really want to talk to—young men, not us. That’s the only way you’re going to get what you need.”
So I set out looking for young black men. At the U of C library, I checked the census records to find a tract with poor black families with people between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four. The Lake Park projects looked good, at least on paper, and I randomly chose Building Number 4040, highlighting on my census printout the apartments where young people lived. Those were the doors I’d be knocking on. Old Time told me that I could go any day I wanted. “Most black folk in the projects don’t work,” he said, “so they don’t have nowhere else to be.” Still, I thought a weekend would be the best time to find a lot of people.
On a brisk Saturday afternoon in November, I went looking for 4040 South Lake Park, one of several high-rise projects in Oakland, a lakefront neighborhood about two miles north of the U of C. Oakland was one of the poorest communities in Chicago, with commensurately high rates of unemployment, welfare, and crime. Its population was overwhelmingly black, dating back to the early-twentieth-century southern migration. The neighborhood surrounding the Lake Park projects wasn’t much of a neighborhood at all. There were few people on the streets, and on some blocks there were more vacant lots than buildings. Aside from a few liquor stores and broken-down bodegas, there wasn’t much commerce. It struck me that most housing projects, even though they are built in cities, run counter to the very notion of urban living. Cities are attractive because of their balkanized variety: wandering the streets of a good city, you can see all sorts of highs and lows, commerce and recreation, a multitude of ethnicities and just as many expressions of public life. But housing projects, at least from the outside, seemed to be a study in joyless monotony, the buildings clustered tightly together but set apart from the rest of the city, as if they were toxic.
Up close, the buildings looked like tall checkerboards, their dull yellow-brick walls lined with rows of dreary windows. A few of the windows revealed the aftermath of an apartment fire, black smudges spreading upward in the shape of tombstones. Most of the buildings had only one entrance, and it was usually clogged with young people.--Ce texte fait référence à l'édition CD.
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J'ai pris un réel plaisir à le lire, en plus de tous les enseignements que j'en ai tiré.
Sudhir Venkatesh a par ailleurs contribué à l'écriture du très renommé livre en sciences économiques "Freakenomics".
La grande force du livre vient de l'histoire incroyable mais vraie de l'auteur, jeune étudiant en sociologie plongé - presque par hasard - au coeur de la vie d'un gang et qui, sur plusieurs années, va nouer des relations de grande proximité avec les individus qu'il est venu observer.
Il s'agit d'un récit haletant, captivant, avec de l'intelligence mais aussi du suspense, de l'humour, de l'horreur parfois, raconté avec intelligence et honnêteté par un auteur qui ne se donne pas toujours le beau rôle.
Une histoire vraie, une expérience de vie incroyable d'un étudiant qui débarque dans l'un des pires ghettos-US et ce en pleine épidémie de crack. Pour rédiger sa thèse en sociologie il choisi les populations pauvres, principalement noires de Chicago et lors de sa première expédition hasardeuse en territoire hostile il va y faire la rencontre de sa vie. Manquant de peu de se faire lyncher ou tuer par des soldats du gang des Black Kings (qui le pensaient à tort mexicain d'un gang ennemi), il va avoir la chance in-extremis de tomber sur un des chefs de ce gang, qui intrigué par sa démarche va le prendre sous son aile pour l'aider dans ses recherches et lui faire découvrir la vie dans le quartier...
Prêt de 10ans de travail sociologique est donc condensé ici sous forme de journal intime, on suit les péripéties du jeune Sudhir parmi cette jungle dangereuse et fascinante. J.T. va lui faire progressivement découvrir le fonctionnement de son gang de dealers et leur main-mise totale sur leur territoire. Tout passe par le gang et ses associés, la violence et la corruption sont omniprésents bien sur mais on découvre aussi une formidable entre-aide communautaire, un véritable système sociétal alternatif. Dans ces ghettos totalement abandonnés les populations n'ont juste aucun autre choix que la débrouille, la magouille et la solidarité pour espérer simplement survivre. Le gang et ses "vassaux" sont ici abordés sous tous les aspect, Sudhir jouissant d'une protection et d'une liberté de mouvement exponentielle, il va peu à peu s'immerger dans les vies miséreuses des habitants de la cité Robert Taylor de Chicago.
Ce livre, dévoré en moins de 2 jours, m'a totalement subjugué et je le conseille vivement à tout un chacun, il ouvrira d'ailleurs certainement les yeux de ceux ayant des préjugés biaisés sur ces populations tant stigmatisées dans les cités et autres quartiers chauds de la planète. Ceux s'intéressant déjà au sujet d'un œil averti y trouveront une source d'information fort appréciable et une histoire passionnante. J'espère sincèrement que les autres livres de Mr Venkatesh seront un jour publiés en français. (celui-ci l'est déjà)
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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 Taylor Homes, witnessing crack-making and selling, prostitution, and an overabundance of violence -- both gang related, and not. He witnessed life in public housing for those who partnered with the gang, and for those who tried to avoid the gang at all costs.
The subject matter of this book is one that has always intrigued me - in high school, I read a book called There Are No Children Here (also set in Chicago), which highlighted the lives of children growing up in a blighted and failing housing system. I chose the college I did because I had originally planned to major in Urban Studies and Sociology (I majored in English). Though I didn't study urban plight as I had originally planned, my interest in the subject hasn't waned, and I anticipated loving this book. I didn't. But, I did enjoy it, it was a quick read, and I learned much about the decay of our urban settings.
The main issue that I had with this book, is that Venkatesh struck me as painfully naive. He walked into a housing project with a multiple choice survey that asked questions like, "How does it feel to be black and poor?" and actually expected people to respond. What were they supposed to say? "Oh, I love being black and poor. It doesn't bother me at all that I'm a marginalized person, living in a dilapidated building."? Come now.
I don't feel like one needs a Mensa caliber brain to realize that these questions are silly and insulting. And yet, Venkatesh was Ph.D. level student at a renowned institution. It just reminded me never to take my common sense for granted.
This event took place in the first chapter -- and I didn't really feel that his naivety improved. Venkatesh spent the better part of a decade observing these people, interviewing them, getting to know them, and earning their trust, but, I never felt that he truly understood them. And in fairness, maybe that understanding was never a true possibility.
At one point, he broke away from JT for a few days, and interviewed some of the others living in the building. He asked them questions about their "jobs," and their abilities to make a living in this setting. They answered his questions honestly, telling him of the various underground money-making projects that they participated in. Venkatesh knew that JT and his gang "taxed" all the residents who used the building as a place to make money -- and JT was apparently unaware of many of these schemes. Yet, Venkatesh still told JT about these different projects, and then was genuinely surprised when the tenants were angry at him for running his mouth. I wanted to scream at him, "You're a damn fool Sudhir, come on!"
During his tenure with the gang, Venkatesh learned so much about how the gang worked and operated, and saw that the gang functioned with the gusto of a Fortune 500 company. JT was the leader of his faction; he had an accountant and a planner. He had worker-bee foot soldiers who stood on the street and sold the product (crack), and he had a whole variety of customers. But, above JT, there was an entire upper-level hierarchy to strive for. The Black Kings were a nationwide gang, and they held leadership meetings all over the country. Venkatesh was fascinated by this -- and so was I.
It's not a surprise that the Black Kings cropped up in these buildings. The Robert Taylor Homes were deplorably set-up -- they stretched from 39th Street to 54th, running alongside the Dan Ryan Expressway. In other words, in order for the tenants to LEAVE their housing, they had to literally cross the highway. Many of them did not have cars. They were effectively isolated from the rest of society. The buildings themselves were high rises of 16 stories each - with outdoor hallways. Outdoor. Like a motel. In Chicago.
If you haven't been to Chicago -- I'll paint this picture for you: in the winter, Lake Michigan, a huge lake, freezes over. Solid. I've had the wind in Chicago rip at my face so severely that my eyes streamed like I was sobbing, with those tears then literally freezing to my face the second they left my eyes and hit the air. It's cold. It's so. frigging. cold. And, their hallways were outside.
After children began plummeting to their deaths from the upper floors, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) begrudgingly put chain-link fences up along the corridors. So, these people lived in buildings, with outdoor hallways, enclosed by the beauty of chain-link metal.
Outdoor hallways aside - the CHA built these buildings, crammed the people inside, and then left, never to come back or administer the required up-keep. Doors fell off the hinges. Water stopped running in many apartments. The elevators sometimes just, went into a free-fall, killing everyone inside -- and this was only if they were working at all. Appeals to the CHA for help went unanswered. It's not surprising that impoverished people, in run-down buildings, with little access to the city, began organizing themselves into street-gangs.
But, with all of this said, can gang members be absolved of their multiple misdeeds? I don't personally believe so, and Venkatesh struggled with this also. I don't think he wanted to absolve them; it was clear that he understood that gang-life wasn't a sustainable lifestyle. Gang members weren't long for this world, and unfortunately, neither were the innocents that they came in contact with. The members of this particular gang often said, "You need to understand that the Black Kings are not a gang; we are a community organization, responding to people's needs," and Venkatesh admitted his skepticism about this many times.
The gang felt that it provided its tenants "safety," and "employment." They also conducted "community outreach," by going door-to-door and encouraging people to register to vote (once they were signed up, the gang told them who they were to vote for. The Chicago political machine is alive and well, even in the 'hood).
The gang may have provided "protection" to the tenants of their building, but they were also targets of drive-by shootings --in which innocents were killed. The gang may have employed people, paying them money to sell drugs -- but in this they were perpetuating addiction. For each "service" that they provided, they inflicted a world of pain. The cycle was never-ending, and vicious.
My favorite part of this book though, was the illumination of city-wide, governmental corruption. The CHA wouldn't conduct repairs when most tenants called, but they accepted bribes from some of the "building leaders" in exchange for vaguely explained services.
There were police officers that would come into the buildings and beat drug dealers, then raid their apartments, stealing their drugs and their money, but without issuing an arrest. They didn't actually have interest in getting them off of the streets (otherwise, how could they get their cut of a rather lucrative drug trade)?
The Aldermen were terrible too. They could be bought by the gang leaders -- they would keep well-meaning police officers away from parks where the dealers would be selling their drugs. It was frustrating.
Eventually, the Robert Taylor homes were torn down, and all tenants were "relocated." Many moved to different poor neighborhoods, continuing their life in the projects. Some of JT's gang members joined other gangs to ensure their own safety. The CHA was responsible for relocating the tenants, but it shirked this duty along with all of its others, and the tenants did what they could on their own to find places to live.
This book was frustrating, eye-opening, and disheartening. Yet, I recommend it. For more of my reviews, go to readingandmusing.com
Dr. Sudhir Venkatesh grew up in the suburbs of southern California. While pursuing his masters in sociology at the University of Chicago, Venkatesh was extended the rare opportunity to personally observe the internal network of the Black Kings gang. His intention was to document the effects of a community on the black youth in Chicago, rather than simply collecting data with a typical survery he was permitted to witness the interactions between a local gang and the residents of the housing project. Throughout the publication Gang Leader for a Day, I had to remind myself the book was written from firsthand experience rather than a fictional story.
“Gang Leader for a Day” documented the first hand experiences and observations made by Dr. Venkatesh during his 7 years spent interacting with the residents of the Robert Taylor Home project. The book depicts the hustling lifestyle required to survive living within Robert Taylor. Everyday life included drug deals, sex trade, bribery, unfit living situations, violence, and financial struggle.
Venkatesh divulged the intricate system which operated within Robert Taylor. The relationship between the residents and the Black Kings slightly resembled an “I scratch your back you scratch mine” relationship, except if you try any funny business you will be “taken care of”. Building leaders received benefits from allowing the gang to operate within the lobby and various apartments within the structure. Residents benefited from the gang activity by receiving small amount of financial handouts from the gang members and some protection. Gang members were able to conduct their drug trade in a location typically undisturbed by the police and highly frequented by drug users. Gang members within the Black Kings gained an income source and a “community/family”, and members were required to graduate high school. Homeless people, known as “squatters”, in the neighborhoods around Robert Taylor were able to gain temporary housing and small sources of income. Most relationships involved “taxes” or a trade of services. Some residents would provide childcare, food or clothing items, or offer repair services for money, drugs, or sex acts. Those individuals who received an income from these small business transactions paid taxes to either the gang leaders or the building leaders. Local law enforcement, religious leaders, and aldermen were involved in bribery and hustling some of the residents at Robert Taylor.
Dr. Venkatesh authored the book to expose the interworking of a “community” surrounded by gang activity, and to lay tribute to the individuals who tolerated his interviews and intrusion into their daily lives. Although I expect his dissertation presented the numerical/statistical data, his book was able to present the anecdotal version of his research efforts.
One of the most interesting aspects of the writings for me was Sudhir’s relationship and depiction of Ms. Bailey. As I read the story I went from respecting her efforts to improve the lives of her tenants to disliking her due to her sense of entitlement. The audience gains a brief understanding of the influence and control Ms. Bailey had. Also, the lack of support/funding/involvement from the government in Chicago surprised me; especially the destruction of the homes of 150,000 people. The perpetuation of the poverty cycle was evident at the conclusion of his book. The eviction of the families and residents who lived in Robert Taylor could have served as an opportunity for the city/government to provide connections and improved living situations, but the city let them fall by the way side without adequate support or services.
For health advocates interested in working with individuals in low income, poverty stricken areas it is important to understand removing a child or adolescent from one poor environment is not going to help end the cycle of poverty. As the saying goes, you can take the animal out of the wild but you cannot take the wild out of the animal. These citizens are nurtured by their neighborhoods and surroundings and will revert to their original way of living even if removed. This was demonstrated in the book by the former residents of Robert Taylor who were able to be relocated, but resumed their involvement with the Black Kings and illegal activity. This idea was also demonstrated by the gang’s senior leaders who spent money to buy their families nicer homes outside of the projects, but those family members would return to a location or living situation similar to the life they were accustom to in the projects.
I did find it important to note that the community members and members of the Black Kings had boundaries regarding the safety and involvement of children. The Black Kings had rules against selling drugs to children and prevented the conduction of business in areas where children were nearby. Also, the matriarchs of the buildings would ensure the children were fed even if their mother was not attending to her maternal responsibilities. Although a support system may be in place, living conditions described with Gang Leader For a Day will negatively impact adolescent health and development. The dynamic of the income source also impacts a child’s ability to continue receiving an education. Those families who are severely struggling see a chance for great income if they remove the child from the school system and into the work place.
Direct involvement with residents within the housing projects, specifically those controlled by gang will prove to be a challenging task. It can be assumed that not all gangs will be willing to accept strangers into their community. Instead efforts for support should be mediated by either leaders within the housing community, religious leaders who provide services to the tenants, or former residents of the projects who can relate to the current situation of the members of intervention or support groups.
I'm not a terribly slow reader and I'm not the quickest either, but the chapters are long, so be ready for a marathon of reading. It is well worth it though. I feel like I learned a lot about my fellow man and about a class that works hard to remain a family.
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