From the archives: Gang Leader For a Day

Author’s note: Between July 2010 and February 2011, I wrote a series of posts for the old Underblog of the Chicago Underground Library, now the Read/Write Library. “From the CUL Stacks: Gang Leader For a Day” was originally published December 11, 2010.

“I woke up at about 7:30 A.M. in a crack den, Apartment 1603 in Building Number 2301 of the Robert Taylor Homes.” So begins Gang Leader For a Day, sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh’s memoir of his years among the crack-dealing Black Kings.

In 1989, Venkatesh was starting grad school at the University of Chicago, researching race and urban poverty. Young, impetuous, and naïve, he wandered into the Lake Park projects with a bundle of questionnaires asking things like: “How does it feel to be black and poor? Very bad, somewhat bad, neither bad nor good, somewhat good, very good.” 

The first people he met were Black Kings soldiers, who promptly took him hostage until their leader, J.T., could deal with him. After interrogating Venkatesh, J.T. dropped an unexpected bombshell: “I had a few sociology classes. In college. Hated that shit.”

Then: “With people like us, you should hang out, get to know what they do, how they do it. No one is going to answer questions like that. You need to understand how young people live on the streets.”

Unbelievably, Venkatesh returned next day, announcing he wanted to do just that: hang out. Amused and flattered, J.T. gave him an all-access pass to his home base in the Robert Taylor Homes for several years. It ended when Venkatesh left for Harvard and Robert Taylor succumbed to the wrecking ball.

The result was a dissertation on the survival tactics and underground economy of the projects, and some of the findings appeared in the now-classic book Freakonomics. But sociological convention usually dictated objective, detached research leading to mathematically elegant conclusions. No one ever did it quite the way Venkatesh did, “hanging out” with a gang leader in his daily administration of a narcotics machine.

Overall, he found J.T. little different from many gifted entrepreneurs: an astute motivator with a steel-trap mind and a finicky attention to detail, as well as an uncanny ability to neither overreact nor grow complacent. But then J.T. would abruptly beat somebody up or explain how to penalize sellers of diluted crack, jolting Venkatesh into remembering that he was definitely not like other gifted entrepreneurs.

To fulfill the scope of his research, Venkatesh built relationships with many other Robert Taylor residents. Foremost was Ms. Bailey, a building president and a vestige of the days when grand dame matriarchs, not gangs, dominated both the legal and illegal culture of the ghetto. Ms. Bailey was very involved in both, resolving endless resident issues on the one hand while pocketing equally endless kickbacks with the other. She had free rein to “do good while doing well,” given the Chicago Housing Authority’s role as absentee slumlord.

The cops also largely abandoned Robert Taylor, and those who didn’t often made the residents wish they had. One was Officer Jerry, who supplemented his salary by extorting from petty hustlers. Others periodically robbed gang members but left them otherwise unchallenged. Thus was answered one of Venkatesh’s biggest questions: why not just call 911?

Venkatesh vividly sketches the unseen side of the Chicago projects. Abandoned by city agencies and society, they became functioning states unto themselves, with provisional governments and Byzantine, sub rosa economies. J.T. and Ms. Bailey enforced unwritten laws, brokered peace, and levied taxes on off-the-books businesses, of which everybody seemed to have at least one. “We’re all hustlers,” Ms. Bailey told Venkatesh.

And he came to realize he too was a hustler, taking liberties for inside information. Slipping from the unconventional to the borderline unethical, Venkatesh listened to drive-by shootings being planned and didn’t report them, and yes, he really did serve as “gang leader for a day.” His internal conflicts, especially over using J.T. for access, form a subtext to the book.

At one of Venkatesh’s first meetings with Ms. Bailey, she offered advice: “Don’t make us the victim. We’ll take responsibility for what we can control. It’s just that not everything is in our hands.” The book is faithful to her injunction, spotlighting the city’s systemic injustice but not stereotyping the poor as, in Venkatesh’s words, “hapless dupes with little awareness or foresight.” Sensitive and nuanced but unromantic, Gang Leader For a Day is an achievement.

–Justin Sengstock


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