Gang Leader For A Day, by Sudhir Venkatesh

Professor's crash course in the crack trade has few parallels in social science

Reviewed,David Goldblatt
Tuesday 04 March 2008 01:00

The publisher of Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader for a Day is trying to flog it by its association with Freakonomics (Venkatesh contributed to Steven Levitt's bestseller), but 20 years from now, the order of precedence will have been reversed. Venkatesh has written a work whose intellectual depth and immense humanity have few parallels in social science.

The story begins in the 1980s when Venkatesh (now a professor of sociology at Columbia University) was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and was sent off into the South Side projects with questionnaires on race and poverty. He stumbled into the Robert Taylor Homes, a high-rise city where 90 per cent of the tenants were on welfare, and crack was king. He was put under house arrest by a crack-dealing gang, the Black Kings, whose leader, JT, let him go the next morning with some methodological advice: "You shouldn't go around asking them questions... with people like us, you should hang out."

So Venkatesh headed back and hung out with the Black Kings. JT, it turned out, made it out of Robert Taylor and went through college but abandoned life as a law-abiding citizen and returned to the South Side, where he steadily ascended the gang ladder. He showed Venkatesh the business of urban drug-dealing and the underground economy of the poor, culminating in his challenge to "the professor". Which gang crew should clean up a lobby filled with vomit and drug detritus? The under-performers to punish them, or the over-performers to remind them of their place? Gang paranoia demanded the latter, Venkatesh guessed right and he won the right to be gang leader for a day.

Venkatesh tried to grasp why the gangs were accepted by the community, and then found that the police were corrupt and unwilling to do their job, and that the Chicago Housing Authority was cruelly indifferent to its tenants. In the absence of public services, the gangs were just one of many organisations that filled the gap.

Has Venkatesh told us everything? No. Did he blur moral lines by his involvement with illegality? Yes. Does it matter? No. They invented gang studies at the University of Chicago in the 1930s. Venkatesh has eclipsed his predecessors and given us one of the finest-ever pieces of sociological reportage.

David Goldblatt's global history of football, 'The Ball Is Round', is published by Penguin

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