When I first moved to a university town in Illinois as a graduate student, I remember the Indian Student Association leaders warning us which were the “dangerous” areas of town and which were the “safe” ones. Obviously no one had that talk with Sudhir Venkatesh. And he was not in a small, leafy, university town, but in Chicago. When Venkatesh showed up at some of the most notorious projects in town as an earnest sociology graduate student, armed with a clipboard, he literally had no idea what he was walking into.9a7933dc323f1ab1f24e99d93bd8aa99-2

In 1989, Venkatesh, a first year Ph.D. student of sociology at the University of Chicago, was trying to research how the lives of young blacks were affected by the neighborhoods in which they live. Venkatesh randomly chose building number 4040 in the Lake Park projects in Chicago and wandered in one morning with his questionnaire. He almost never made it out.

The apartments he was trying to visit had been abandoned. The mailboxes were battered, missing their doors. Water dripped everywhere and shouts echoed from the higher floors, making the whole building feel like a vibrating catacomb. Inside the dark lobby, smelling of alcohol, soot and urine, he stumbled upon customers arriving by car and on foot to pick up drugs. The men doing the drug deals were members of a gang called the Black Kings, and they were convinced Venkatesh was with a rival Mexican gang (since he was not black or white) and were completely befuddled when he told them he was there to do a survey.

The questions he had didn’t help either. “How does it feel to be black and poor?” The multiple-choice answers were: Very bad, somewhat bad, neither bad nor good, somewhat good, very good. Venkatesh spent all night sitting in the cold, peeing in the stairwell, while the Black Kings debated what to do with him. Luckily, their leader J.T. showed up. He had been to college and actually taken some sociology classes. He finally told Venkatesh “Go back to where you came from and be more careful when you walk around the city.”

That should have been the end of the story. But J.T. also said that no one would answer his “silly-ass questions.” If he wanted to know how young people lived on the street, he needed to hang out with them. So Sudhir Venkatesh spent the next seven years hanging out with a crack-dealing gang.

His book, Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets, is an account of those years. Venkatesh, now a professor of sociology at Columbia University, says his parents are finally figuring out what he was really doing all those years in Chicago. “I’m getting emails from my mother saying ‘I am glad you didn’t tell me ten years ago,’” says Venkatesh.

Venkatesh, who grew up in Southern California suburbs, says until he encountered street life and the notorious housing projects of Chicago, he had no idea how the urban poor lived. The projects where J.T. lived were virtually cities within the city, a city on which the city administration had turned its back. “Families in the project never called an ambulance if someone was hurt,” says Venkatesh. “They would call a tenant leader who would then call a hospital. They wouldn’t call the police right away because they knew the police would not come.” In the absence of city services, especially in Chicago where the Housing Authority was plagued with corruption, gangs stepped into the role of community organizations.

Venkatesh got to see first hand how it worked. The Wilson family lost a front door in the middle of February in the freezing cold of Chicago. The Wilsons didn’t have the money to pay the Housing Authority to get a new door. So the gang would post sentry and watch the door 24 hours a day; they guarded the family until the Wilsons saved up enough money to bribe the Housing Authority. “The gang was looked at as a resource because the government wasn’t there,” says Venkatesh. “And that’s exactly what the gang leader wanted. He wanted to be regarded as a resource, a community leader like a clergy member or someone who ran the Boys and Girls club.”

In return, building residents and tenant leaders had to turn a blind eye to the drug dealing that was happening all over the housing complex. They knew that the hundreds of dollars J.T. gave out for back-to-school parties came out of drug deals, but they just looked the other way. Venkatesh says people accepted the fact that they couldn’t stop the drug dealing. “But the goal was to make sure the crime associated with the drug economy doesn’t take innocent lives,” he says.

J.T., who was somewhat flattered by Venkatesh’s interest in his life, gradually let him in more into the daily life of the Black Kings. Soon Venkatesh was hanging out with J.T.’s formidable mother and eating platefuls of her cooking. Slowly, he started befriending other residents in the building and getting sucked into the delicate power politics between the residents, the tenant leaders, and the gang members.

Then, one day, he told J.T. he didn’t see what there really was to running a gang. “You just seem to be standing around all day,” he told him. J.T. said, “Why don’t you step into my shoes?” So for one day, Venkatesh tailed J.T. as he ran the Black Kings. “It was like watching the leader of a franchise. He had to manage 200 employees and make sure that the supplies were coming in and everyone behaved,” says Venkatesh. But he soon realized the Black Kings were no Burger King. This was a different kind of a franchise. When he had to discipline two members, J.T. didn’t write a note and deal with the situation in a bureaucratic way. He just beat up the one who was lying. “It really opened my eyes to capricious and arbitrary ways in which force is such a core part of the underground economy,” says Venkatesh, who calls himself “a nerd with a pocket protector with a total aversion to the use of force.”

Venkatesh says the gangs themselves had evolved radically from the 1920s-60s when they were mostly composed of adolescents and teenagers involved in petty delinquency. After the 1970s, they became more entrepreneurial: trading drugs, extorting local businesses, engaging in money laundering. “That was a big change,” says Venkatesh. “The gangs started attracting 30 year olds and 40 year olds.” At the same time, an economic downturn and disinvestment in inner cities meant there were no jobs available for young men. Gangs became an economic resource. The arrival of crack cocaine fundamentally changed the attraction of all ages to the street gang.

“When the street gang started to reap the profits of crack cocaine, it attracted young people of all ages,” says Venkatesh. “It was an illusion, really. Most of them were never going to make the hundreds of thousands of dollars.” By the 1980s, the gangs were starting to emulate corporations. Economist Steven Leavitt says if you were to hold a McDonalds organizational chart and a Black Kings organizational chart side by side, you could hardly tell the difference. “The one exception being that if you spent four years in the gang you have a 25 percent chance of dying,” Venkatesh observes.

But he agrees the gangs have become corporate. “They tried to emulate Exxon or Sears,” says Venkatesh. “People were paid minimum wage at the bottom and hundreds of thousands of dollars at the top.” There was a group in prison that helped to run the gangs and called themselves the board of directors. The teenagers who were out on the street selling drugs made very little money but took most of the risks.

But no matter how corporate the Black Kings seemed, there was no escaping the fact that the product they were selling was crack, and it was devastating the lives of the project residents. Venkatesh says the fact that he was hanging out with a crack-selling gang really sunk in one day when J.T. asked him about a decision he needed to make. “He asked, would you rather lock in the price for a kilo today and hope for a favorable price later, or take a higher price and risk an increase in the future,” recalls Venkatesh. He suddenly realized that what they were discussing was not sugar or oilseeds but cocaine!

But hanging out in the heart of the underground economy also enabled Venkatesh to see how people managed to create their own support structures. The housing projects, which used to be 70 percent working families in the 1960s, now only had about 8 percent working in the legitimate economy. In a community of 30,000 people, 70 percent were women and children. They received public assistance and had to hide the men in order to continue receiving the public funds. They ended up developing very strong civic roles within the projects. “There was a strong moral faith, particularly among the older women,” says Venkatesh, who remembers J.T.’s mother chastising him as if he were a 12-year-old at the dining table. He remembers another group of six women who combined their resources to have some semblance of a normal life: “They could never rely on their hot water working. But they always knew, however, that one apartment would have hot water. So they would cook their meals in one apartment, shower in another. One person did day care.”

He also points out that not all the underground economy was about drugs. Every Saturday, there was a market lining the streets for two miles where you could do everything from buying shirts to getting your taxes prepared.

There were no stores, so women ran candy shops in their apartments. Women would let their kids pee in the stairwell to dissuade drug dealers from doing business there. The dark and poorly lit stairwells in the 16-story buildings were also prime areas for pimps and prostitutes. “Sometimes people would break bottles so you would have broken glass so prostitutes and their johns couldn’t sit there,” says Venkatesh. “So there were all sorts of really incredible ways people had to control their physical environments to create some sort of social order.”

In the years since the Robert Taylor housing projects in Chicago came down, Venkatesh has looked at the underground economy in France. He says unlike Chicago, the banlieues of Paris are filled with immigrants, who don’t speak the country’s language and feel they have never been integrated into the mainstream. For them, the underground economy replicates the mainstream economy—they need it whether they want to buy a car or get a French passport. It is less about drug dealing, but the one common ingredient linking the two, says Venkatesh, is “despair and alienation.” As he studies the underground economy, Venkatesh has realized it’s “not just about survival, but feeling you just don’t have a place in the mainstream.” J.T., for example, actually worked in corporate America until he felt that as a young black man in the 1980s he was just not going to get ahead.

Since the demolition of the housing projects, the Black Kings have also scattered. Some moved to new gangs. Many people at J.T’s level ended up in jail. J.T. himself tried to manage small businesses: dry-cleaning, a barbershop. Venkatesh says when he sees J.T. these days he doesn’t sense he resents his success as an academic, though it was built on the years he thought Venkatesh was possibly writing a book about him.

Instead, Venkatesh has used the access J.T. allowed him to write two acclaimed books, Off The Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor andAmerican Project—The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto. Now that he has finally written a book about his years with J.T. and the Black Kings, Venkatesh says he is about to give a copy of the book to J.T. “I am going to give it to him with a little inscription,” says Venkatesh. “It will say ‘Be careful what you wish for. You might get it.’”


Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a news-magazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New America Media. 
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