Monday, September 9, 2013

Life in the underground economy

Gang Leader for a Day
In the last several years, Chicago's gun violence has skyrocketed.  Since 2001, more than twice as many Americans have been killed in Chicago than in Afghanistan.  And no one really knows how to stop it.  I've referred readers here to the This American Life podcast that followed students at Harper High School.  There is now also a Chicago Tribune special titled "Chicago Under the Gun" that brings attention to the problem through video and photography.

All of this made me want to learn more about Chicago's gangs; most of the violence is blamed on them.  So I picked up Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader for a Day, a chronicle of the years he spent learning about life in the Robert Taylor homes, one of the most notorious public housing projects in the country.  As a sociology grad student at the University of Chicago, he chose to do his dissertation on the underground economy.  And he chose two charismatic leaders at the Robert Taylor homes to follow - JT, a rising star in the Black Kings gang, and Miss Bailey, a "problem solver" for the project's domestic problems.

I admit I was initially disappointed in this book, through no fault of its own.  As the book came out in 2008, I assumed the action took place in the 2000s.  Alas, most of the action takes place in the 1980s and 1990s, and I couldn't help but feel that the book was very outdated.  I would have enjoyed a chapter that updated the book to now, but there was none.  Now that so many of Chicago's projects are gone, it would be interesting to see how the underground economy has changed.  It appears that life has become even harder, with violence on the rise and a loss of the sense of community that used to exist.

When people do not have ready cash on them all the time, the economy reverts to a barter system with a sinister feeling of a mob influence.  There are a lot of favors owed, deals made, protection offered (in exchange for something, of course) - a huge, complicated organization.  As I said, a lot of this felt dated (especially after the success of The Wire and with zero reference to computers or cell phones).  Considering how quickly the environment adapted to different pressures - police raids, electrical shut-offs, domestic violence, etc. - I think things must have changed remarkably.

Nonetheless, though I feel not updating this book was a huge miss, there was a lot of fascinating information presented.  There were so many people operating completely in gray areas.  JT, for example, insisted over and over that gangs were good for the community because they protected people when the police would not.  And you could see that was true.  But he also provided easy access to crack cocaine to tenants and had a posse armed with guns.  Miss Bailey similarly walked a thin line.  She was the go-to person for many tenant problems, particularly for women.  But she exacted a price for everything.  So she really had quite a profitable life for someone in low-income housing.

I was interested to learn that these community leaders even existed.  I don't think I could even tell you who my alderman is, or name anyone who lives on the next street.  I most certainly wouldn't think of going to someone down the street from me for help or favors or anything like that.  But in the Robert Taylor homes, everyone did.  They all know each other (and these are not small places, really).  And they go to each other for everything.  It really was such a strong community in many ways, even through all the shootings and violence and drugs.  For example, Venkatesh talked about people pooling their resources a lot.  Paying to make sure that one apartment of five got cable TV, another got heating, and another had a working stove.  And then sharing those apartments amongst several families.

Venkatesh himself becomes a player in the lives and livelihoods of many of the people with whom he interacts.  Some of his actions seem completely naive, even to me.  For example, he tells both JT and Miss Bailey everything he's learned about the underground economy - who makes how much doing what.  And then is shocked when the two of them go after everyone to get their cut of the earnings.  He also has a troubling way of hero-worshiping JT.  He acknowledges this, saying he would often try to forget that JT was a gang leader who did a lot of horrible things.

My interest was held through this entire book.  I listened to it on audio, and the narrator had a very compelling way of speaking (though he seemed to channel MLK a lot in his diction, which was a bit strange when the words were coming out a gang leader's mouth).  There were also musical introductions to different parts of the book, which I first found odd, but then came to appreciate as they reiterated the urgency of the book.

Overall, an interesting and compelling book about life in the projects about 20 years ago.  Here's hoping that there will be work done to update this research into the 21st century.


  1. It's such a shame this wasn't more up to date. It still sounds fascinating, but it could have been even more fascinating.

  2. I work for a company that makes 911 radios and other products and Chicago is one of our biggest customers. Boy, of all our customers, they have the busiest 911 systems - a visit to the facility seriously shocked a few of my colleagues. Looks like this one would be an interesting read.

    1. Yes, Chicago has a lot of problems.

  3. It really should have been more up to date

  4. Was it rereleased because the violence in Chicago is so topical right now? It sounds like a long time to keep doctoral data on the shelf. Sharing data you've collected with other participants in a study violates so many university regulations that I'm totally shocked. But it does sound like a very interesting title, despite its flaws.

    1. No, it wasn't a re-release. It was a first-time release. I agree, it's a long time to keep stuff wrapped up. I didn't know that about the data collection, but I know that Venkatesh came under fire for some of the things that came to light from this book, so that doesn't surprise me.

  5. Wow, sharing that information with people who have a stake in that economy seems like such an obvious, huge mistake. Makes me think of another nonfiction read - The Devil's Teeth - where the author made a huge mistake in her efforts to follow her story.

    I've heard of this book before, and had a similar impression that it was about a more recent time. Thanks for the heads up.


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