In his first semester of graduate school, Sudhir Venkatesh was eager to impress his professors and figure out what his research interests might be. When asked to do some survey work in the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, Venkatesh approached the task with the sort of naive enthusiasm one might expect from a new student. Within hours of starting his survey, Venkatesh found himself being held hostage by members of the Black Kings, the gang that controlled most of the area.
Unexpectedly, Venkatesh made friends with the local leader of the Black Kings, J.T. This friendship gave Venkatesh J.T.’s support to spend more time in the neighborhood, asking questions and filling in details for what turned out to be an intensely detailed economic and ethnographic survey of the Chicago projects.
In Gang Leader for a Day Venkatesh chronicles more than a decade of working with and researching the members of this community and the complicated relationship between the gang and the community as well as J.T. and Venkatesh.
I can’t thank Jill (Fizzy Thoughts) enough for pushing me to read this book. After I commented on her review last year, she e-mailed me with some other thoughts about how much parts of the book reminded her of what I do as a journalist. She suggested the ethical conflicts and insider issues would be fascinating, and she was right. When Venkatesh enters the neighborhood, he brings with him many of the simplistic beliefs about how life in an area controlled by a gang works. The strength of Gang Leader for a Day is the way Venkatesh shows his process of learning what life there is like and articulating those findings to a reader.
I was surprised to learn how the gang is both a harm and a benefit to the community. While the gang does conduct drug business in the area, members are also charged with protecting residents and keeping order in the projects when the police won’t do anything. While members of the community pay “taxes” to the gang for these...