Gang Leader for a Day

Title: Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets
Author: Sudhir Venkatesh
Pub Date: 2008
Pages: 290
Genre: Non Fiction, Sociology

Sudhir is a graduate student in Chicago majoring in Sociology during the 80's. He is beginning research for his dissertation and has decided to research poverty within the black community. After speaking with his professors they lead him in the direction of surveying. Determined to stand out in the crowd of students, Sudhir leaves the safe haven of college life and trek into the Robert Taylor projects.
Fairly innocent of the dangers that he was walking into, Sudhir meets darting glances and sneers upon entering one of the buildings. It is filthy, dank, and overall rather foreboding. The elevator is broken, but determined to preserve, he begins to ascend up the piss-stained stairs. Eventually he meets a group of hardened boys who shout, "Who sent you." This turns into badgering and their decision to not let him go. Eventually, hours maybe, a young black man, obviously their leader, walks into the corner and attempts to get the 411 on Sudhir and his business in his building. Sudhir tries to explain the surveys as the growing crowd laughs, mocks, and drinks beer. Sudhir realizes that he just stumbled upon the Black Kings. Eventually, when daylight comes, the leader, J.T., lets him go with a warning.

Sudhir is intrigued. He walks home from the projects, does some research, and decides to seek J.T. out again. Thus begins the long relationship between Sudhir and J.T., leader of the gang. J.T. introduces Sudhir to the community within the projects and Sudhir gets to understand first hand the inner workings of a gang.

J.T. openly shares with Sudhir that he grew up in the projects, gained a scholarship to a university, earned a degree, and began working in corporate America. But while leading the "right" life, he began to notice all of these white folks getting promoted for jobs that they were unskilled at while he just sat there, barely making a decent wage. Realizing that he could make more selling crack in the gang, he left civilized society and headed back to the PJ's. This opened up interesting dialogue between J.T. and Sudhir on how poverty is defined and what perpetuates it.

Sudhir was also a bit surprised at how the gang worked within the community, noting that its politics and business model mirrored corporate America. There were moments in the beginning of the book where you could almost feel Sudhir understanding the Black Kings and actually thinking that they weren't that bad. Hell, as a reader, he led me on that path as well, while J.T. initially hid the violence and bribery.
I really felt for the families within the projects. While reading their stories, in many ways, they struck me as having more compassion that my middle class upbringing. I think about my own neighborhood, and all of the neighborhoods that I lived in, apartments included. I consider how many of my neighbors that I truly got to know and who, likewise, got to know me. I think about how often, or not, that I go about my world isolated. And here, within the Robert Taylor buildings, everyone was family. Check out this passage:

"We live in a community, understand? Not the projects - I hate that word. We live in a community. We need a helping hand now and then, but who doesn't? Everyone in this building helps as much as they can. We share our food, just like I'm doing with you. My son says you're writing about his life - well, you may want to write about this community, and how we help each other. And when I come over to your house, you'll share with me. You'll cook for me if I'm hungry. But when your here, you're in my home and my community. And we'll take care of you." (p. 43)

I think what is the most frustrating is even after reading this, you're left with a sense of helplessness. The poverty revealed in this book was out of control. The inability of these community members to count on police, hospitals, the government to protect them. Ultimately they were forced to rely on the gang that caused the rise in crime.

They ended up destroying the Robert Taylor apartments because the crime rate grew out of control. The Chicago House Association claimed that they would give vouchers to those who lived in there so they could find newer homes. That didn't really happen. After all there were roughly 40,000 people in the community. Most were just pushed into other PJ's.

At first I was a bit skeptical of this book. I found the writing to be sterile and impersonal. I had a hard time connecting to Sudhir or J.T. I'm glad that I decided to follow my 50 page rule and read into the next chapter. At that point I was hooked. Frustrated, emotional, but hooked none the less.

Here is Sudhir actually speaking about his book.


  1. This one is going right on my to-read list. In one of my sociology classes in college, we read There Are No Children Here. You might want to check that one out, though it might be a bit dated. It follows a sociologist in the Henry Horner complex in Chicago. Scary stuff.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  2. What a fabulous find. This type of his fascinating to me. I can only imagine what type of lives these people led. I love gritty non fiction books like this. I would definitely read this.

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