Friday, July 29, 2011

Book Review: Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh

I loved this book! I want to be sure to start with that because if I say I first heard about this guy in Freakonomics, and this book is based on his graduate dissertation in Sociology, you might be put off, but it's a terrific story!

When Sudhir started his graduate studies at the University of Chicago, he was eager to start doing some field work, and to help out his professors with their research. Armed only with a survey and a clipboard, he naively went out to one of the worst projects in the city and tried to start asking questions ("How do you feel about being black and poor? A, pretty good; B, mostly good; C indifferent....") Local gang members quickly corralled him and held him until their boss came by to check him out. That boss, JT, was a local gang leader, and having gone to college himself, he was able to quickly decide that Sudhir was less than dangerous,unless you count to himself. JT then took Sudhir under his wing, introduced him to people, let it be known that Sudhir was protected so his life would be safe, and allowed him inside the gang to see how it operated, and how people lived in the Robert Taylor Homes, the most notorious projects in America. Sudhir saw beatings, a drive-by, helped a stoned, sick hooker, sat in on a truce meeting between JT and another rival gang leader, and eventually was invited to citywide meetings with the higher-ups in JT's gang. He took copious notes as he went along, and was privy to the corruption, bad cops, failed urban renewal plans, and also how the gangs were trying to position themselves as communities that helped all their people, by registering voters and contributing to school-supply funds and hosting basketball tournaments and picnics.

Most of the gang members seem like generally decent guys, albeit with some drug and alcohol issues, which would also lead to violence. But they ran the gang like a regular company, with middle managers, a board of directors, and high school kids earning just minimum wage. It's just that their product is illegal.

The book is filled with a compelling cast of characters, lots of fun new facts to learn, and occasional visceral violence. At times, I truly would not have been able to put this book down, and although it's perfectly obvious that Sudhir survived, I was sometimes quite afraid for his life. The poor men and women he interacted with nearly daily for several years shared their hopes and dreams, their daily survival techniques, they had some fun at his expense, and occasionally used him when it was expedient. But he comes to understand that he is using them too, for his thesis, for his research, for their stories. This story isn't the least bit academic or pedantic in tone, written with full realization of his extreme innocence going into it, with optimism and hope, and showing how his opinion of JT and the other gang members and Robert Taylor residents changed, for both the better and the worse as he got to know them as truly well-rounded individuals.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, even dreamed about it last night! A great memoir, showing that one person really can make a difference, simply by allowing the rest of us to understand a variety of complex and complicated issues in American lives.

I got this book at the Friends of the Library sale.


Jen said...

This sounds like an interesting read. I had read something about it, and being from the Chicago area, was kind of curious, so I think I'll check our library to see if it's here. :)

Sherrie said...

This book sounds so interesting. I'll have to check it out. Thanks for stopping by my place. Have a great day!

Just Books

christa @ mental foodie said...

I read this back in 2008, and I enjoyed it a lot too! I am glad he wrote it in an interesting way and not full of technical jargon. It definitely wasn't dry!

Christy said...

I'd heard of this book before, but it somehow wasn't on my to-read list yet. Fixed.

Jenny said...

I read this earlier this year and loved it too! He went through some crazy stuff!!