Scoop Review of Books

Gangs Under Academic Microscope

Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh
Penguin Books Limited, $23. Reviewed by TERENCE WOOD

gang-leaderAs anyone who’s ever completed a graduate degree can tell you, social science field research is often surprisingly tough. It’s hard not to feel like an intruder or, perhaps more accurately, like part of an extractive industry as you pepper people with questions. It’s easy to feel like a fraud too; the aspiring ‘expert’ who knows less about the topic than your research subjects. Then, depending on where you are, there’s the potential for culture shock, not mention loneliness. From mugging, to malaria, to the chance that your data won’t actually be of any use, the whole enterprise is filled with risks.

You’d have to be pretty unlucky though, to have a first day in the field as bad as Sudhir Venkatesh. In 1989, the University of Chicago sociology student wandered into one of the city’s many housing projects with a clipboard and a bunch of questions about poverty. He ended up being apprehended by armed gang members and held for the night in a cold, urine-soaked stairwell while they drank beer and debated his fate. After a start like that one could have hardly blamed Venkatesh if he’d decided to change subjects or even abandon research altogether. But, instead, the next day he returned to the projects, this time with a case of beer. What followed was an almost ten year long ethnographic odyssey that saw Venkatesh spending his days in Chicago’s infamous Robert Taylor housing projects interacting with their residents, emerging at the end a regarded scholar.

Central to this was J.T, the leader of the gang chapter that found Venkatesh on his first day. Only a few years older than the student researcher, J.T had been to college on a sports scholarship. He’d graduated to find that, for a poor black man in Chicago, a university degree opened few doors. And, after a stint selling office supplies, he returned to the projects and started his steady climb through the ranks of the Black Kings, one of the city’s biggest gangs.

If college hadn’t helped with employment prospects, it had left J.T with a lingering interest in social science and, through that, in Sudhir, whom he also fancied as a potential biographer. J.T’s influence afforded security in Robert Taylor as well as a personal connection that led the residents of the decaying concrete buildings to open up to an outsider. Through interviews and participant observation, Venkatesh discovered a complex and contradictory community, filled with people trying, with differing degrees of success, to stay afloat in a world where they were marginalised and often vilified. People like Ms Mae, J.T’s mother. In her 50s, a widow, matriarch and one woman social safety net, she was a devout, law-abiding Christian, with a gang leader son who lived in her apartment. People like C-Note a homeless man who squatted in Robert Taylor making a living as a fix-it-man, able to repair anything from cars to refrigerators but unable to get a job that kept him out of poverty. People like Autry the pimp, turned soldier, turned youth worker who mediated gang truces. And people like Catrina, the housing association employee who fled an abusive upbringing and who was patiently educating herself, working towards a life outside the projects, until she was shot and killed, probably by her father.

Power, like nature, abhors a vacuum and, in the absence, or extreme corruption, of most of the normal arms of the state, a fascinating web of systems evolved within Robert Taylor, mediating and facilitating the lives of the people who lived there. Women pooled resources and helped each other through hard times. Ms Bailey, the building president, operated an informal political machine, using all manner of machinations to help project dwellers obtain necessities, and keep herself in power. A local police officer, a youth worker and a pastor negotiated a gang truce by facilitating an agreement on who could sell drugs where. And gang members were roped into voter registration drives by aspiring politicians. In Robert Taylor, the residents had a decidedly ambiguous relationship with the Black Kings (the gang J.T was a leader of). On one hand the gang “taxed” local businesses, sold drugs and was violent. On the other hand they provided security, reduced random violence and petty crime, and in some cases even engaged in philanthropy. A number of NGOs worked in the community, run by ex gang members and funded from drug profits.

Reading Gang Leader for a Day is an excellent reminder that the United States, like much of the ‘developed’ world, has a third world country buried in its heart. Men growing up in poorer parts of many US cities have life expectancies comparable to those of places such as Bangladesh, and the problems of the developing world – corruption, absence of social services, decayed infrastructure, lack of well-paying work – are in abundant evidence throughout the book. This, along with the extent to which the world of the housing projects is kept separate from middle America, makes Gang Leader for a Day a travel story as much as anything else. And as a travel book it works remarkably well – it’s fascinating for the human stories it tells and also for the insight it offers into a place that I suspect would be almost as foreign to most Americans as Dhaka. What is missing though is any systematic analysis of the causes of poverty in Robert Taylor or any discussion of potential solutions. For this we’re referred to Venkatesh’s academic work.

Fair enough, but it’s hard to read Gang Leader for a Day and not at least ponder some of the potential lessons of the story.

First and foremost it seems to me, is that the perennial claim that poverty is the product of indolence clearly and emphatically isn’t true. The residents of Robert Taylor come across as remarkably resourceful and entrepreneurial. Similarly, for the majority of people, poverty isn’t the product of vice either – the years Venkatesh spent researching were the height of the crack cocaine epidemic and yet by the author’s estimate only 15 percent of the buildings’ residents were seriously addicted to the drug. Many others experienced poverty despite not being addicted to anything. A more plausible explanation of poverty would be the isolation of the Robert Taylor community from the broader world around it. The state has almost completely failed the residents, absent in its service provision form, often corrupt and intimidating in its law enforcement form, and a system of patronage in its political form. Residents are also cut out of the credit market and are at the absolute bottom of the labour market. Junior drug dealers are, as Venkatesh shows in one of his academic papers, notoriously poorly paid, but because alternative careers are either non-existent or involve menial jobs paying the minimum wage, the risks of selling drugs becomes worth it for many.

Another contributing factor to the poverty found in the projects would have to be the speed that the adult world intrudes on the lives of young teenagers. Long before they are ready, kids in the projects are forced to make decisions – having children, joining gangs, leaving school to help their families – that will have impacts on the rest of their lives. Such a crash course in adulthood, at an age normally devoted to laying the building blocks of life, must surely play a part in the intergenerational nature of poverty.

In terms of solutions, to me, two leap out. First, find a way of making the state function in urban slums. Education and improved public services might not be the panacea liberals once hoped, but learning, security, decent health care and better sanitation, could hardly not have improved the lives of Robert Taylor residents. Obviously, providing all this requires more money, but probably also more innovative ways of making the formal apparatus of the state nestle more comfortably within the social structures of the urban poor. Second, and equally important, would be to empower women. Women were not only the most vulnerable group in Robert Taylor but were also at the centre of many of the webs of community that did exist. Helping women protect themselves from domestic violence and – through contraception, welfare and child care – preventing childbirth from being a one way ticket out of work and education, and into poverty, would have immediate welfare benefits but also, perhaps, serve to strengthen communities more generally.

Doing all this might not be easy, but after a 290 page immersion into the grinding poverty found in the heart of the world’s wealthiest country, it is very hard to argue that trying – doing something at least – isn’t desperately necessary.


Terence Wood is a Wellington based reviewer. Research for his Masters degree took him to Brazil where the greatest risk was offending people with his mangled Portuguese. You can read his blog here: