When Sudhir Venkatesh, a product of the prosperous suburbs of southern California, first arrived at the University of Chicago in 1989 as a graduate student in sociology, he was strongly cautioned never to venture outside the small “safe” enclave that was actively patrolled by the campus police force. For the next nine years, he routinely ignored that advice. A student of the social and economic conditions that shape the lives of the urban poor, Venkatesh chose not simply to immerse himself in the books, charts, and data that make up the usual intellectual diet of an advanced student of the social sciences. Instead, armed only with a notebook, his curiosity, and an innate indifference to peril that some would call brave and others might deem foolhardy, he immersed himself in the daily life of a nearby housing project, the Robert Taylor Homes. Venkatesh took the logical—but also unheard of—step of actually getting to know the people on whom he was trying to become an academic expert. The result was not only a remarkable Ph.D. dissertation but also a host of astonishing experiences and observations that Venkatesh has now published in his deeply engaging memoir Gang Leader for a Day.
In the pages of Gang Leader for a Day, we meet a cast of characters so astonishing that they could only be real: J.T., a brash but surprisingly intelligent and business-savvy leader of the Black Kings gang; C-Note, a resourceful hustler who can do a hundred different jobs for a hundred dollars; Ms. Bailey, the projects building president who knows both how to get things done and how to line her pockets; and Autry Harrison, the pimp turned Boys and Girls Club director who quietly tries to guide the youth of the project toward a better vision of the future. These people are only a handful of the dramatis personae of a daily drama of violence, drug abuse, sexual intrigue, and struggles to survive that, as the author discovers, can be understood and narrated only from the inside.
Bucking the establishment, risking his reputation and perhaps his life, Venkatesh comes to know with astonishing intimacy the drug dealers, crackheads, prostitutes, and hustlers who comprise the world of the Robert Taylor Homes. Yet it may very well be that the most surprising things he discovers have little to do with the violence, crime, and despair that one would expect to find in a story like his. The greater surprise is the extent to which, in this sordid milieu, Venkatesh’s readers may recognize a differently developed version of themselves. For in this labyrinth of crime and corruption, we also meet people striving for what we all seek: to make a dollar; to raise our children; and to find some pathway to the next day. Sudhir Venkatesh set out in search of a housing project. He discovered America.
Sudhir Venkatesh is William B. Ransford Professor of Sociology at Columbia University in New York City. He is a researcher and writer on urban neighborhoods in the United States and France. He is also a documentary filmmaker and a frequent commentator on National Public Radio. His first book, American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto, also explored life in Chicago public housing. His previous book, Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, which documented illegal economies in Chicago, received a Best Book Award from Slate.com and the C. Wright Mills Award.
Q. In his foreword to Gang Leader for a Day, Stephen J. Dubner avers that you have “an underdeveloped sense of fear” (p. xi). Do you agree to that characterization, or would you like to put the matter in other words?
Fear presumes knowledge. Meaning it is hard to worry about something about which you have little awareness or understanding. I knew little about the Chicago projects when I arrived in the late 1980s. So I don’t think I had sense of what was frightening—I was unfamiliar with cities, but I was mostly curious and naive. I was well into my research by the time I was told that I should be frightened.
Q. Your book is a unique, vivid memoir of a side of American life that few of your readers will have experienced. However, you tend to steer clear of policy recommendations for changing your subjects’ lives for the better. If you had one suggestion for relieving the kind of conditions you describe in Gang Leader for a Day, what would it be?
I would ask every American interested in philanthropy to turn off the computer. Walk across the street or take a subway to another part of town. Do something that requires interpersonal exchange: teach an adult how to read, go to the suburbs and help them understand the history of American racism, tell rich kids what it means to work for a living, volunteer in a soup kitchen. It doesn’t matter, as long as you develop personal connections with those in need. Turning on the computer, inputting a credit card, and sending money to a poor child seems useful, but it has its limits. “Policy” begins with small actions of compassion. Otherwise it can be paternalistic, rooted in pity.
Q. Much of a sociologist’s written work is prepared for a different audience and with different goals from those of Gang Leader for a Day. What did it feel like to write in a more vernacular, novelistic style than your profession typically demands?
Liberating is the short answer. The longer answer: Sociology has a lot to offer but, unless sociologists make a commitment to widening the scope of their work, they will look like fools on the hill, wondering why no one pays any attention to them. We write in an alienating manner; like other academics, we make up words with little if any justification and we disrespect the wider public. We have to take our audience seriously.
Q. Your ethnicity was one of the qualities that most perplexed the people you met at Robert Taylor. Over the course of the years you spent there, how do you feel your being neither black nor white affected the way people responded to you, and how do you think it influenced your opportunities to observe your subjects?
My status as South Asian American helped me hang around a bit longer than I could have if I had been black or white. Chicago in the late 1980s was really a polarized place where blacks and whites were at each others’ throats. I was able to sneak in and observe this dynamic without being a threat to either group. Today, South Asians own property in black communities, they live among different ethnic groups, and their neutrality is no longer as obvious. They have a stake in the inner city, and many are benefiting by owning businesses, employing residents, and so on. If I had done my work today, I would have received a much different welcome.
Q. How has your unconventional approach to field research affected your standing within the scholarly community?
My approach was once in the mainstream of sociological research: namely, sociologists were known for direct field research. They enjoyed finding pockets of American society where the local lifestyle was distinctive. They sought to enter and then document the rules, codes of conduct, norms, culture, and so on. Over time, as sociology became more “scientific,” large surveys replaced first-person fieldwork; social scientists tended to believe that the individual field-worker was too biased to yield useful knowledge. So, while my work is unconventional today, before the World War II, it was standard fare. I hope we can find a way to combine the best of both worlds: intimate fieldwork and scientific study.
Q. Obviously, there is much about life in an urban housing project that no middle class community would dream of imitating. Yet you also encountered an openness, a sense of community, and a willingness to share resources during hard times that seem largely absent from current suburbia. Are there lessons that you think people on the “right” side of the tracks could learn from places like Robert Taylor?
There are few places in America where democracy is practiced on the ground. The projects are one such place. In the community that I studied, the government was absent. The residents had to mediate disputes themselves (police were ineffective), they had to fix their own apartments (the housing authority was negligent), they cleaned up their own streets and alleys (the sanitation department never came around). This work produced a sense of community, one in which people listened to one another, debated and formed consensus through compromise. In the suburb where I grew up, I never knew my neighbors and democracy was something we read about in textbooks. So, I found democracy in the projects.
Q. Much of Gang Leader for a Day details your relationship with J.T. Was there any other member of the Black Kings whose story you found as compelling?
About five years after I conducted my research, I started to see the children of older gang members join the gang. It sent a chill through me because the reproduction of poverty was happening right before my eyes. Daily hardships were hard enough to witness but it was even more difficult to see the children of young men and women starting out life with a bad hand.
Q. In molecular physics, there is a principle that holds that you cannot observe a phenomenon without changing it. Do you think your very presence at the scenes you describe in Gang Leader for a Day tended to alter them and how?
The Heisenberg Principle absolutely applies to my work—and to all scholarship, scientific or humanistic. In fact, one of motivations for writing Gang Leader was to show how sausage is made, as it were. In most narrative nonfiction, the author is a fly on the wall. There is little if any reflective assessment of the author’s relationship with the subjects of the research. I think this is irresponsible, and it does little to engender trust with the readers.
Q. You write in Gang Leader for a Day about the ethical and legal restrictions that are imposed on sociological research. Do you consider these restrictions reasonable, or are there aspects of them you would like to see modified or removed?
I think it is vital that academics have their research approved by their colleges and universities. Such procedures were only starting to be developed when I was a graduate student. Today, academics have to gain approval before initiating any scientific research on human subjects—interestingly, journalists do not because “reportage” is exempt from such regulations! Some scholars complain that this is a nuisance, but I think the benefits (i.e., accountability) are far too important to ignore.
Q. At the end of Gang Leader for a Day, you write with regard to J.T. and yourself, “It would be hard to call us friends” (p. 283). What feelings stand in back of that statement? Regret? Relief? Something else? Do you think it’s really possible for a socioeconomic chasm of the kind that separates you to be bridged by friendship?
Our relationship was transactional at the core. That doesn’t, however, make it any less human. I do believe people can create friendships across socioeconomic lines. One of my best friends is a public housing tenant and we laugh at our differences as well as our similarities. Is this common in American society? Absolutely not. But it is certainly not impossible.
Q. If you had the chance to relive your experiences at the Robert Taylor Homes, what, if anything, would you now do differently? How do you think your time in the Robert Taylor Homes changed you?
I honestly don’t know what I would do differently. I was young, naive, and the book is about a process of self-transformation. If I could go back and “right” all the “wrongs,” I probably wouldn’t have had the same experiences. I probably would not have had the same access. This doesn’t excuse the many mistakes I made, and there are certainly times that my behavior made me cringe. But I don’t have a series of regrets that haunt me.
My experience changed me in so many ways. I’ll mention one. I think we underestimate the craft of listening. Our society has collective Attention Deficit Disorder. We get bored very easily. We find it difficult to have a conversation without talking about our own opinions or drifting off entirely. Self-absorption seems an epidemic with no apparent cure. I was fortunate to have advisers in graduate school who insisted that I listen to others and document their stories. I try to do that in other parts of my life, though I know I’m never as attentive as I would like to be.