09 November 2009

Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets

Book rating scale:
5: Touched by God - a work which makes Shakespeare look infantile
4: Amazing - Instantly began rereading it and quoting it to friends
3: Worth Every Penny - a solid, interesting read, inspiring some thought and discussion with people who share similar interests
2: I Paid For It So I Finished Reading It - Some interesting parts but if I lose the book I'm not buying another copy
1: Couldn't Force My Way Thru and Burnt the Book in order to send it to the Hell it deserves
I rate this book a 3.7. It's a fascinating look at how those whom we see in court day after day actually live their lives.

I first heard of Sudhir Venkatesh when I was watching a TED video about Freakonomics and the speaker told how Sudhir, as a brand new sociology grad student and someone entirely ignorant of how things worked in the Chicago projects, walked into the middle of a project high rise, got abducted by a gang, and then spent the rest of his grad school career exploring the connections he built through that abduction.

Gang Leader for a Day tells us the rest of the story and it is fascinating. I listened to it as an audio book, but I suspect it's just as good as a read. It starts with a rather naive middle class kid who didn't know any better than to walk into the middle of the projects. From there, we go with Sudhir as he gets hooked up with the gang; his exploration of the gang is the largest portion of the book. From there, he works outward to explore the rest of the people living in the high rise the gang ends up at (the first building gets torn down early in the book). We meet the lady who runs the building, controlling who gets resources from the corrupt city workers and charging her own form of taxes from those running off the book businesses in the building. We meet the men and women running their own off the book businesses ranging from mechanical work to a lady running a store out of her own apartment. We even get a glimpse at how all this interacts between different buildings and gangs. Then, just as we get a fair understanding, we get to see it all come apart as Chicago decides that the high rise projects are a disaster and tears them all down, throwing everything into chaos.

It is fascinating to see how things interweave from the perspective of someone who spends so much trying to figure out how it all relates together. Particularly interesting is Sudhir's description of the businesslike manner in which a drug dealing gang operates. He gets a good view of how things work by hooking up with the gang's version of a mid-level manager who is a college grad and a trouble shooter for the gang leaders. He does everything from enforce drug quality standards to negotiating cease fires with other gangs. In the end, one gang member even gives Sudhir the books for the gang.

Those of us who work in criminal law probably have a better view of how the poorer segments of society than most. Still, it's interesting to see how the whole enviroment interacts. Of course, this is a snapshot of how things were at a particular time and place. I realize that it's different from how things are elsewhere (after all locally we deal with trailer parks, not high rise projects), but that doesn't detract a bit from the fascinating picture Mr. Venkatesh paints.

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