Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh
rating: 5 of 5 stars
If you were ever a fan of The Wire (and who isn't) - this is a book for you. I picked up this book by accident - Indian dude on the cover, catchy title and I have read Freakonomics and really enjoyed the analysis of how gangs worked; quite enough for me to pick up the book and start reading in the bookstore.
I didn't really buy the book the first time around - just put it on my list of "should read later" books. I was delighted to find it in the library and picked it up on my way to board a long flight. This turned out to be a *great* idea: the book is really hard to put down, the tales of life in the Chicago projects is so gripping - its this unreal world that is only miles away from the really rich parts - and did I mention that it is absolutely unreal?
Venkatesh is (or was at the time of writing) a grad student at the U. of C. and as one of his early projects had to go survey people in the chicago projects. The crazy thing is that he actually did it - he went into the projects to these scary looking black guys and asked them "How does it feel to be poor: a)Very angry b)Somewhat angry c)Neutral d)Not Bad" (The question is mine - I made it up, but the original survey was not that far off). After the scary black dudes with guns stop laughing, they think that Venkatesh is a member of a rival latino gang and want to kill him until the boss steps in and lets Venkatesh in (sort of). What starts here blossoms into this 4+ year friendship between Venkatesh and J.T. that gives him unrivalled access to members of the Black Kings (various names are changed for anonymity, I'm just using the same names used in the book) including several years worth of detailed accounting data about all the gangs activities. This later formed the basis of Venkatesh's collaboration with Stephen Levitt (of Freakonomics fame).
The book is at once a portrayal of life in the american ghetto and an account of Venkatesh's personal story as he comes to grips with what he's doing and what his project has evolved into. The decisions that he has to make - is he a neutral, like a journalist? Should he help the man who just got shot? Should he buy food for the kids who don't have money to eat because the mom spent it on crack? He brings to the surface the real underbelly of America's capitalist machine - the people that society forgot and would rather not be reminded of.
All in all, an excellent book. Fast, easy read (the prose is easy, not the subject matter). Buy / borrow it today.
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