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A great listen. Anyone who's read Freakonomics will appreciate the full story that was touched on in Steven Levitt's book. Gang Leader for a Day is the in-depth look at the experiences of the author that was dealt with anecdotally in Freakonamics. This book will give you a much better understanding of the lives of tenants in Chicago Housing Authority projects. It will make understandable and logical the way people in poverty adopt coping strategies that seem outrageous to middle class folks who are unable to sympathize.
If you can't tell from the synopsis whether you'd enjoy this book, I highly recommend Freakonomics. It'll give you everything you need to know to realize that this book is worth the cost. If you're pretty sure you'll be getting BOTH those books, I'd recommend listening to THIS one first. The short treatment it gets in Freakonomics will just spoil the surprises in this one. Then you'll be able to skip over that section when get to it in Levitt's book.
22 of 23 people found this review helpful
In the early 90s, Sudhir Venkatesh, an Indian-American graduate student with a certain naive bravado, decided to walk into one of Chicago's most notorious projects, a place where even ambulances wouldn’t go, and interview people who lived there, asking the sort of daft survey questions that only academics can dream up. Quickly, he was corralled by gang members and escorted to their leader, a man named (well, pseudonymed) JT. Though the gang members laughed at Venkatesh's naivete, JT was intrigued by his research, and permitted him a safe entree into the world of the projects.
That world is pretty fascinating. Though violence, drug abuse, and squalor abound, Venkatesh paints a picture of a strangely well-organized community, with its own leadership hierarchy, rules, underground economy, and politics. Without much in the way of police involvement and social services, the Black Kings gang fills the vacuum, becoming a sort of law enforcement body, community organizer (to the point of initiating voter registration drives), and resolver of disputes. As well a tax collector and, lest we forget, a peddler of a socially corrosive drug.
It was also quite interesting to learn of how businesslike the gang's internal operations were. JT, a guy with some college education, comes across as surprisingly pragmatic, intent on protecting his reputation, but preferring to avoid gang wars and the chaos caused by small criminals, both of which cost him customers and attract police attention. Sometimes, the BK’s meetings seem so businesslike, I wouldn't have been surprised if there had been powerpoint slides. The leaders rationalize their morally problematic trade with a perverse pride in themselves as a community institution and the belief that they’re only making addicts of people who have no self-control anyway.
Another fascinating figure is fierce building president Ms. Bailey, who puts the dilemma of the urban poor in blunt but Socratically eloquent terms. "If your family was starving," she asks, "and someone offered you a chance to make some money, would you stay in school?" She acts as a devoted community advocate, securing goods and services for those in need, often from the BKs, but is a bit of a tyrant in her methods, and seems to get a small piece of the action herself.
The easy cliches fall by the wayside pretty quickly. Everyone's interests are tied up in some way with everyone else's. Project residents tolerate the gangs (if grudgingly) because they're the only real order there is. As do, to some degree, the police. The gangs carry out a certain amount of PR because they're dependent on the goodwill of the other residents. Most people aspire to something better than what they have, but often, the only two options for getting ahead (for young men, anyway) are joining a gang and rising up within the ranks or getting out of the projects altogether. The latter, of course, is easier said than done. The bad choices being made become much more understandable in light of the few choices available.
If there’s a weakness here, it's that everything is filtered through the author’s subjective perspective. I wouldn't have minded a wider picture -- he never does get around to interviewing Chicago's bureaucrats, as Ms. Bailey suggests. I also would have liked to see his narrative build towards a firmer set of conclusions, rather than just dropping away when his graduate work comes to an end. What happened to all these people in the ten plus years that went by before he wrote and published this book?
Not huge complaints, though. It’s a very compelling read. The audiobook narrator isn’t bad but his choice of accent for JT is a little odd. The guy ends up sounding like a 1940s Hollywood gangster.
9 of 9 people found this review helpful