Sunday, June 28, 2009

Gang Leader for a Day

Honest and entertaining, Columbia University professor Venkatesh vividly recounts his seven years following and befriending a Chicago crack-dealing gang in a fascinating look into the complex world of the Windy City's urban poor. As introduced in Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner's bestseller, Freakonomics, Venkatesh became involved with the Black Kings—and their charismatic leader J.T.—as a first-year doctoral student at the University of Chicago. Sent to the projects with a multiple-choice test on poverty as his calling card, Venkatesh was, to his surprise, invited in to see how the drug dealers functioned in real life, from their corporate structure to the corporal punishment meted out to traitors and snitches. Venkatesh's narrative breaks down common misperceptions (such as all gang members are uneducated and cash rich, when the opposite is often true), the native of India also addresses his shame and subsequent emotional conflicts over collecting research on illegal activities and serving as the Black Kings' primary decision-maker for a day—hardly the actions of a detached sociological observer. But overinvolved or not, this graduate student turned gang-running rogue sociologist has an intimate and compelling tale to tell. (Jan.) Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

"Gang Leader for a Day is not another voyeuristic look into the supposedly tawdry, disorganized life of the black poor. Venkatesh entered the Chicago gang world at the height of the crack epidemic and what he found was a tightly organized community, held together by friendship and compassion as well as force. I couldn't stop reading, and ended up loving this brave, reckless young scholar, as well as the gang leader J.T., who has to be one of the greatest characters ever to emerge from something that could be called sociological research."
-- Barbara Ehrenreich

"Gang Leader for a Day is an absolutely incredible book. Sudhir Venkatesh's memoir of his years observing life in Chicago's inner city is a book unlike any other I have read, equal parts comedy and tragedy. How is it that a na•ve suburban kid ends up running a crack gang (if only for a day) on his way to becoming one of the world's leading scholars? You have to read it to find out, but heed this warning: don't pick up the book unless you have a few hours to spare because I promise you will not be able to put it down once you start."
--Steven D. Levitt, co-author, Freakonomics

"This extraordinary book features the fascinating research of a brilliant young sociologist. Sudhir Venkatesh spent several years closely interacting with crack-selling gang members and struggling poor residents in a large and very dangerous public housing project in Chicago. His riveting portrait of day-to-day life in this poor community, including the challenges confronting parents in a drug-infested and violent social environment, is disturbing. But, Gang Leader for a Day is rich with original information and insights on poor families, drug dealers and even the police. It will leave an indelible impression on readers."

---William Julius Wilson, Harvard University Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser Professor

"Whether you enjoy fiction, history, or biography you'll be drawn to Venkatesh's gripping retelling of his experiences in the Robert Taylor Homes. Gang Leader for a Day poignantly reminds us that there continue to be separate and unequal Americas that ultimately impact us all."

--Congressman Jesse L. Jackson, Jr. (D-IL)
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