Sudhir Venkatesh was a first year sociology graduate student when he took the biggest risk of his life. Hoping to make an impression with one of his professors, he headed out to one of Chicago's most notorious housing projects, looking for people to take a multiple choice survey on urban poverty. What he ended up finding would change his life, and the academic establishment, forever.
Somehow Venkatesh managed to befriend a man named JT, the leader of a gang that controlled one of the buildings in the projects. And for the next seven years, Venkatesh would spend his days under JT's eye, learning everything you could ever know about how an organized gang works. There he met drug dealers, addicts, prostitutes, squatters, pimps, police officers, community organizers and tenants who were just trying to survive the poverty that surrounded them. He learned every detail of how to operate a crack-selling business and why residents of the neighbourhood depended upon the gang for their survival.
All of this is chronicled in Venkatesh's book Gang Leader For A Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets. It is a fascinating look at the inner workings of an urban gang as well as day to day life for many burdened with poverty. But it's also the story of a unique friendship, of two men who are worlds apart but also not much different from each other.
Sudhir Venkatesh is either crazy or seriously dedicated to his work. He discovered that popular methodologies of studying poverty weren't telling the whole story and decided that he was going to change that. It's true - you can't ask someone how it feels to be black and poor giving them the options of answering "very bad, somewhat bad, neither bad nor good, somewhat good, very good." Embedding himself with a gang ended up threatening his life many, many times but his dedication not just to his work but to tell the story of those he met kept him going.
Anyone who has read Freakanomics by Steven Levitt will be familiar with Sudhir from the chapter "Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live With Their Moms?" It was his work in Chicago that discovered that being in a drug gang didn't actually make you much money. Foot soldiers and dealers made less than minimum wage and the leaders while better off, weren't living lavish lifestyles. Instead, he found that the gangs took care of housing problems for the tenants, provided food and clothing, settled disputes, provided security for the buildings and many other things that made life in the projects just a little easier. In a nutshell, they did for the building what the authorities refused to do.
This is a fascinating book, there is no other way to describe it. You take an academic from a middle-class upbringing and drop him in the middle of one of the nation's worst housing projects and you definitely don't expect to get this book out of it all. Moral and ethical dilemmas abound and throughout the book you can't help but wonder how you would respond if you were in the shoes of either the tenants or Venkatesh. The writing covers years of research and expertly puts it all together in a book that is honest, frank and shocking. One of the best non-fiction books I've read in a while.