Worth a Read: Gang Leader for a Day

Title: Gang Leader for a Day

Author: Sudhir Venkatesh

Publisher, Pages: Penguin, 320

Gang Leader for a Day tells the story of a graduate sociology student at the University of Chicago. Tired of surveys, textbooks, and typical methods of sociological research, Sudhir decides to study Chicago’s housing projects and their affiliation with gangs in the way he finds most logical — by simply strolling into the lobby of one of Chicago’s most notorious housing projects, the Roberts Morris Homes. Sudhir is immediately taken captive by gang members in the lobby, as they believe he is a spy from a rival Mexican gang (he’s Indian). He spends his first night in the projects sleeping next to a vomiting crackhead, until he eventually befriends the gang’s leader, JT. JT takes Sudhir under his wing and gives him first-hand access to the gang’s activities including drive-by shootings, prostitution, and drug-trafficking. He is even allowed to run the gang for a day. Sudhir spends the better part of 10 years in the projects, learning the inner workings of a street gang and the methods the gang utilizes to improve the lives of the inhabitants of the Robert Morris Homes.

If I haven’t sold you on the book yet, here is an excerpt from the preface:

I woke up at about 7:30 A.M. in a crack den, Apartment 1603 in Building 2301 of the Robert Taylor Homes. Apartment 1603 was called the “Roof,” since everybody knew that your could get very, very high there, even higher than if you climbed all the way to the buildings actual rooftop.

As I opened my eyes, I saw two dozen people sprawled about, most of them men, asleep on couches and the floor….The activities of the previous night — smoking crack, drinking, having sex, vomiting — had peaked at about 2:00 A.M. By then the unconscious people outnumbered the conscious ones — and among the conscious ones, few still had the cash to buy another hit of crack cocaine. Thats when the Black Kings saw diminishing prospects for sales and closed up shop for the night….I washed my face, grabbed a slice of cornbread, and headed outside into the breezy, brisk March morning. Just another day in the ghetto. Just another day as an outsider looking at life from the inside.” — Sudhir Venkatesh

If you like this book, be sure to also check out In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio by Philippe Bourgois.

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