Title Page
Copyright Page
ONE – How Does It Feel to Be Black and Poor?
TWO – First Days on Federal Street
THREE – Someone to Watch Over Me
FOUR – Gang Leader for a Day
FIVE – Ms. Bailey’s Neighborhood
SIX – The Hustler and the Hustled
SEVEN – Black and Blue
EIGHT – The Stay-Together Gang
About the Author
Off the Books:
The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor
American Project:
The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A. Penguin Group
(Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of
Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
Penguin Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) • Penguin
Books Australia Ltd, 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell,Victoria 3124,Australia (a division of Pearson
Australia Group Pty Ltd) • Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park,
New Delhi-110 017, India • Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632,
New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) • Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd,
24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:
80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published in 2008 by The Penguin Press,
a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Copyright © Sudhir Venkatesh, 2008
All rights reserved
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Venkatesh, Sudhir Alladi.
Gang leader for a day : a rogue sociologist takes to the streets / Sudhir Venkatesh.
p. cm.
Includes index.
eISBN : 978-1-4406-3189-4
1. Gangs—Illinois—Chicago. 2. African Americans—Illinois—Chicago.
3. Chicago (Ill.)—Social conditions. 4.Venkatesh, Sudhir Alladi. I. Title.
HV6439.U7C46 2008
Printed in the United States of America
1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
Designed by Claire Vaccaro
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any
form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of
this book.
The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please
purchase only authorized electronic editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrightable materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.
To Autry Harrison
Stephen J. Dubner
I believe that Sudhir Venkatesh was born with two abnormalities: an overdeveloped curiosity and an
underdeveloped sense of fear.
How else to explain him? Like thousands upon thousands of people, he entered graduate school one fall and was
dispatched by his professors to do some research. This research happened to take him to the Robert Taylor Homes in
Chicago, one of the worst ghettos in America. But blessed with that outlandish curiosity and unfettered by the sort of
commonsensical fear that most of us would experience upon being held hostage by an armed crack gang, as
Venkatesh was early on in his research, he kept coming back for more.
I met Venkatesh a few years ago when I interviewed him for Freakonomics, a book I wrote with the economist
Steve Levitt. Venkatesh and Levitt had collaborated on several academic papers about the economics of crack
cocaine. Those papers were interesting, to be sure, but Venkatesh himself presented a whole new level of
fascination. He is soft-spoken and laconic; he doesn’t volunteer much information. But every time you ask him a
question, it is like tugging a thread on an old tapestry: the whole thing unspools and falls at your feet. Story after
story, marked by lapidary detail and hard-won insight: the rogue cop who terrorized the neighborhood, the jerrybuilt network through which poor families hustled to survive, the time Venkatesh himself became gang leader for a
Although we wrote about Venkatesh in Freakonomics (it was many readers’ favorite part), there wasn’t room for
any of these stories. Thankfully, he has now written an extraordinary book that details all his adventures and
misadventures. The stories he tells are far stranger than fiction, and they are also more forceful, heartbreaking, and
hilarious. Along the way he paints a unique portrait of the kind of neighborhood that is badly misrepresented when it
is represented at all. Journalists like me might hang out in such neighborhoods for a week or a month or even a year.
Most social scientists and dogooders tend to do their work at arm’s length. But Venkatesh practically lived in this
neighborhood for the better part of a decade. He brought the perspective of an outsider and came away with an
insider’s access. A lot of writing about the poor tends to reduce living, breathing, joking, struggling, sensual, moral
human beings to dupes who are shoved about by invisible forces. This book does the opposite. It shows, day by day
and dollar by dollar, how the crack dealers, tenant leaders, prostitutes, parents, hustlers, cops, and Venkatesh himself
tried to construct a good life out of substandard materials.
As much as I have come to like Venkatesh, and admire him, I probably would not want to be a member of his
family: I would worry too much about his fearlessness. I probably wouldn’t want to be one of his research subjects
either, for his curiosity must be exhausting. But I am very, very happy to have been one of the first readers of
Venkatesh’s book, for it is as extraordinary as he is.
I woke up at about 7:30 A.M. in a crack den, Apartment 1603 in Building Number 2301 of the Robert Taylor
Homes. Apartment 1603 was called the “Roof,” since everyone knew that you could get very, very high there, even
higher than if you climbed all the way to the building’s actual rooftop.
As I opened my eyes, I saw two dozen people sprawled about, most of them men, asleep on couches and the floor.
No one had lived in the apartment for a while. The walls were peeling, and roaches skittered across the linoleum
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. That’s when the Black Kings saw diminishing prospects for
sales and closed up shop for the night.
I fell asleep, too, on the floor. I hadn’t come for the crack; I was here on a different mission. I was a graduate
student at the University of Chicago, and for my research I had taken to hanging out with the Black Kings, the local
crack-selling gang.
It was the sun that woke me, shining through the Roof’s doorway. (The door itself had disappeared long ago.) I
climbed over the other stragglers and walked down to the tenth floor, where the Patton family lived. During the
course of my research, I had gotten to know the Pattons—a law-abiding family, it should be said—and they treated
me kindly, almost like a son. I said good morning to Mama Patton, who was cooking breakfast for her husband,
Pops, a seventy-year-old retired factory worker. I washed my face, grabbed a slice of cornbread, and headed outside
into a breezy, brisk March morning.
Just another day in the ghetto.
Just another day as an outsider looking at life from the inside. That’s what this book is about.
How Does It Feel to Be Black and Poor?
During my first weeks at the University of Chicago, in the fall of 1989, I had to attend a variety of orientation
sessions. In each one, after the particulars of the session had been dispensed with, we were warned not to walk
outside the areas that were actively patrolled by the university’s police force. We were handed detailed maps that
outlined where the small enclave of Hyde Park began and ended: this was the safe area. Even the lovely parks across
the border were off-limits, we were told, unless you were traveling with a large group or attending a formal event.
It turned out that the ivory tower was also an ivory fortress. I lived on the southwestern edge of Hyde Park, where
the university housed a lot of its graduate students. I had a studio apartment in a ten-story building just off Cottage
Grove Avenue, a historic boundary between Hyde Park and Woodlawn, a poor black neighborhood. The contrast
would be familiar to anyone who has spent time around an urban university in the United States. On one side of the
divide lay a beautifully manicured Gothic campus, with privileged students, most of them white, walking to class
and playing sports. On the other side were down-and-out African Americans offering cheap labor and services
(changing oil, washing windows, selling drugs) or panhandling on street corners.
I didn’t have many friends, so in my spare time I started taking long walks, getting to know the city. For a
budding sociologist, the streets of Chicago were a feast. I was intrigued by the different ethnic neighborhoods, the
palpable sense of culture and tradition. I liked that there was one part of the city, Rogers Park, where Indians,
Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis congregated. Unlike the lily-white suburbs of Southern California where I’d grown up,
the son of immigrants from South Asia, here Indians seemed to have a place in the ethnic landscape along with
everyone else.
I was particularly interested in the poor black neighborhoods surrounding the university. These were
neighborhoods where nearly half the population didn’t work, where crime and gang activity were said to be
entrenched, where the welfare rolls were swollen. In the late 1980s, these isolated parts of the inner cities gripped
the nation’s attention. I went for many walks there and started playing basketball in the parks, but I didn’t see any
crime, and I didn’t feel particularly threatened. I wondered why the university kept warning students to keep out.
As it happened, I attracted a good bit of curiosity from the locals. Perhaps it was because these parks didn’t attract
many nonblack visitors, or perhaps it was because in those days I dressed like a Deadhead. I got asked a lot of
questions about India—most of which I couldn’t answer, since I’d moved to the States as a child. Sometimes I’d
come upon a picnic, and people would offer me some of their soul food. They were puzzled when I turned them
down on the grounds that I was a vegetarian.
But as alien as I was to these folks, they were just as alien to me.
As part of my heavy course load at the U of C, I began attending seminars where professors parsed the classic
sociological questions: How do an individual’s preferences develop? Can we predict human behavior? What are the
long-term consequences, for instance, of education on future generations?
The standard mode of answering these questions was to conduct widespread surveys and then use complex
mathematical methods to analyze the survey data. This would produce statistical snapshots meant to predict why a
given person might, say, fail to land a job, or end up in prison, or have a child out of wedlock. It was thought that the
key to formulating good policy was to first formulate a good scientific study.
I liked the questions these researchers were asking, but compared with the vibrant life that I saw on the streets of
Chicago, the discussion in these seminars seemed cold and distant, abstract and lifeless. I found it particularly
curious that most of these researchers didn’t seem interested in meeting the people they wrote about. It wasn’t
necessarily out of any animosity—nearly all of them were well intentioned—but because the act of actually talking
to research subjects was seen as messy, unscientific, and a potential source of bias.
Mine was not a new problem. Indeed, the field of sociology had long been divided into two camps: those who use
quantitative and statistical techniques and those who study life by direct observation, often living among a group of
This second group, usually called ethnographers, use their firsthandapproach to answer a particular sort of
question: How do people survive in marginal communities? for instance, or What makes a government policy work
well for some families and not for others?
The quantitative sociologists, meanwhile, often criticized the ethnographers’ approach. They argued that it isn’t
nearly scientific enough and that the answers may be relevant only to the particular group under observation. In
other words, to reach any important and generalizable conclusion, you need to rely on the statistical analyses of
large data sets like the U.S. Census or other massive surveys.
My frustration with the more scientific branch of sociology hadn’t really coalesced yet. But I knew that I wanted
to do something other than sit in a classroom all day and talk mathematics.
So I did what any sensible student who was interested in race and poverty would do: I walked down the hallway
and knocked on the door of William Julius Wilson, the most eminent living scholar on the subject and the most
prominent African American in the field of sociology. He had been teaching at the U of C for nearly twenty years
and had published two books that reshaped how scholars and policy makers thought about urban poverty.
I caught Wilson just in time—he was about to go to Paris for a sabbatical. But he was also about to launch a new
research project, he said, and I could participate if I liked.
Wilson was a quiet, pensive man, dressed in a dark blue suit. Although he had stopped smoking his trademark
pipe long ago, he still looked like the kind of professor you see in movies. If you asked him a question, he’d often let
several long moments of silence pass—he could be more than a little bit intimidating—before offering a thoughtful
Wilson explained that he was hoping to better understand how young blacks were affected by specific
neighborhood factors: Did growing up as a poor kid in a housing project, for instance, lead to worse educational and
job outcomes than if a similarly poor kid grew up outside the projects? What about the difference between growing
up in a neighborhood that was surrounded by other poor areas and growing up poor but near an affluent
neighborhood? Did the latter group take advantage of the schools, services, and employment opportunities in the
richer neighborhoods?
Wilson’s project was still in the planning stages. The first step was to construct a basic survey questionnaire, and
he suggested I help his other graduate students in figuring out which questions to ask. This meant going back to
earlier studies of black youth to see what topics and questions had been chosen by earlier sociologists. Wilson gave
me a box of old questionnaires. I should experiment, he said, by borrowing some of their questions and developing
new ones as needed. Sociologists liked to use survey questions that their peers had already used, I learned, in order
to produce comparable results. This was a key part of the scientific method in sociology.
I thanked Wilson and went to the library to begin looking over the questionnaires he’d given me. I quickly
realized I had no idea how to interview anyone.
Washington Park, situated just across Cottage Grove Avenue from the U of C, is one of Chicago’s stateliest parks.
Designed in the 1870s by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, it has a beautiful swimming pool, indoor and
outdoor basketball courts, dazzling flower gardens, and long, winding paths that crisscross its nearly four hundred
acres. I liked to go running on the clay track that encircled the park, a track that decades earlier had hosted horse and
auto races. Until the 1940s the surrounding neighborhood was mainly Irish, but when black families started buying
homes nearby, most of the white families moved away. I was always surprised that the university actively dissuaded
its students from spending time in Washington Park. I failed to see the danger, at least in the daylight.
After my run I sometimes stopped by the broad, marshy lagoon in the middle of the park. The same group of old
black men, usually a half dozen or so, congregated there every day—playing cards, drinking beer, fishing for bass
and perch in the lagoon. I sat and listened to them for hours. To this point I had had little exposure to AfricanAmerican culture at all, and no experience whatsoever in an urban ghetto. I had moved to Chicago just a year earlier
from California, where I’d attended a predominantly white college situated on the beach, UC San Diego.
I had been reading several histories of Chicago’s black community, and I sometimes asked these men about the
events and people of which I’d read. The stories they told were considerably more animated than the history in the
books. They knew the intricacies of machine politics—whom you had to befriend, for instance, to get a job or a
building permit. They talked about the Black Panther Party of their youth and how it was radically different from
today’s gangs. “The Panthers had breakfast programs for kids, but these gangs just shoot ’em and feed ’em drugs,”
one man lamented. I already knew a bit about how the Panthers operated in Chicago during the civil-rights era. What
little I knew about modern gangs, however, came from the movies and newspapers—and, of course, the constant
cautions issued by the U of C about steering clear of certain neighborhoods.
I was particularly intrigued by the old men’s views on race, which boiled down to this: Whites and blacks would
never be able to talk openly, let alone live together. The most talkative among them was Leonard Combs, a.k.a. Old
Time. “Never trust a white man,” he told me one day, “and don’t think black folk are any better.”
Old Time came to Washington Park every day with his fishing gear, lunch, and beer. He wore a tired beige fishing
hat, and he had lost so many teeth that his gums smacked together when he spoke. But he loved to talk, especially
about Chicago.
“We live in a city within a city,” he said. “They have theirs and we have ours. And if you can understand that it
will never change, you’ll start understanding how this city works.”
“You mean whites and blacks will never get along?” I asked.
A man named Charlie Butler jumped in. “You got two kinds of whites in this city,” he said, “and two kinds of
blacks. You got whites who’ll beat you if you come into their neighborhood. They live around Bridgeport and on the
Southwest Side. Then you got another group that just won’t invite you in. They’ll call the police if you come in their
neighborhood—like where you live, in Hyde Park. And the police will beat you up.”
Charlie was a retired factory worker, a beefy man with tattooed, well-developed arms, a college football star from
long ago. Charlie sometimes came to Hyde Park for breakfast or lunch at one of the diners where other blacks hung
out, but he never stayed past sun-down and he never walked on residential streets, he said, since the police would
follow him.
“What about blacks?” I asked.
“You got blacks who are beating their heads trying to figure out a way to live where you live!” Charlie continued.
“Don’t ask me why. And then you got a whole lot of black folk who realize it ain’t no use. Like us. We just spend
our time trying to get by, and we live around here, where it ain’t so pretty, but at least you won’t get your ass beat.
At least n…
Purchase answer to see full

Submit a Comment