I just finished reading Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh. Venkatesh tells a gripping tale of research and people in Chicago’s projects, specifically the Robert Taylor Homes. Chicago’s projects have long been known for their drugs, poverty, gangs, and simply put high crime rates. Built over 40 years ago, all 53 projects are slated for demolition by 2009. Many are already gone. Robert Taylor Homes housed around 27,000 people and one site estimated that about 40,000 people will be displaced after the demolition is complete.
Gang Leader for a Day tells Venkatesh’s story of wanting to learn about these places next to the University of Chicago that were off limits or dangerous according to campus security. In a manner reminiscent of Jane Jacobs, Venkatesh questioned the common knowledge of what was bad and decided to explore it for himself.
Despite the drugs, crime, and poverty, one thing he found was a network of people who were more interested in community than the Southern California suburbs where he grew up. Although each relationship he encountered was entrenched with hustling and politics, there was an ingrained knowledge of how to survive given the limitations of place. Another striking thing he found was that the gang organization ran much like a typical business, save the more blatant need for violence. Mediations and everyday decisions were similar to that which needs to be answered by any V.P. of any company. In fact, the gang leader whom he followed for nearly a decade did begin his career in legitimate business. Motivations to go home and the prosperity of making more in illegal business were driving factors.
The question that led me to read this book was if gang leaders run their organizations much the same as CEOs of major corporations, is the only thing separating them environmental factors? People have long studied other Chicago projects such as Cabrini Green, and currently I am also reading about Jacob’s take on the Death and Life of Great American Cities. So, a question that arises is how do we create better places, healthier places? One thing I’ve looked at in my schooling was how volunteer rates affect communities. In communities where volunteer rates are higher, basic quality of life increases. Gang Leader alluded to the affect of fewer volunteers and its affect on the community. With a lower volunteer base throughout the 80s, it became harder to find answers, the Chicago Housing Authority continued to be further strapped for cash and resources, and in an era when politicians continue to look for a quick fix… good answers for the people most severely affected by poverty seem pretty hard to come by.
Gang Leader left me with more questions than it answered. One thing Venkatesh answered clearly was that we cannot find answers to these looming questions with surveys, one-on-one conversations are a must. So, in order to answer these questions of improving place and finding out how it really feels to be black and poor we will have to engage in dialog. Maybe that is the only important thing to learn. Let’s take off our sociology hats and other expert hats and simply sit down for dinner, like one Ms. Mae would be proud of.