When Sudhir Venkatesh entered Chicago’s poorer neighborhoods as a graduate sociology student with a survey in hand, he inadvertently formed a relationship with JT, a gang member of the Black Kings instead. This allowed Venkatesh to tag along with the gang on their daily activities and to learn directly about life in the Robert Taylor Homes (these projects were later torn down in the late 1990s). Six years studying the Black Kings and the residents of Robert Taylor became the basis of Venkatesh’s research as well as this memoir.
First of all, I was fascinated by the perspective this book brought to poverty and gang life, showing an inside look of the day-to-day life instead of the overview that newspapers tend to give. Venkatesh details the different ways that the gang helped to regulate the projects, as well as the numerous activities that go beyond the drug business. He also discusses the lives of the residents and how they get by. For instance, Venkatesh discussed how it was rare for one apartment to have all working utilities because bribing was often required to keep these utilizes function; instead, one apartment would have a functioning stove, another apartment would have running showers, and another apartment would have refrigerators, with the residents of these apartments sharing their uses. Women would trade sex with store owners in exchange for free diapers and food. The residents never called 911 because police and ambulances never responded. The struggles of life in the projects are made personal and covered in depth.
As building president Mrs. Bailey puts it: “Let’s say I tell the police to stop coming to your block and to go only where I live. And then I write that you live in a crime-infested neighborhood, that there’s more crime on your block than mine. What would you say?”
However, I have a lot of mixed feelings about the author. Venkatesh depicts himself as a naïve grad student blindly wandering around the gang, but simultaneously prides himself as being a “rogue sociologist,” one who dares to immerse himself among his subjects (presumably compared to his office-bound, chart-making colleagues). The research itself seems very interesting, but this is his memoir, which means he gets to get nostalgic and to provide subjective conclusions about people and events. Conversations are reconstructed from memory and sometimes that’s far too obvious.
In addition, some of his methods just seemed off. He keeps most of his initial work secret and vague from his adviser and does not seek out any legal or research guidelines until a few years in. He misleads people about what his research actually is; his main source, JT the gang leader, is led to believe that Venkatesh is writing JT’s biography. Also, after gathering information from a variety of residents about how they make a living and how much money they make through various means, Venkatesh betrays this trust and shares the privately revealed information with JT and Mrs. Bailey, who promptly begin to tax the residents more based on this information. Although he is at least a few years into his project by this point, he tries to claim naiveté and eventually justifies it to himself by acknowledging that he too is a “hustler.”
Reading more Venkatesh (and other controversies he’s stirred up) makes me uneasy to fully trust his version of events, which is a problem for a memoir. Overall, the information present is very interesting, but I might have been better off reading Venkatesh’s actual published research instead of a semi-nostalgic, probably sensationalized memoir.