Twenty-eight years later, I returned to a ravaged and bullet-scarred Robert Taylor Homes to write for this newspaper about how the project stretching 28 blocks along State Street was due for demolition. Whenever it occurs that Venkatesh is being voyeuristic, turning a blind eye to the ravages of crack, romanticising the gang lifestyle or endorsing it just by being there, he points out that very doubt himself. The two self-observations Venkatesh fails to make, however, are: his unpleasant equation of black life with crime and his estimable phlegmatic attitude to violence and squalor. Page casually carries a crack recipe, while a shoot-out, oral sex in a church car park in lieu of cash or brass knuckles in a gut are ways to describe individuals, not big deals in themselves.
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Preface Sudhir Venkatesh, a graduate student in sociology at the University of Chicago, begins Gang Leader for a Day by describing a crack den in a project on the South Side of that city. Sudhir says he is not there to do drugs, but to observe people as they buy them, do them, and sell them. Sudhir structures his narrative as a series of observations on lower-class urban, predominantly African-American, society, combined with a description of how and why he came to study this particular group.
JT, who Sudhir discovers runs a sub-group of a larger Chicago gang called the Black Kings BKs , tells Sudhir that he can only learn about their lives if he returns and observes them living. Sudhir does this the next day, offering JT a beer and asking if he can follow JT around. JT introduces Sudhir to his mother, Ms. Sudhir also meets, through JT, people like Ms. Bailey, a semi-crooked elected official who benefits both herself and those around her in agitating for better conditions in the projects.
Similarly, he begins shadowing Ms. Bailey after his advisers urge him to get a different, and more women-centric, understanding of the projects. And she makes sure that women and their families are cared for, especially when abusive men stop by, demanding money or other favors.
Sometimes Sudhir wonders at how Ms. But her assistant Catrina urges Sudhir to see Ms. Bailey on the whole as a giving, well-intentioned member of the Robert Taylor community. By the end of the book, Sudhir collects information on the gray-market and black-market economies of the gang — most notably, the drug-dealing ledgers dating back years, which T-Bone provides Sudhir with secretly. Sudhir uses this data to bolster his observational research on the doings and workings of the BKs within the Robert Taylor Homes.
But JT no longer has the power being a gang leader afforded him, as the money supporting the gang has largely dried up. Nevertheless, JT and Sudhir remain close, if not exactly friends, and the book ends with Sudhir thanking JT for the insight he has provided in an overall picture of working-class life on the South Side.
Schlegel, Chris. Retrieved March 10, Copy to Clipboard.
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At home with the Black Kings