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Just finished reading this book. I had first heard about this book when I saw Sudhir Venkatesh as a guest in Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. That interview piqued my interest, though it took me some time to finally get around to reading the book. Its an unputdownable book and though my mind was pre-occupied with several other issues, I finished the book in a single weekend! Its the best non-fiction and sociology book that I have read in a long time. Though it is non-fiction, it kept me absorbed like any best selling thriller.
Sudhir Venkatesh wrote the book as a graduate student at the University of Chicago working towards his PhD in Sociology while doing a survey on poverty in the projects in Chicago in 1989. The projects are similar to slum-clearance tenements in urban India. His book covers the period from 1989 – 96. Venkatesh articulates some of my own dissatisfaction with the academic world. For a great section of the people, graduate school and the vast number of academic papers published are far removed from the realities of their life and benefits them very little or none whatsoever. This is exactly the point the book stresses.
When Sudhir started his graduate studies at the University of Chicago, he was eager to start doing some field work, and to help out his professors with their research. Armed only with a survey and a clipboard, he naively went out to one of the worst projects in the city and tried to start asking questions ("How do you feel about being black and poor? A: pretty good; B, mostly good; C: indifferent….") Local gang members quickly corralled him and held him until their boss came by to check him out. That boss, J.T. was a local gang leader, and having graduated from college himself, he was able to quickly decide that Sudhir was less than dangerous unless to himself. J.T. then takes Sudhir under his wing, introduces him to people, lets it be known that Sudhir was under ‘protection’ so that his life would be safe, and allows him inside the gang to see how it operates, and how people lived in the Robert Taylor Homes, the most notorious projects in Chicago and in all of America. Sudhir sees regular beatings, a drive-by shooting, helps a stoned and sick hooker, and even sits in on a truce meeting between J.T. and another rival gang leader. J.T. eventually lets him be the leader of his gang for a day – hence the book’s title– and invites him to citywide meetings with the higher-ups in the gang. Sudhir took notes as he went along, and was privy to corruption, bad cops, failed urban renewal plans, and also to how the gangs were trying to position themselves as communities that helped all their people. The gang even helps by registering voters and contributing to school-supply funds and hosting basketball tournaments and picnics for the project residents.
Sudhir knows that these gang members are hustlers who make their living by selling drugs, resolving disputes and taking cuts from people whom they protect and help. He realizes he is no less a hustler as he is hustling them for information towards his thesis.
This is my best quote from the book that appears towards the end of the book:
“I’m not sure I’m ready for another big research project just yet," I said.
Oh Yeah?" J.T. said, handing me one of the beers. "What else you going to do? You can’t fix nothing , you never worked a day in your life. The only thing you know how to do is hang out with niggers like us."
I nearly choked on my beer when he summarized my capacities so succinctly – and, for the most part accurately.
I highly recommend this book. It shows how just one person can really make a difference, by allowing us and policy makers to understand a variety of complex and complicated issues about race, poverty and crime in America.
I am running the Chicago Marathon this year. I have also applied for the NYC Marathon, but it is a lottery and chances are slim. I did not win the lottery last year, so am not going to pin my hopes on New York. Shahid Kandrikar of Chennai Runners is registered for the Chicago marathon, so I will have company. I am sure I will find some other members from Asha Runners of NY/NJ participating in Chicago.
Now that I have a target race, I need to start preparing for it. My aim is to complete it under 5 hours. With regular training and some weight loss, I am confident of doing it. Though, I am not going to obsess about it. I run for fun, so the aim is to enjoy the Marathon and my visit to Chicago.