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Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets


Edited by Ann Godoff

New York Times Bestseller

First introduced in Freakonomics, here is the full story of Sudhir Venkatesh, the sociology grad student who infiltrated one of Chicago’s most notorious gangs.

The story of the young sociologist who studied a Chicago crack-dealing gang from the inside captured the world’s attention when it was first described in FreakonomicsGang Leader for a Day is the fascinating full story of how Sudhir Venkatesh managed to gain entrée into the gang, what he learned, and how his method revolutionized the academic establishment.

When Venkatesh walked into an abandoned building in one of Chicago’s most notorious housing projects, he was looking for people to take a multiple-choice survey on urban poverty. A first-year grad student hoping to impress his professors with his boldness, he never imagined that as a result of the assignment he would befriend a gang leader named JT and spend the better part of a decade inside the projects under JT’s protection, documenting what he saw there.

Over the next seven years, Venkatesh got to know the neighborhood dealers, crackheads, squatters, prostitutes, pimps, activists, cops, organizers, and officials. From his privileged position of unprecedented access, he observed JT and the rest of the gang as they operated their crack-selling business, conducted PR within their community, and rose up or fell within the ranks of the gang’s complex organizational structure.

In Hollywood-speak, Gang Leader for a Day is The Wire meets Harvard University. It’s a brazen, page turning, and fundamentally honest view into the morally ambiguous, highly intricate, often corrupt struggle to survive in what is tantamount to an urban war zone. It is also the story of a complicated friendship between Sudhir and JT—two young and ambitious men a universe apart.

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Praise

“Riveting.” —The New York Times

“Compelling…Venkatesh gives readers a window into a way of life that few Americans understand.” —Newsweek

“Venkatesh demonstrates natural curiosity, a sometimes comic innocence, and utter fearlessness.” Entertainment Weekly

“The achievement of Gang Leader for a Day is to give the dry statistics a raw, beating heart.” The Boston Globe

Gang Leader for a Day provides an in-depth look at an economy, a culture, a community that most of America doesn’t see—and thus can’t understand—because it takes time, years in this case, to win the kind of access necessary to tell the full story.” New York Post

“Venkatesh is present for just about all the kinds of things on fears could happen in the projects, and then some.” —The Nation

“Mr. Venkatesh is to be applauded for his path-breaking work and his compelling exposition.” The New York Sun

Gang Leader for a Day is not another voyeuristic look into the supposedly tawdry, disorganized life of the black poor. Venkatesh entered the Chicago gang world at the height of the crack epidemic and what he found was a tightly organized community, held together by friendship and compassion as well as force. I couldn’t stop reading, and ended up loving this brave, reckless young scholar, as well as the gang leader JT, who has to be one of the greatest characters ever to emerge from something that could be called sociological research.” —Barbara Ehrenreich

Gang Leader for a Day is an absolutely incredible book. Sudhir Venkatesh’s memoir of his years observing life in Chicago’s inner city is a book unlike any other I have read, equal parts comedy and tragedy. How is it that a naive suburban kid ends up running a crack gang (if only for a day) on his way to becoming one of the world’s leading scholars? You have to read it to find out, but heed this warning: don’t pick up the book unless you have a few hours to spare because I promise you will not be able to put it down once you start.” Steven D. Levitt, co-author, Freakonomics

“This extraordinary book features the fascinating research of a brilliant young sociologist. Sudhir Venkatesh spent several years closely interacting with crack-selling gang members and struggling poor residents in a large and very dangerous public housing project in Chicago. His riveting portrait of day-to-day life in this poor community, including the challenges confronting parents in a drug-infested and violent social environment, is disturbing. But, Gang Leader for a Day is rich with original information and insights on poor families, drug dealers and even the police. It will leave an indelible impression on readers.” William Julius Wilson, Harvard University Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser Professor

“Whether you enjoy fiction, history, or biography you’ll be drawn to Venkatesh’s gripping retelling of his experiences in the Robert Taylor Homes. Gang Leader for a Day poignantly reminds us that there continue to be separate and unequal Americas that ultimately impact us all.” Congressman Jesse L. Jackson, Jr. (D-IL)

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Excerpt

As I came upon the high-rise, I saw the faint markings on the pale yellow brick: No. 4040. I was in the right place. The lobby was empty, so I quickly skirted past a set of distressed mailboxes, through a dank lobby. The elevator was missing entirely; there was a big cavity where the door should have been. The walls were thick with graffiti. As I started to climb the stairs, the smell of urine was overpowering. I walked up four floors, maybe five, trying to keep count, and then I came upon a landing where a group of young men were shooting dice for money.

“Nigger, what the fuck are you doing here?” one of them shouted. I tried to make out their faces but in the fading light I could barely see a thing.

I tried to explain. “I’m a student at the university, doing a survey, and I’m looking for some families.”

One guy, about my age, wearing an oversized baseball cap, grabbed my clipboard. “Julio over here says he’s a student,” he told everyone. Then he turned back to me. “Who do you represent?”

“Represent?” I asked.

“C’mon, nigger,” one of the younger men shouted. “We know you’re with somebody, just tell us who.”

Another guy pulled something out of his waistband. At first I couldn’t tell what it was, but then it caught a glint of light and I could see that it was a gun. He smiled. “You do not want to be fucking with the Kings,” he said. “I’d just tell us what you know.”

“Hold on, nigger,” another one said. He was holding a knife with a sixinch blade. He began twirling it around in his fingers, the handle spinning in his palm, and the strangest thought came over me: That’s the exact same knife my friend Brian used to dig a hole for our tent in the Sierra Nevadas. “Let’s have some fun with this boy. C’mon Julio, where you live? On the East Side, right? You don’t look like the West Side Mexicans.You flip right or left? Five or six? You run with the Kings, right? You know we’re going to find out, so you might as well tell us.”

Kings or Sharks, flip right or left, five or six. It appeared that I was Julio, the Mexican gang member from the East Side. It wasn’t clear yet if this was a good or bad thing.

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