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King of the Projects


King of the Projects

January 18, 2008
OtherCulture & Society

As Hollywood has discovered, Americans have an endless fascination with drug gangs; witness the popularity of the television series "The Wire" and the film "American Gangster." Now Columbia sociology professor Sudhir Venkatesh has given us "Gang Leader for a Day," an unsettling memoir of his dissertation years studying a Chicago gang. The cover of Mr. Venkatesh's book shows the prof looking fiercely handsome in a leather jacket, and the book's opening line—"I woke up at about 7:30 a.m. in a crack den"—has a certain, well, cinematic quality.

Marketing aside, Mr. Venkatesh is actually not the star of his book. That honor falls to J.T., a charismatic, diamond-earringed and, yes, college-educated gang leader at Chicago's infamous Robert Taylor housing project during the crack epidemic of the 1990s. J.T. is a very modern sort of gangster. He is an ambitious middle manager climbing the ranks of a contemporary "corporate" gang of the sort that Mr. Venkatesh described in his previous and more conventional sociological tract, "Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor" (2006). J.T.'s gang, the Black Kings, even has a "Board of Directors"—their term—overseeing their operations, which include J.T.'s building and 200 other crack franchises in Chicago, as well as others as far afield as Missouri, Ohio and Iowa. Early in Mr. Venkatesh's account, J.T. has been invited to a "regional meeting," a sign of his rising status in the gang.

Of course, the illicitness of J.T.'s product and his own menacing persona give him far more power over his 'hood than any ordinary businessman over his company. In fact, J.T. runs the place. His gang provides the local government, filling in for the police, the housing authority, the ambulance service, and the IRS, all of whom are MIA. Gang members regulate all off-the-books business—e.g., prostitution, apartment and car repair—determining where and when it can operate; they extort money and services as well, including sex if so desired, and shake down legitimate shop owners along the way.

J.T. can be vicious—"everyone wants to kill the leader, so you got to get them first"—but he can't afford to be reckless. Violence keeps customers away and alienates tenants, who seem to accept gangocracy as Situation Normal. As Mr. Venkatesh tells it, the acquiescence of the housing-project residents is fatalistic but, under the circumstances, rational. J.T. is their only ticket to a measure of stability and security; he keeps prostitutes out of the playgrounds, provides protection from outside gangs, punishes common thieves and abusive johns, and subsidizes local churches and organizations, who in return tolerate—and prop up—the Black Kings.

Chicago's now-demolished Robert Taylor Homes, once the largest public-housing project in the world—and the site of Sudhir Venkatesh's research on urban gang life.

This corrupt eco-system sometimes yields moments that lighten the depredations of "Gang Leader for a Day," moments that are more Tom Wolfe than Emile Durkheim. J.T., who insists that his young employees get a high-school diploma if they want to continue to sell crack cocaine, often holds forth about how he is "helping our community." In one episode, he sends his crew to voter-education classes and encourages them to register local voters. The students duly knock on doors with their spiral notebooks—and then inform residents that "we'll tell you who to vote for when the time comes." That the voter-education classes are run by a community organization supported by Black Kings' drug money caps the absurdity of the scene.

Mr. Venkatesh sketches other characters who seem straight out of Mr. Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities": Ms. Bailey, the bossy, portly, 50-ish building liaison with the Chicago Housing Authority who takes donations (and sexual favors) from gang members half her age and capriciously doles out her stash to local residents; Clarisse, a prostitute and junkie, who somehow manages to keep a tidy apartment adorned with framed pictures of Jesus for her two young children; and Ms. Mae, J.T's mother, who listens to Christian radio and wears an apron saying "God Bless" while she serves food to hordes of neighbors but who appears indifferent toward her son's brutality.

And then there is Mr. Venkatesh himself, or "Mr. Professor," as he comes to be known to Taylorites. Mr. Venkatesh sometimes presents himself as the country mouse, a middle-class naïf who carries a clipboard and asks, "How does it feel to be black and poor?," offering multiple-choice answers: "Very bad, somewhat bad, neither bad nor good." But he also tries to explore the moral ambiguity of his relationship with his subjects. He is alarmed to find himself a player in the events around him, some of them rather sinister. At one point this doctoral student from the University of Chicago, via boyhood in the Southern California suburbs, realizes that, in the heat of an adrenalin-drenched moment, he has kicked a thug who has been grounded by a vigilante militia of squatters.

'Sick and Tired'

Yet for all his efforts at self-consciousness, Mr. Venkatesh doesn't seem to grasp how fully he implicates himself in the world he is describing. In fact, the researcher looks very much like a wannabe. Yes, he recognizes the brutality of the gang world, but he is also exhilarated by it. He acknowledges that there is a murky line separating the drug addicts, sellers and prostitutes of the Robert Taylor projects from the more respectable residents, many of whom—as either recreational crack users or relatives and friends of gang members, or both—are complicit in the Black Kings' criminality. But in his approach to his subject, the author may cross a line himself.

After a 9-year-old girl is shot and killed during a drive-by, Mr. Venkatesh goes to a town meeting where residents yell at police, declaring that they are "sick and tired of living like this." That's about all we hear from such folks. Mr. Venkatesh admits that some residents are afraid to talk to him because they view him as a Black Kings' ally. From his study, you would never guess that there are people out there who don't view the gang as family, however irksome, and the police as adversaries.

In other words, Mr. Venkatesh sells us J.T's intelligence and charisma and Ms. Mae's homey warmth by reducing the gang-induced suffering of less colorful characters to small print or suffering silence. We may enter the lives of J.T., his lieutenant T-Bone and Clarisse the prostitute, but the people demanding police protection and lamenting the fate of that dead 9-year-old? They shall remain nameless. "You want to act like a saint," Ms. Bailey tells Mr. Venkatesh, but like everyone else in the projects, "you're a hustler." She's got a point.