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For more than five years in the early 1990s, Sudhir Venkatesh, a graduate student in the University of Chicago’s Department of Sociology, practically took up residence in the Robert Taylor Homes, widely viewed as the poorest and most dangerous public housing in the country. He was there to gather data for a dissertation on the underground economy operating in the shadow of the Chicago Housing Authority. (His findings on the economics of drug dealing became the basis for the chapter “Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?” in Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.)
In the process of his research, Venkatesh forged a remarkable friendship with a man he calls J.T., a charismatic, college-educated leader of the Black Kings, a crack-dealing gang that ran the 16-story high-rise that was the focal point of Venkatesh’s work. A product of the Robert Taylor Homes—his mother still lived there—J.T. provided Venkatesh with unprecedented access to gang life in the projects, as well as entrée into the lives of hundreds of tenant families and “off-the-books” squatters. Venkatesh—now a professor of sociology and journalism at Columbia University in New York—presents a highly personal account of his experience in his new book, Gang Leader for a Day (being published in January by Penguin Press).
Raised in the predominantly white, privileged suburbs around universities in Syracuse and Irvine—his father is a business school professor—Venkatesh, now 41, had had little contact with African Americans or poverty before moving to Chicago. By his own account a geek in college, in graduate school at the U. of C. he came under the tutelage of the sociologist William Julius Wilson (now at Harvard), who helped educate him about race and poverty.
The start of Venkatesh’s fieldwork was predictably rocky. In the first building he tried to canvass, J.T.’s soldiers waylaid him at knifepoint and held him prisoner for nearly 24 hours, thinking he was a spy for a rival gang. Before ordering his men to release the shaken researcher, J.T. offered a bit of advice: In the projects, you’ve got to get to know folks before asking a lot of personal questions. Venkatesh returned to J.T.’s building that same afternoon, and he kept going back until J.T., impressed by his gumption, brought him into the heart of his veiled, complex world. Along the way, Venkatesh witnessed crack deals, drug abuse, assaults, and drive-by shootings—as well as acts of extraordinary generosity and sacrifice.
He discussed his experience at an apartment not far from his office at Columbia. This transcript has been edited, and, as in the book, the names of people and of the gang have been changed.
Photograph: Peter Ross