February 16, 2008
Book Alert II: Sudhir Venkatesh - Gang Leader for a Day
Over at Counterpunch, Vijay Prasad reviews Gang Leader for a Day by his old college roommate Sudhir Venkatesh. The paper Steven Levitt co-authored with Mr Venkatesh on the finances of crack-dealing gangs features in Mr Levitt's and Stephen Dubner's diverting tome Freakonomics (although I've just noticed you can read the original paper here as a pdf file) and Mr Venkatesh's new book sounds just as fascinating.
Ensconced in the world of the Robert Taylor homes, Sudhir comes to see a major gap between the lived reality of the people and the scholarly-media images of them. Sociological categories such as anomie (even anarchy) and the culture of poverty do not capture the rule-based lives of these cast out Americans. Capital fled the ghetto, industrial investment dried up with globalization (and the factories remain as abandoned mausoleums), and retail investment rushed to the suburbs leaving space for small family shops (bodegas) whose economic survival is premised upon the sale of liquor, the lottery and the prevention of petty theft. Humans abhor a social vacuum, and into this wasteland came not only the drug-profit fueled gangs but also "off the books" entrepreneurs and community leaders. They provided a measure of order: the policing is done by the gang soldiers and the women who emerge as building leaders. These gangs became the "de facto administration" of the buildings, and even as the leader "may have been a lawbreaker, he was very much a lawmaker as well." Drug sales funnel jobs into the neighborhood, and to earn the trust of the residents, the drug kingpins become the main social welfare agency (they are assisted by women like Ms. Bailey who, in a patron-client way, distribute goods that they leverage out of local businesses). There are some startling revelations here, when Sudhir reports how families pool their resources to survive: if on one floor, an apartment has a fridge and another has a shower, if one has an air conditioner and another has a working toilet, the families simply use each others' utilities and treat the floor like one big house, with their families as one large joint family. The elements of social solidarity are all over these spaces, and Sudhir is keen to show us this. The vision of social devastation has to be altered or else a sense of futility sets in when policy makers turn their eyes to the ghetto.