Gang Leader for a Day

Finding this book is one of the reasons I love browsing in bookstores. I was in the business section at Crossword and this book was hidden away behind some of the other books, at the back. Two copies. Classifying a book about drug gangs in the business section is creative but Gang Leader for a Day is more about the business (unintentional pun) of observing people, i.e. sociology.

If you read Freakonomics, you’d have heard of Sudhir Venkatesh. He’s the guy that studied drug gangs in Chicago and the chapter that deals with why drug dealers stay with their moms is based on his work.

Sudhir Venkatesh clearly has cojones. In his quest to find interview subjects, he finds himself trapped by gang members in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes projects. Somehow, he manages to pique the interest of J.T., the leader of the Black Kings gang.

The book is about how he gains JT’s trust, the way the gang operates, the appalling condition of the projects and the people living there, and the machinations of Ms. Bailey, the president of the building. Oh yeah, and JT makes him gang leader for a day as well.

GLFAD is a fascinating book and is like a thriller — I really could not put the book down. Though you sometimes wonder about the decisions Venkatesh takes, it is an honest look at life in the midst of poverty and drugs.

I also wonder if the field of sociology was shaken up by what Venkatesh did, the equivalent of embedded reporting in a field that typically gathered data using surveys and analyzed data using statistical models.

Brilliant book and if you look behind the shelves at Crossword, you just might find a copy.

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