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by Alexander Cockburn in New Left Review, April 2008

Forty years ago the topic of slums was a lot hotter in the United States than it is now. The Cold War was on, and Soviet propaganda could make hay with America’s urban riots in the mid-1960s. The Black Panthers organized armed patrols, set up free schoolchildren’s breakfast programmes and formed alliances with such urban gangs as Chicago’s Blackstone Rangers. American radicals started organizing in the ghettoes. In 1966 Malcolm X—the man who really frightened America’s ruling orders—was assassinated, probably with police connivance, in New York. Amid the uprisings that followed Martin Luther King’s murder on April 4, 1968 the young Panther leader Bobby Hutton was gunned down by Oakland cops, having surrendered after a police onslaught on the house he was living in. In December of the following year the Chicago cops, with fbi assistance, murdered Panther leader Fred Hampton in his bed. It was open season on the Black Panthers, many of whom were killed. Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s vice president, advised a sense of distance from urban policy: ‘If you’ve seen one city slum you’ve seen them all’, he nonchalantly declared. Enlightened opinion duly looked the other way, and that is how it has been ever since.

When slum dwellers finally did press upon public attention, as the flood waters in New Orleans forced them onto the roofs of their homes and then onto the elevated stretches of Interstate 10, armed police blocked the exit ramps. Plans rapidly unfurled to knock down the big public-housing projects, bulldoze the low-income neighbourhoods and disperse the poor blacks into the hinterland. In New York, as Forrest Hylton described in a 2007 CounterPunch article—and Deborah and Rodrick Wallace before him, in A Plague on Your Houses (1999)—city agencies, the rand corporation and the intellectual artificers of ‘planned shrinkage’ conspired together as ‘finishers’ of whole neighbourhoods, even boroughs. Between 1970 and 1980, 1.3 million white people left the city and some 600,000 blacks and Latinos were displaced within it, as thousands of homes were confiscated, flattened by bulldozers or burned down in huge gentrification programmes. If you add up the forcible clearances of poor people across the past forty years, from New York and the East Coast across the heartlands and on to San Francisco and Los Angeles, you have a chronicle of forced displacements, totting up to many millions of people, which still continues.

Today, in sync with this historical arc, the vast slum projects on Chicago’s South Side known as the Robert Taylor Homes, setting for Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day, no longer exist. The bulldozers started rolling in the early 1990s, only thirty years after the mini-city of 28 high rises went up. It was constructed on French modernist principles, a 2-mile by 2-block concrete desert in which the Chicago Housing Authority had very loose authority over 27,000 people: 99.9 per cent black, 95 per cent jobless and on welfare, over 40 per cent of the heads of household being single mothers. Venkatesh’s colourful and sympathetic memoir is a snapshot, like those you see stuck on posts alongside American highways where a car or truck took its human cargo into the hereafter. This is not the reminiscence of a denizen of the Projects, but of a sociologist who encountered the Homes at the start of the 1990s in their terminal stage: dangerous and filthy, controlled by drug gangs, the cops present mostly to accept bribes or extort levies from the gangs at gunpoint.

Born in Madras and raised in comfortable middle-class academic circumstances in southern California, Venkatesh embarked on his PhD in sociology at the University of Chicago in 1989. The dominant figure in the department at that time was William Julius Wilson, famous for arguing in such books as When Work Disappears and The Truly Disadvantaged that, contrary to depictions of ghetto blacks in right-wing bestiaries, which spoke of psychological, intellectual and even genetic deficits, the core problem was work. Without stable, well-paid jobs, any community will slide downhill, with blacks at the bottom of the heap.

Venkatesh soon got bored poring over data sets and yearned to scrutinize actual poor people. In the case of the University of Chicago, as with many other top-tier American campuses, desperately poor black people were available for scrutiny only a few blocks away. Wilson was embarking on a big new study of poverty and told Venkatesh to put together a questionnaire and start interviewing. To the homeboys lounging about in the stairwells of the Projects, selling crack and fending off competition, Venkatesh must have been an odd sight: a tall, dark-skinned fellow with a pony-tail and a tie-dye shirt, memento of his Deadhead cultural affiliations, flourishing a researcher’s clipboard and asking, ‘How does it feel to be black and poor?’ They figure him as a member of a Mexican gang, or an Arab, and hold him till the gang leader, J. T., a college dropout with a talent for organizing, assays Venkatesh’s academic credentials, his origins, and in short order says he can stay around—thus setting Venkatesh on a path that would eventually lead him to Harvard and then to Columbia University. His ten years of research in the Robert Taylor Homes have already yielded two formal academic works: in 2000, American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto; and in 2006, Off the Books: the Underground Economy of the Urban Poor; as well as a documentary, DisLocation, in 2005. That same year, he made a much-noticed appearance in chapter 3 (‘Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?’) of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s best-selling Freakonomics, about the economics of crack cocaine at the retail level.

Venkatesh does little more than gesture in a sentence or two about how exactly he earned the trust of J. T. and other powerful people in the Projects, such as the tenant leader, Ms Bailey. In keeping with this laconic, understated mode—one has the sense now and then of a book written in something of a hurry—he does not broach the subject of his own ethnic origins, but it obviously helped that he is not white. At all events, the laid-back personality that led J. T. and others to trust young Sudhir emerges clearly from his descriptions—at once sympathetic and detached—of slum life and the endless battles of the very poor to make it to the end of the day in one piece. His dry Indian eye allows him to sketch in vivid detail the entrepreneurial hive at the Robert Taylor Homes.

The Projects come alive in Venkatesh’s glancing descriptions: urine-soaked stairwells inhabited by squatters and cruised by hookers; the 16-storey buildings’ bleak outside corridors savaged by Chicago’s winter winds; welcoming apartments in which heroic mothers raise their kids and cram Sudhir’s plate with soul food as he writes up his notes. His posture is genuinely one of respect. The gang members are not the ‘superpredators’ demonized by the right-wing criminologists who dominated discussions of the ghetto and of the justice system’s stance toward gangs in the late 1980s and 90s. They are humans given scant choices. ‘You want to understand how black folks live in the Projects’, Ms Bailey tells Venkatesh. ‘Why we are poor. Why we have so much crime. Why we can’t feed our families. Why our kids can’t get work when they grow up. So will you be studying white people?’

Declining a pose of moral affront, Venkatesh’s particular talent is to have figured out how the building functions as a collective business enterprise; how the truly desperate squeeze a hundred dollars a month out of recycling trash; how the hookers rate their services. He had one huge stroke of good fortune in the form of a secret gift of the gang’s business accounts, conscientiously maintained by J. T.’s bookkeeper, T-Bone. Using T-Bone’s notebook, he established exactly what the junior drug vendors in J. T.’s army—the Black Kings—were making: minimum wage, hence the need to live with their moms. J. T. himself was pulling down from $30,000 a year, up to as much as $100,000 at his apex. The books methodically recorded the levies extorted by the gang from local shopkeepers, from the squatters, from the hookers. Venkatesh explains how a vast urban slum was actually governed by innumerable quid pro quos and intricate contracts which, being unwritten and with the rule of law not accessible to its inhabitants, were enforced by the threat or the direct exercise of violence.

Adopting a modified Candidean posture as the West Coast naïf in darkest Chicago, Venkatesh lets the reader know early on that, yes, he witnessed more or less mutely some bad stuff, initially when J. T. beats up an elderly squatter called C-Note who refuses to quit working on a car in an area the gang want to use for basketball:

‘I told you, nigger’, J. T. said, his face barely an inch away from C-Note’s, ‘but you just don’t listen, do you?’ He sounded exasperated but there was also a sinister tone to his voice I’d never heard before. ‘Why are you making this harder?’ He started slapping C-Note on the side of the head, grunting with each slap, C-Note’s head flopping back and forth like a toy . . . then J. T.’s henchmen pushed him to the ground. They took turns kicking him, one in the back and the other in the stomach . . .

It takes C-Note two months to recover from the beating. Venkatesh writes a few pages later:

J. T. and I resumed our normal relationship . . . I kept my questions to myself . . . While I was by no means comfortable watching drug addicts smoke crack, the C-Note affair gave me greater pause. He was an old man in poor health; he could hardly be expected to defend himself against men twice his size and half his age, men who also happened to carry guns . . . But I didn’t do anything. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t confront J. T. about it until some six months later, and even then I did so tentatively.

This observer/participant theme weaves its way uncertainly through the book. Venkatesh’s academic advisors remind him that witness of criminal activities renders him liable to subpoenas and even charges of criminal conspiracy. More experienced ethnographers caution him against excessive involvement with his subjects. Venkatesh’s own entrepreneurial instincts prompt him to assert too shrilly the originality of his research methods (i.e., directly observing poor people), and also to contrive the signally unconvincing chapter that gives the book its title, Gang Leader for a Day. It is plain enough that Venkatesh was nothing of the sort. Under the careful eye of J. T. and his lieutenants, he is allowed to make a few inconsequential decisions before surrendering the imaginary role.

It is as a participant that Venkatesh makes the astounding move of revealing to J. T. and Ms Bailey the actual earnings disclosed to him by the small-time hustlers, hookers and marginal players, whose confidence he has fostered down the years. Furious at the news of tiny profits undeclared to them, J. T. and Ms Bailey promptly exact retribution, thus earning Venkatesh the well-merited suspicion of his erstwhile informants. Remorseful across several pages, he never really explains his shameful conduct, and one can only conclude that it was the pride of the business analyst that led him on. He could not resist strutting his stuff to J. T. and Ms Bailey.

History sidles briefly into the book. Old black men muse nostalgically about the days of the Black Panthers, who offered the ghetto social services along with incendiary politics. An older woman, Cordella Levy, recalls how women used to run social life in the Projects before the possibility of decent local employment disappeared and the drug gangs came in, establishing the cash nexus and rule of force as the motor of social relations. ‘It was a time for women’, Levy says, ‘a place for women. The men ruined everything.’ This brings us back to young men like J. T., who beats up C-Note. Eventually Venkatesh asks him why, and J. T. answers: ‘C-Note was challenging my authority . . . I had niggers watching me, and I had to do what I had to do’. The sense of insecurity and impermanence—in jobs, relationships, lodging, life itself—that so imbues the lives of poor people takes over Venkatesh’s book in its final chapters. The Robert Taylor Homes are scheduled for demolition, and amid the rubble lies J. T.’s empire, as a federal onslaught puts many of the Black Kings behind bars. There is uplifting talk about new and improved housing opportunities for the displaced residents, but the reality is the same as the fate of the poor of New Orleans: dismal exile to remote and squalid lodgings or trailer parks, torn from all familiar ties, as the old Projects are pulled down to make way for gentrification.

Venkatesh says that T-Bone got ten years for drug trafficking and died in prison. (He gave a slightly different account in Freakonomics.) J. T. gets out of the gang business, but his barbershop fails. He thought he was going to be the hero of Venkatesh’s book, but presumably by now has realized that this was a role the author had reserved for himself, crowing on the last page that he was ‘a rogue sociologist, breaking conventions and flouting the rules’. Of course, the roguery has done him no end of good, and Gang Leader for a Day will probably end up as a movie. And the moral is . . . But no, there is no moral of the sort Venkatesh’s supervisor William Julius Wilson might have written about how to fight poverty.

Both of Venkatesh’s earlier books, published by Harvard, are less glitzy and substantively more interesting than Gang Leader for a Day. Politically, they are less muted, locating their material against the backdrop of the institutional racism of us society. American Project is the quasi-academic precursor to Gang Leader for a Day, with an introduction by Wilson and a useful complement of notes and citations situating Venkatesh’s research in contexts less vulgar than the preening ‘rogue sociologist’ of this latest work—whose genealogy can be swiftly traced to the ‘rogue economist’ Steven Levitt, preening on the cover of the irksome and similarly vulgar Freakonomics. Venkatesh’s Off the Books is a very interesting portrait of ten blocks on Chicago’s South Side, with valuable material about the city’s politics in relation to the urban poor. The discussions of the limited impact of Mayor Harold Washington and the sympathetic account of the community preachers are among the book’s memorable pages.

By contrast, the Venkatesh of Gang Leader for a Day is a hustler, perhaps hoping to clamber into the pop-sociological big-time. It is still an interesting memoir, with a thoroughly modern, albeit rather chill feel, rather like the new name for the low-rise mixed-use development that has replaced the Robert Taylor Homes—themselves named for a 1940s crusader for decent housing for blacks in Chicago. The new zone is called ‘Legends South’.

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