Recommended Authors

If you like The Wire, read Gang Leader For A Day

The sensationalistic title of Sudhir Venkatesh‘s book, Gang Leader For A Day, is the only thing about it I dislike. In 1989, ponytailed and fresh from following the Dead, Venkatesh started out as a grad student at the University of Chicago. He wanted to study the impact of poverty, specifically on young black men growing up in projects. He decided the best way to learn that would be to go to a project and talk to some young black men.

The young men he found, who held him at gunpoint, were initially concerned that he might be part of a rival Mexican gang. But fortunately for him, and for us, the gang leader, a gentleman referred to within the book as J.T., decided that since Venkatesh had been courageous — and naive — enough to come into his world, J.T. would act as his patron, and let him hang around his building in the Robert Taylor Homes.

Venkatesh began by spending lots of time with J.T. and other gang members, but eventually broadened his research. From the first, it’s clear to me that the residents put up with him for three main reasons: his connection with J.T., the potential that he could do something for them, and the basic human need to tell their stories to an interested listener. I suspect that Venkatesh’s staggering naivete — initially genuine, but later used as a more deliberate strategy — was also key to convincing many people that he wasn’t a threat.

Until, that is, he became one. But I’ll leave that for readers to discover.

Serious Wire fans will be reminded of characters from the show. J.T. is sometimes reminiscent of Bodie, sometimes of Stringer Bell. The good cop, Officer Reggie, made me think of Carver — the post-Hamsterdam, mature Carver. As Venkatesh gets close to other groups within the building and learns the strategies they use to survive, fans will be nodding their heads, too.

Perhaps my favorite moment in the book is when the building manager, Ms. Bailey, calls Venkatesh out on his complicity. I also appreciate Venkatesh’s willingness to include his screwups, and his honesty in assessing his motives.

Like The Wire, Gang Leader For A Day tells compelling stories that aren’t often told, is frequently funny, and reveals uncomfortable truths about American society. I’ll be interested to see how the book is received.

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  • sarah
    January 17, 2008 at 11:19 am

    any thoughts on orson scott card winning the edwards award?

  • R. C. Beckom
    January 19, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    this is a very interesting article, my hat’s off to you dude, see I use to ran thru the Robert Taylor Home(51st &State to almost 55th .) myself as a teenager back in the ’60 and this was not an easy place to be yourself unless you had real courage. I like your story and I can tell that you was really there. thank you for showing what the real world looks like on the backside.