Inside a Notorious Street Gang

You may know sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh from the 2005 best seller "Freakonomics": he inspired the chapter on why crack dealers live at home with their moms. The chapter was based on seven years Venkatesh spent trailing actual dealers inside one of Chicago's most notorious housing projects. As a first-year graduate student at the University of Chicago, in 1989, Venkatesh was eager to impress. And so, with a tie-dye T shirt and a clipboard, the young academic walked into a notorious drug den and asked, "How does it feel to be black and poor?" Possible answers: "Very bad, somewhat bad, neither bad nor good."

Anyone less out-to-lunch would find the response to that question—"You got to be f---ing kidding me"—amusing, if not completely deserved. But ultimately, that awkward introduction earned Venkatesh access to the inner workings of Chicago's Black Kings gang, one of its leaders, identified only as J.T., and its citywide crack operation. Now a professor at Columbia University, Venkatesh has documented that experience in a compelling, albeit at times naive, new book, "Gang Leader for a Day" (Penguin).

The story gets off to a dramatic start, with Venkatesh describing in his preface a typical day in the Robert Taylor Homes, a high-rise housing project on Chicago's South Side. He wakes up at 7:30 a.m. in a crack den. Two dozen people are sprawled on the floor around him after a night of smoking crack, drinking, sex and vomiting. The walls are peeling, and roaches skitter across the linoleum floor. But then the story stalls: "Just another day in the ghetto," he writes. "Just another day as an outsider looking at life from the inside." And that's when we cringe.

For the most part, Venkatesh atones for his clichéd reflections with raw detail of what life inside these projects—at the height of the crack epidemic—is really like. And he's not oblivious to his own naiveté; he notes frequently that life in the projects is vastly different from his own upbringing in the suburbs of Southern California. But at times you wonder how an editor would let the widely accomplished, tenured Professor Venkatesh insert the musings of a clueless 23-year-old into a memoir written 20 years later. The title of the book is an odd choice, too, considering the single chapter to which it refers is probably the book's least climactic. (It starts by Venkatesh telling J.T. that his job as gang leader is easy; J.T., in turn, dares him to try it. They spend the next day making rounds and sorting out squabbles, but with Venkatesh largely in the background.) And the book's cover appears to either be a bout of self-obsession (it pictures Venkatesh staring menacingly, arms crossed across his chest) or a failed attempt at demonstrating street cred.

Nevertheless, Venkatesh gives readers a window into a way of life that few Americans understand, thanks largely to J.T., the college-educated, midlevel drug dealer who takes the writer under his wing. Venkatesh meets J.T. on that first day with his clipboard, to which J.T. responds, "I'm not black. I'm not African-American either. I'm a n--ger"—before holding him hostage for the night. But by the end, he'd "become the most formidable person in my life," the author writes.

Though Venkatesh admits to being dazzled by gang culture at first, confessing "it was pretty thrilling to have a gang boss calling me up to go hang out with him," the detail with which he's able to describe that life is captivating. One of the book's controversial points occurs when Venkatesh, joining a gang attack, kicks a man in a brawl—which, given his environs, could have been worse. But then we remember that he's a sociologist, and, as critics have wondered, where's the line between participant and observer? Venkatesh clarifies that he was coming to the aid of somebody being choked, and in doing so, kicked his attacker. "But the fact is," he tells NEWSWEEK, "I was sent out to study a very violent world, and there was no way I was not going to find myself in situations that were extremely unpleasant."

Long before Venkatesh arrived, Chicago's police had decided that the 4,400 apartments in the projects where Venkatesh conducted his research were too dangerous to patrol. Ninety percent of the adults there were on welfare, and there were just two social-service centers for nearly 20,000 children. The buildings themselves were falling apart, with at least a half dozen deaths caused by plunging elevators. Into that vacuum stepped the Black Kings and other gangs, making their money not just by selling drugs, but also by engaging in extortion, gambling, prostitution and countless other black-market schemes. "It was outlaw capitalism, and it ran hot," he writes.

Over time, though, Venkatesh begins to understand the interplay of politics and economics that keep the housing project operating despite the absence of city services. As one high-ranking gang member tells him, "we are a community organization, responding to people's needs." Venkatesh doesn't go that far, but does acknowledge the game is not all about power and money, as he professes in the first chapter. "In these poor circumstances, people sometimes turn to a gang for basic services," Venkatesh says. "There was no government, so the gang would help maintain the apartments. There was no security, so the gang provided escorts for the elderly. And residents hated that, but they had no choice."

Still, only the ultrahigh-ranking gang lords get rich. Low-level dealers barely make minimum wage, and many end up in jail or dead before they have the chance to move up. J.T., when Venkatesh meets him, makes about $30,000 a year, though he later makes much more. The irony, says Venkatesh now, is that J.T.—who put away his drug money and eventually left the gang—makes minimum wage in the legal market once again, helping his family with a number of businesses. Which brings us to the very question Venkatesh poses at the beginning of the book: to what do we owe our sources? "[Not] a day goes by where I'm not conscious of the ways I've made my career selling poverty," Venkatesh tells NEWSWEEK. "But ultimately, I think the best thing I can do is keep poverty on the map."