The story of a man who hung out with cocaine peddlers for his PhD and the discovery that a gang is, in a way, run like a company.
The Times of India
The Rogue Sociologist
24 Mar 2008
It's a question that preoccupies any speculator. Should you lock in the price for a commodity now and hope for a favourable price later, or risk a price increase in the future? When Sudhir Venkatesh was asked his advice about that he was taken aback. The commodity in question was a kilo of cocaine. It finally sank in that he was not just working on his PhD in sociology. He was also hanging out with a gang that sold cocaine.
Venkatesh grew up in the tidy suburbs of southern California, the son of immigrant parents. His father hoped he would study bioengineering. Instead, Venkatesh, who calls himself "a nerd with a pocket protector", ended up in the most notorious housing projects of Chicago and spent seven years hanging out there in rundown apartments where drug dealers loitered in the stairwells. After his latest book, Gang Leader for a Day-A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets came out, Venkatesh, now a professor at Columbia University, says, "Now I am getting emails from my mother saying, 'I am glad you didn't tell me 10 years ago'."
In his first year in graduate school, Venkatesh was trying to gauge the impact of the neighbourhood they lived in on the lives of young black men. To do that he showed up at one of the housing projects of Chicago armed with nothing but a clipboard and a survey. The men he stumbled upon, hanging out in hallways reeking of urine, peddling drugs in broad daylight, did not take too kindly to this stranger. In their black and white world, he was pegged as a member of a Mexican gang. They held him hostage overnight, and threatened to kill him.
Luckily the leader, JT, had actually been to college and even taken some sociology classes. He hated them. But at least he believed Venkatesh. He told him to be careful about where he went in Chicago. But he also gave him one bit of advice. If he really wanted to find out about the lives of young men on the street he needed to spend time with them, instead of handing out "silly-ass" surveys.
So Venkatesh showed up and asked if he could do just that. Over the next seven years he found himself in the heart of the underground economy, watching JT run drugs, manage his gang (The Black Kings) and learning how people survived in the giant Robert Taylor public housing project-28 high-rise buildings, 16 storeys each, 4,321 apartments, home to nearly 30,000 people. "Seventy percent were women and children," says Venkatesh. "And they had to hide the men because they would otherwise lose public assistance." There were no jobs to be had. Venkatesh says that in the 1960s, 70 per cent were working families. By the time he showed up it was down to eight percent.
What was there was a drug economy and people trying to live around it. He met women who encouraged their children to pee in the dark stairwells to keep prostitutes from meeting their clients there. Others ran candy stores in their homes since there were no real stores around. If anyone was hurt, no one bothered to call an ambulance because they would never show up here. Instead you called the tenant leader who called someone she knew at the hospital. When a family lost its door in the middle of the Chicago winter, JT sent his boys to act as sentry in front of the apartment. The gangs were the ones to provide money for school books and clothes. "The gang was looked on as a resource because the government wasn't there," says Venkatesh.
Violence could erupt at a moment's notice. Venkatesh remembers making a U-turn in his car and getting shot at because someone thought he was getting ready to do a driveby shooting. He watched JT beat up underlings who he thought were lying. On the other hand he also saw how the gangs emulated corporations. "People made minimum wage at the bottom and hundreds of thousands of dollars at the top," he says. The gangs had a 'board of directors' except they tended to be men in prison who ran the gang's operations from behind bars. And as he tailed JT, watching him run the gang, manage 200 employees, making sure supplies were moving, it was like watching any businessman run a franchise like McDonald's. "The one exception being that if you spent four years in the gang you have a 25 percent chance of dying," observes Venkatesh.
Venkatesh got out unscathed and received his PhD JT, miraculously, never went to prison. After the projects were torn down, he ended up running small legit businesses. These days Venkatesh is studying underground economies in other parts of the world, like the immigrant heavy ban lieus of France that exploded a couple of years ago. He says the housing projects of Chicago were an extreme case but he can see commonalities everywhere-"Despair and alienation. So much of the underground economy is not about survival but feeling you just don't have a place in the mainstream."