In 1989, when Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociology student enters Robert Taylor home projects in Chicago, he was just planning to administer a questionnaire on life and poverty in those urban ghettos. But he ends up living the life of an outsider there (with privileges of observation one can say) for the next one decade. He befriends J.T., the gang leader of the Black Kings, a local group involving in a chain of activities including drug dealing, prostitution etc. Then follows his experiences which tests his own ideals. Is he an impassive inert academician or an earnest intruder? Things get pretty complex when he tries not to pick a stance.
The highpoint of the book is when J.T. gives him the reigns of the gang for one day to prove to him that being a gang leader is not about sheer muscle power, but it’s all about business skills. The kind of decisions that test Venkatesh include deciding which among his groups would clean up a building and avoiding loss and bad blood that would arise from it, finding and punishing a peddler who is mixing dope with impurities to make some profit for himself etc.
These memoirs really give insights into the life on the back side of the high rises. The struggle for survival, the daily turf games with corruption and armed gangs, the collectiveness hardened by hardships… This book is not about the author and how he naively navigates an hostile alien world. But the focus is on the painstaking earnest account of a world where a person’s only choice is between being poor and being a criminal. And this is not fiction.