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Gang Leader For A Day

A Rogue Sociologist Crosses The Line

By Sudhir Venkatesh
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Gang Leader For A Day by Sudhir Venkatesh

Gang Leader For A Day is based on author Sudhir Venkatesh’s ten years of personal, in-depth research conducted on-site at the notorious Robert Taylor Homes public housing projects in Chicago. Ignored by city government and law enforcement, residents in the close-knit community rely only on local gangs and each other for basic services and social support.

Key idea 1 of 9

In the projects, even though everyone’s officially unemployed, entrepreneurship flourishes.

Official statistics state that as many as 96 percent of the residents in South Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes public housing project are unemployed.

Yet on the ground, the projects are actually abuzz with entrepreneurial activity.

Most women living in the projects earn money by offering some sort of services to other residents, such as taking care of children, preparing taxes, telling fortunes or even selling sex.

These are not high-paying jobs, however; babysitting might bring in some $5 to $10 per day.

Together, the women complement and support each other’s services. One might drive a car while another watches the driver’s children in return; a third might cook for both women, as they lack the time to shop during the day.

Tenants also pool resources to fix what’s broken, a common challenge as the Chicago Housing Authority is reluctant to repair broken appliances, such as water heaters or refrigerators.

Sometimes money is collected as a bribe to entice someone to fix a crucial item, so at least one working shower or stove is available for the group – and which everyone in the group shares.

But where are the guys? In addition to what men earn through being gang members, they also tend to earn other illicit income.

For men, manual labor like fixing cars in the project’s parking lot tends to be the most lucrative activity, but there are other possibilities.

One man sells social security cards and licence plates out of his van; another helps tenants to steal gas and electricity for their own apartment. Those who can do little else sell scrap metal, stolen clothes or cigarettes.

The men are dependent on such income as government welfare is only temporary; unless they are caring for a minor, a situation that is extremely rare.

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