Monday, April 7, 2008

Gang Leader For A Day

In the summer of 1999, Coovo invited me to his crib in Cabrini Green where he ran his gang "The Vice Lords of Vice". I had been spending a lot of time with him there, watching as he managed a crew of 15 or so gangstas sell illegal copies of the Wall Street Journal to stock-quote addicts. On this particular day, Coovo popped open a Diet Snapple, kicked his feet up, and gave me the opportunity I'd been waiting for since he popped open that Diet Snapple - he offered me the chance to run his gang for a day. But that story will have to wait for another day...

Many of you may be familiar with the NYT Bestseller "Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything". The book is a collection of essays the authors (Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt) have penned over the years. These essays along with many new entries can be found on the freakonomics blog.

My favorite piece in that book was a collaborative effort with sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh entitled "Why Do Drug Dealers Live With Their Mothers?". The intent of the essay was to investigate the economics of inner city drug traffic, and examine a common myth that all drug dealers are rich.

The article was based on the work that Venkatesh did as a grad student at the University of Chicago in the late '80's and early '90's. With the intent of going door to door to conduct surveys of poor black families about how they felt about being poor black families, Venkatesh naively stumbled into the middle of a gang in one of Chicago's worst neighborhoods. After surviving the encounter, he was able to form a relationship with the leader of the gang, and over a period of about six years, he was able to obtain first-hand observations of Project and Gang Life.

The work, almost accidental, turned out to be ground-breaking in that, up to that point, most sociological research in the area didn't delve too much further than the evaluation of census numbers and other socio-ecomonic figures. Venkatesh heeded the advice of his subjects - that to write about them, to know them, he must "live" with them.

Gang life has always piqued my interest. Part of this is due to the fact that I can be suckered by its glorification, and part due to the fact that it is something I have never and will never know (aside from my time with The Vice Lords of Vice). For those who would like more of a peek inside, Sudhir Venkatesh's new book "Gang Leader For A Day" answers just about any question you have.

While very insightful, the essay in "Freakonomics" went only so far as to use Venkatesh's work to break down the economic model of running a crack-dealing gang. "Gang Leader For A Day" tells the whole story of the gang and its community: the kingpins, the muscle, the hoppers, the hustlers, the prostitutes, the cops (good and corrupt), the squatters, the honest, the politics of the Housing Authority, the economics and morals of the trade and everything else that makes up the cultural constitution of the Robert Taylor Homes - at ~40,000 residents it was the largest of the nation's low-income housing projects until its demolition in the mid-90's.

The book is an excellent read, and moves very quickly. I highly recommend it! And for fans of The Wire, check out Venkatesh's 9-part series on the Freakonomics blog in which he details his viewings of The Wire with gang members in New York (unsurprisingly, they all love the show, too).

8 comments:

Ryan said...

Roller, again, a step ahead! Must warn readers: THe article about Venkatesh watching the Wire contains info about season 5, which I haven't seen yet. (Speaking of which, when does that come out on DVD?)

Saw him interviewed on Colbert or Stewart shows, interesting guy. I"ll have to check out the book. Not that I feel threatened by you or anything, not like maybe you're somehow insinuating you're part of the Italian mob and that you're making me an offer I can't refuse.

Fine, I'll read the book.

Mike said...

thanks Roller..... that was definitely the most interesting part of Freakonomics (for me at least), reminding me of my slingin' days back in Greenwich with Shane McMahon and the Mean Street Posse.

funny coincidence : I'm in another fantasy league with friends from back home.... and i'm matched up against Pete Gas this week.

Marty said...

This whole situation has an eerily similar story line to when Carlton Banks hung out with Will and Jazz's friends for the day on an episode of Fresh Prince of Bel Air and ended up being not only accepted by the gang members and lower socioeconomic characters, but essentially running the place by the end of the episode...Now I'm not one for accusations, but I think that plagiarism should at least be explored to uphold and preserve the integrity of such television history...I'm just saying...

Roller said...

Funny shite, fellas. Anyone want to start a gang? We'll sell knowledge!

School is cool.

Marty said...

this blog sucks

Coovo said...

You try writing a blog while juggling three wives in two cities and going to grad school. I'm working on it.

Marty said...

Who's the third Wife?? I knew about the stripper in Rogers Park and the tranny in the Gold Coast?? But Three??...anyways..an idea for a future post Cougars in Roscoe Village v. Cougars in Wilmette, both ctas and women....discuss

Coovo said...

Both are cta's? Are you trying to tell me the cougar was a city employee?

1) I think if a cougar was spotted in Wilmette, it was the same one that was in Chicago and 2) I have a post that I tired to put up today that was thwarted because of pictures that involves the cougar