Book The One Hundred And Fourteenth

Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh

(Right, you’ll have to bear with me for a week on this – I’ve decided to do a unit on gang-violence next year, so to look for ideas I’m rereading all of the books I have on gangs. This may get a little samey…)

In the late eighties, Venkatesh started his research into poor urban living by going into a neighbourhood so bad that for a time in its history not even the police would patrol it, and asking the inhabitants “How does it feel to be black and poor? Very bad, somewhat bad, neither bad nor good, somewhat good, very good.”

No, really.

Unsurprisingly, when you think about it, the first group of people he confronts with this questionnaire stick a gun in his face and hold him hostage for several hours. Venkatesh is told in no uncertain terms that one cannot understand life in the projects unless one lives it. So, the next day, he turns up with a six pack of beer, and hangs out with the same people who threatened him. He makes himself an almost daily presence in the neighbourhood until it is demolished by a Clinton-era initiative almost a decade later.

This book is highly entertaining. There are many funny moments, a great deal of fascinating information, and the day-to-day razor’s edge of watching Venkatesh trying to get information without alienating anyone or (possibly worse) going native.

Very readable, truly interesting, and overall, highly recommended.

Out of interest, I was first turned onto this book when I saw the author on The Colbert Report last year. Here’s the interview, should you be at all interested.

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