Review by Adam Sockel under Collection Development.
Venkatesh tells his own story as a brand new Sociology grad student at the University of Chicago in the mid to late 1990s. His field is one that requires in-depth studies of human existence, and he chooses to study the African American populations in the housing projects just outside the realm of the university, though they might as well be on a different planet for how similar they are to each other. He begins his study by awkwardly stumbling into the Robert Taylor Homes with an ill-conceived survey for the residents, and is held there by local Black Kings (BKs) gang members as they try to figure out which rival gang he might be from and what his motives are in visiting them (mostly because they cannot conceive that he would be so naïve as to wander into unfamiliar gang territories). It is during this time that he is introduced to JT, the leader of the local branch of the BKs, and the man who would be his guide into how not only how gang members live, but also those in the Robert Taylor Homes whose lives are intertwined with the BKs.
By getting to know the leader of a gang, Venkatesh hopes that he will be able to learn more about the economic structure which gangs use to operate, viewing them as a business model. It is this desire to know the structure and inner workings of the BKs that leads him to eventually be “gang leader” for a day (hence the title), and spend the day with JT and his associates as they go about a normal workday. It is this research that made Venkatesh stand out among his peers, and get him a featured spot in the book Freakonomics later in his career. It is a hidden side of gang life, and fans of shows like The Wire will appreciate the many different layers of the BKs that we are shown.
We are presented a world of drugs, violence, and desperation, as Venkatesh writes that all are “hustlers”, himself included. I appreciated Venkatesh’s battle with himself to remain an impartial observer of their actions. The language is rough and uncensored, and anyone who is sensitive to such things would be advised to avoid reading. Regardless, we are given a glimpse into the end of the Robert Taylor Homes and into the lives of the residents in a way that few have been before, all because Venkatesh won the trust of those around him by genuinely caring about them and being interested in their lives. This is an important, empathetic read for all.