By Jordan Marsh
In 1985 the Chicago Housing Authority announced plans to renovate the six high-rise apartment buildings that formed the Lakefront Properties in the Kenwood neighborhood. The plan called for the temporary relocation of hundreds of residents and spurred months of protests from those who didn’t want to move because they feared they would never be allowed to return.
Five years later the buildings stood vacant, with the exception of one tower, at 4040 S. Oakenwald, whose residents had simply refused to budge. They were in a standoff with the CHA, and tensions were running high. The El Rukn street gang, which had dominated the area, was being targeted by federal authorities, and their rivals, factions of the Disciples and the Vice Lords, were now at war to capture the narcotics market.
Sudhir Venkatesh, a second-year graduate student from the University of Chicago, was canvassing the neighborhood, conducting a field survey for noted sociologist William Julius Wilson, who was studying how conditions in various inner-city neighborhoods affected young people. Venkatesh was assigned to interview the locals by asking them a series of questions and then offering a range of predetermined answers, an established practice that he found frustrating. “I administered the survey,” he says, “and I noticed just an incredible amount of apathy and disinterest by the people who were responding….They would constantly ask me, one, ‘What are you going to learn from this?’ and, two, ‘Why can’t I tell you what I want to tell you?'”
While conducting the survey in the Lakefront building, Venkatesh was accosted by several young gang members with guns. “They thought that I was an intruder,” he says. “They thought I was a Latino gang member. They really didn’t know who I was….So they basically kept me in a stairwell in an abandoned apartment building and sort of held me there until they felt comfortable enough to let me go.
“I was being threatened a little bit, sometimes physically, and I think they were doing that to see what kind of reaction they could get out of me.”
Though admitting to some fear, Venkatesh says he was also curious. He began to interview his captors. “As the day progressed, I started asking them questions….’Why do you think that I’m threatening you?’ And I started asking them questions about their racial status and their class status–what they thought of themselves as. We got into a conversation about the difference between being a black and being an African-American and being a nigger and so on, and they had some very nuanced distinctions….They had a sociology, and it was fascinating. They had a mode of understanding, analyzing, and documenting what went on around them in a very, very careful, structured way, and I just was bitten….Here I was a quantitative sociologist and my tools wouldn’t let me pick that up. There was no way that I was going to learn about that. So how could I write about it? I had to do something.”
He was released early the next morning but returned hours later. “They let me leave, and then I just came back,” he says, “and struck up a conversation, and then I started to play racquetball with one of the guys, and then we just developed a friendship.”
Venkatesh talked to Wilson and mapped out a course of action. “I had this experience where I was administering that survey to people, and I told him that we were just not getting the information that we wanted….The questionnaires were very rigid, and the people’s responses were given to them. That form of mediation between the poor and social scientists had to be rethought. And so I made the case for having him allow me to live or perhaps hang around public-housing communities–to hang around a specific segment of the African-American poor, and find out what they were doing, just to complement what he was doing with his surveys.
“I had to sort of show him why I thought what he was gaining from survey research was partial. It was valuable but it was partial. And I had to make the case for why I thought that I needed to try a different way of engaging the communities, and a different way of intervening….We had to tussle a little bit, but I think he saw the value in what I wanted to do, and he gave me the freedom to do it.”
After four years of observing life in the projects, often residing in public housing, the 30-year-old Venkatesh has grown into an unusual academic, publishing his findings in scholarly journals as well as the hip-hop magazine The Source. He was recently awarded a fellowship at Harvard, where he’s paid a salary to continue his studies, and Wilson says his insights on gangs and the illicit drug industry could eventually make him a “superstar” in the field of sociology. Venkatesh says, “Much of my work is motivated by a desire to counter or correct the conventional wisdom that frames the ghetto as completely outside the boundaries of American society.”
Born in Madras, India, Venkatesh came to the United States as a child and was raised in a comfortably middle-class neighborhood in Irvine, California. He majored in mathematics at the University of California at San Diego and intended to pursue an advanced degree in cognitive science. But a professor noticed his budding interest in sociology and encouraged him to apply to the University of Chicago’s graduate school. “He said it would be a very bad thing to go anywhere else to study sociology, because Chicago is the best school as far as training.”
After getting clearance from Wilson, Venkatesh moved into the Robert Taylor Homes, intending to become a part of the lives he was studying. Because the CHA refused to let him rent an apartment, he wound up staying with people he had just met, often for weeks at a time.
“There was a period between June and December [of 1990] in which I was there almost all the time,” he says. “This was immediately after I met these guys at the Lakefront. And then after that I went in for maybe a couple days…or a week, and stayed with some families or stayed with some friends….I had a friend, this kid who had his own apartment, and he would let me stay with him. I had a family who would let me stay with them. I would just stay where I could.”
While residing in Robert Taylor, Venkatesh made friends and gradually observed the inner workings of an influential street gang in the largest public housing development in the nation. Living with the subjects of one’s study is not unique in itself, says Robert Sampson, a professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Chicago. But living in a place like Robert Taylor with high-ranking gang leaders is something else entirely. “What’s unique about what Sudhir did is the nature of the context,” he says. “Most of the contexts that sociologists and gang researchers have studied have not been as intense, perhaps, as the area that he studied….He went into areas that many researchers have either been unwilling to go into or perhaps would not have been accepted in. Not just anyone can walk into those sorts of contexts.”
Yet some experts have been less enthusiastic about Venkatesh’s methodology and his findings. They place their faith in the quantitative model, which produces verifiable results. On a radio talk show in June, Venkatesh’s research was questioned by George Knox, a criminologist and professor at Chicago State University who heads the National Gang Crime Research Center. “I know he didn’t live with everybody that’s in that complex,” Knox said. “That seems like another problem in gang research…that some authors want to dramatically overgeneralize from extremely limited or scant data. And when you’re hanging out with somebody…you can claim anything you want to claim because nobody can come back and reanalyze your data.”
Matt McGuire, an anthropology student at Harvard and a friend of Venkatesh, feels the criticism is unwarranted. He’s currently conducting research for his dissertation on the redevelopment of Cabrini-Green and the surrounding neighborhood. He lives in a subsidized apartment building just north of Division, and he’s using the same qualitative, participant-based methodology as Venkatesh, interviewing area residents and taking an active role in community activities.
“It’s social science,” says McGuire. “It’s not science in the sense that physics is a science and chemistry is a science, where you’ve got controlled laboratories. That’s one of the difficulties of trying to understand human beings and society: there is no laboratory, and you can’t subject people to the same types of control conditions that you can in a laboratory. You can have…more empirical sorts of research on humans, but you don’t necessarily come up with anything more interesting or more revelatory.”
McGuire feels there’s a place for both survey research and ethnographic research. Surveys might offer a more broad-based look at a group of people, but with limited depth. Ethnography, on the other hand, is grounded in observation, so it can offer a closer and perhaps more candid look at the lives of people. Yet McGuire says problems arise under either method. “How much do we want to be able to generalize about society anyway, given the incredible variation among people and among groups of people? I don’t think generalizing should be the goal. Thoroughly understanding a specific situation can give you insight into other situations that look similar…but this quest for general truths, I think, is a misguided one within the social sciences.”
“It’s a debate in the literature–there’s no doubt about it,” says Sampson. “There are people who think that ethnography is not that useful. There are people that believe that quantitative research is useless too. I think both extremes are wrong. In fact, the whole ethos of the Chicago school of sociology, which is what we’re both part of, rejects that sort of dichotomy. It’s the question that matters….It’s what you learn. Using ethnography and using quantitative methods, you should be driven by the research question, not by the method itself.”
The practice of going into a particular neighborhood to write about it has a long and respected tradition in Chicago–the fields of journalism, literature, and social research blossomed here in gritty, realistic portraits of the city. Robert Park, a founder of the Chicago school of sociology, was a journalist prior to joining the U. of C. He once remarked to a European scholar who stressed the need for logical analysis: “We don’t give a damn for logic around here. What we want to know is what people do.” Park directed a particularly pretentious graduate student to “go down to Cedar Street and keep your eyes open, and you come back and tell me what you’ve seen and heard down there….I am the one who gives you the highfalutin words about it.”
The Chicago school emphasizes the study of a subject within the context of its surroundings. “In other words, how social facts and social reality are situated in a particular time and place,” explains Sampson, “using both the qualitative and the quantitative methods to get at that.” Wilson says Venkatesh’s research is classic Chicago school. “I think it represents the best tradition, because it’s ethnographic field research, and it’s backed up by very thoughtful sociological analysis,” he says. “I think it represents the most intensive type of Chicago research, because he was deeply involved in these neighborhoods and with these gangs for a long period of time.”
While he grew close to some gang members, Venkatesh had been warned not to romanticize the street gangs. One woman told him that her mother went out for a short walk at 6 AM every day and then never left the house for fear of violence. “And so I started to get more involved with elderly women in the community,” he says, “with some of the people who were working in legitimate jobs but who were living in the housing development off the books. And so that was the next phase, to understand different segments. So I would sort of map out what were the different sectors of this community that were non-gang-affiliated youth. There were tenant activists, there were community organizations like churches and schools. There were street-corner men. So I wanted to see if I could map out what the significant social groups were in this community.”
In the language of his profession, Venkatesh was studying the context in which his primary subject–street gangs–operated. By doing this, he was able to examine street gangs from the perspective of those who live with them and are most affected by them. “That allowed me to see the ways in which gang activity and drug distribution and informal economies and a very poor relationship with city agencies are a part of everyday life in these communities.”
He thinks his ethnicity helped him gain access. “I definitely don’t think I could have had the same experiences or the same opportunities to position myself in the community and to get the kind of perspective that I did if I was white.” On the other hand, he says, a black researcher might be similarly hampered for the opposite reason: the lack of perceived need to have things explained to him. Venkatesh says his ethnicity may have even boosted his credibility when he presented his findings to the public; in a racially charged society, when it comes to speaking of blacks and whites, it might be better to be neither.
To wary gang members, Venkatesh’s race was not a problem–rather, he says, it was his status as an outsider who “asks a lot of fuckin’ questions and keeps gettin’ in our business.” If not for his friendship with one gang leader, referred to as “J.T.,” Venkatesh might not have been successful–or alive.
In “Learning the Trade: Conversations With a Gangsta’,” published in the Winter 1994 edition of Public Culture, Venkatesh wrote that he “became dependent on the continual support of J.T. and other leaders, both to ensure my personal safety and to reassure other members that I would not make public any information which could jeopardize their organization.”
After Venkatesh told J.T. why he was there, the two struck a bargain: J.T. would direct others to cooperate with the research project if Venkatesh gave J.T. veto power over anything that might reveal the identity of the gang or any of its members.
J.T. provided the key to Venkatesh’s major thesis: in order to more effectively deal with gang crime, society must alter the way in which it views street gangs and their activities. Street gangs, argues Venkatesh, can no longer be viewed as aberrations, or merely as groups of delinquent youngsters. They must be perceived as part and parcel of mainstream society, perhaps even a logical extension of society. Gang economies, while usually illicit and always informal, have too many parallels to the mainstream economy to be regarded as anomalous or unrelated.
J.T.’s story defies the traditional view of gang members as isolated from or ignorant of the larger society. Like many black males at Robert Taylor, he is a product of gang life. But he’s also a product of a university, with a bachelor’s degree in business. After graduating in 1988, J.T. took an office job in the Loop, but quit after less than a year. “You probably want to know why I’m dealing if I have a college degree,” he said in reply to a series of questions I passed through Venkatesh. “Look around you–you don’t see too many black folks, do you? If you worked at Afro-Sheen for a year, you would know a little bit how I feel. People would wonder why you are there, how you got the job, what kind of pull you had to get the job–and you would feel not just out of place but totally powerless, like you really didn’t get there because you deserve it but because you knew somebody….When I was working downtown, I got no respect.” Since then, J.T. has started a legitimate business, but he periodically returns to drug dealing to help support his wife and children.
Venkatesh gained access to the gang by building trust–being straightforward about his motives and taking an interest in their lives. “I am not really sure what it was that made me trust him,” J.T. says, “but you got to understand that he spent years around here and didn’t ask no questions, just watched and said he was trying to learn. And he always wanted to know about CHA, about police, which was really important and why a lot of folks probably liked him because he didn’t just ask questions about them and make them feel bad because they were poor.”
Throughout Venkatesh’s interviews, gang members acknowledged that selling drugs is wrong and destructive, but they also felt compelled to claim they were justified because others had made money selling drugs to the black community in the past. They said blacks should be able to profit as well and these proceeds were now being used to further the interests of the black community.
In Venkatesh’s 1994 interview with J.T., the following exchange took place:
Venkatesh: Given that the money you make from the drug economy is illegitimate, how does that change the way you invest and so forth?
J.T.: You learn a lot, you learn how to save money, you learn that you have to make certain sacrifices….A lot of inner-city kids are finding more and more ways to invest their dirty money….More of the laundering comes from whites and Arabs. They will launder money a lot quicker than black organizations, because blacks feel that they’ve achieved so much, and it’s taken them so long that they don’t want to jeopardize all of that….And this is one of the tensions in the black community. In the next five years, blacks will be at a point where they’ll no longer have to struggle in the inner city, because a lot of drug dealers are buying back their own neighborhoods, and they’re putting up their own stores, giving blacks jobs, whereas your black NBA stars, a lot of them tend to forget where they’re coming from. The only way the inner city is going to come together is to stick by each other, and buy back their communities…and then “black” will be the dominant power again.
Venkatesh: How do you personally deal with dealing a product that is so personally self-destructive, and do leaders of [gangs] think about that, even though they may be helping their communities out with the money they make selling it?
J.T.: As for myself, I feel that, yeah, I’m tearing down my own race; but if I tear it down, I’m going to tear down people who are already lost. There’s no hope for them, there’s no return, and I feel like I’m taking from them and giving back to the younger kids. It’s like I’m saying to them, “You’re not doing this or that for your child, so I’m going to take the money from you, and I’m going to do it for your child. If you don’t do it for them, I will, but it’s still going to be your money.”
Venkatesh says he sees two threads to J.T.’s philosophy–one is nonsense, but the other is more complicated. “There is no way that the street gang and/or the drug dealer can be a positive element in community building,” Venkatesh says. “The destructive aspects of crack cocaine…just precludes any sort of community building to occur.” But he also sees in J.T.’s comments an opinion that’s common to the community: “The question of mobility for African-Americans today is not …a question of economic success [but] a question of political organization. So that what I read into his comments is that the success of…a certain group of African-Americans who inhabit cities and who are disenfranchised [depends on] their ability to live in a self-determined way…their ability to organize and to mobilize and to control the basic institutions that impact their lives. That’s an ideal [for] J.T. and some other street gang leaders. And the basis of that is to control property in the neighborhood.”
Venkatesh says that in J.T.’s mind community control and making money are intertwined. “If he doesn’t make money, everything else is impossible….The street gang leaders [who] are alive today grew up in the 80s, in the age of overconsumption. It was much different than the Panthers …much different than the 60s rhetoric and ideology of mobility and protest and betterment.” These street gang leaders, says Venkatesh, are “Reagan babies….They and the yuppies are not so far apart in that sense.”
Venkatesh’s research helped change his perception of the city’s neighborhoods as rigidly segregated and socially isolated. “I was really interested in understanding how…drug distribution was a way in which to tie different areas together,” he says. “All I ever heard about, from the very first day…the chief of police, the security for the university, and the deans would tell graduate students, ‘Chicago is a very segregated city. Be careful where you walk. There are certain areas where the police patrol; therefore you should be careful if you decide to walk out of these places.’ So you get an idea that neighborhoods aren’t connected, really, on every level. People don’t have much to do with each other. So I would start going around with this guy who was dealing drugs, and he would go into Bridgeport, into Canaryville, into Brighton Park, into Marquette Park, Gage Park, tying in different white and black and some Latino areas, which was fascinating to me.” These visits, says Venkatesh, involved both customers and suppliers.
But gang members would separate their feelings about race between the business and social spheres. There is “a sense of acceptance–that I can deal with another group on an economic level–and yet they won’t really have much to do with other aspects of my life. We may cheer for the Bulls together, but we’re not really going to encounter one another in a movie theater, we’re not really going to go and see one another on the beach; and that was really surprising to me–how everyday spaces of social interaction were so separate, yet these spaces were so tied together in some other ways.”
Though much of his research was centered on firsthand conversations with Taylor residents, Venkatesh also did considerable archival work, looking at media reports, academic studies, and crime statistics collected since the 1950s. He found a surprising history of gang involvement in public housing communities. While the presence of gangs has long been established, their overt dominance is relatively new, says Venkatesh. Street gangs have increasingly filled a void created by the absence of social service providers, government entities, and the private sector. Until the mid-1980s, for instance, Local Advisory Councils (LACs), made up of elected tenant representatives, acted as power brokers in Chicago public housing developments. “It was the LAC who, if your apartment was burglarized, you would call, and they would call the cops, and the cops would come,” Venkatesh says. “This is in the 70s and even in the mid-80s….This is the thing that people don’t really understand, that there were incredible social controls in this community, and many of them still exist today. For decades, in many of the large housing developments, the street gangs were not the dominant presence. They may have been there, they may have engaged in sporadic outbursts of violence, but it was the LAC that was really the strongest and most active body that was representing tenants, and that could really control the quality of life.”
In addition to the LAC, Venkatesh says, another, more informal network was in place to control gang behavior: groups of mothers and grandmothers patrolled hallways, stairwells, and other public spaces. As one Robert Taylor resident told Venkatesh, “Back then, things was different, gangs was fighting with their fists or zip guns and we could control ’em, you know. If you was fighting, your mama would take you inside and whup you, and sometimes other folks’ mamas would whup you too!”
According to Venkatesh, a number of things occurred to alter the balance of power in the early 1980s, chief among them sharply reduced funding from Washington. This reduction, combined with a shift in the CHA’s focus from maintenance to security, deprived LACs of the resources they had used to maintain order and influence in the developments. “The quasipatronage that the LAC could guarantee for a long time–they could make sure that certain people’s apartments were fixed, they could make sure that floors were maintained in good repair–they weren’t able to do that anymore,” says Venkatesh. “[Former CHA head] Vince Lane started channeling money away from maintenance into security. Those kinds of activities made it very difficult for LACs to act as brokers as they had done in the past.”
Other factors were to blame as well. In his essay “The Gang in the Community,” part of the 1996 anthology Gangs in America, Venkatesh argues that the increase in the sale and use of narcotics in the mid-1970s was directly linked to the decrease in employment opportunities for low-skilled workers in the inner city. He quotes a janitor working at Taylor: “You know, when I was getting out of the army–after Vietnam–we had a lotta people ’round here that was outta work. They needed jobs, man, they needed to support their families. And all the steel and good-paying jobs was leaving. That’s when me and a lotta people started getting involved in illegal shit. Me and my brother Tee started stealing cars, and the Disciples up north started selling smack. Hell, it seemed that everyone was getting a piece! But, you know, we didn’t want to be doing that stuff really….It’s just that there was no other work ’round here.”
Stories like these appear to bolster the arguments of William Julius Wilson. In 1978, Wilson published The Declining Significance of Race, which posited that racial discrimination was only one of several factors leading to the creation of a supposedly permanent “underclass” in American society. He suggested that the shift in the economy from a manufacturing to a service base resulted in a loss of low-skill, high-wage jobs that employed many African-Americans. The remaining industrial jobs moved to the suburbs, where they were often inaccessible to inner-city residents.
Perhaps motivated more by the title of his book than by the results of his research, critics lambasted Wilson for downplaying the role of racial discrimination in the creation of the underclass. The criticism was in part misguided, because Wilson never denied the effects of discrimination, though he now feels that racism is a more important factor than he did in 1978.
“I want to make it quite clear that racism put blacks in their economic place,” he says now, “and made them vulnerable to changes in the technology that is destroying that place. There’s been a significant out-migration of industrial jobs from the central city, and blacks no longer can rely…on that kind of employment, and so they have moved out of the industrial sector into the low-wage service jobs, where they are competing with women and immigrants. So they’ve either gone into the low-wage service jobs or they’ve gone jobless. And I think that one of the reasons why gang activity is much more attractive to a lot of these inner-city males is that the traditional avenues for social mobility through the industrial sector have been closed.”
The loss of industrial jobs also affected the relationship between gangs and the communities in which they operated.
“In Taylor Homes,” writes Venkatesh, “as illicit economic activity escalated toward the end of the 1970s, the local youth gangs began to exert greater control and to affect other residents’ opportunities for income generation. Gangs such as the (Conservative) Vice Lords, the Disciples, and other smaller ‘sets’ controlled one or more buildings in the development.”
As gangs became major economic forces, their role was interpreted by the community in conflicting ways. At the same time, the loss of industrial jobs created another phenomenon: the aging street gang member. Prior to the late 1970s, writes Venkatesh, most members exited the gang by their mid-20s to enter the labor market. As job opportunities disappeared, younger gang members became older gang members, who were more integrated into the community, and who were, writes Venkatesh, “less responsive to the classical intervention efforts that stressed the value of education, hard work, and so forth.”
With the introduction of crack cocaine in the early 1980s, gang violence increased. Before that time, reports Venkatesh, gang violence rarely affected innocent bystanders. With crack, the stakes were higher, and drive-by shootings became commonplace. In 1992, several children were killed during a drug-related shoot-out at Taylor. One child was playing in a hallway, another was looking out of her window, and a third was walking in front of his building. Widespread violence, says Venkatesh, made residents even more hesitant to confront gang members. “Hell, the police don’t even wanta arrest ’em,” he quotes one tenant as saying. “If they so scared, how you expect us to tell [the gangs] to stop shooting? We could get killed just for lookin’ at ’em funny!”
Complicating this situation was the financial support given to residents by street gangs and the decline in support from government and social service organizations. The lucrative narcotics business gave gangs excess funds to provide for needy residents, who in turn often supported the gangs. According to Venkatesh, this was a fluid relationship. “In the context of diminished public and private services, negligent civic institutions and political leaders, and few monetary sources of support, tenants find themselves facing a difficult dilemma: accept the gangs’ money and manpower or fight against them and receive little support from other organizations in the city. The choice is not easy and not always consistently made.”
His research found varying levels of community support for the gangs. Some residents worked with gang members who provided security and nightly escorts, but refused to allow the gangs to openly sell drugs in their buildings. Other residents might accept financial support from gang leaders “in exchange for noncooperation in police investigations.” Residents who operated their own illicit income-generating activities relied on gangs to protect them. Finally, many households contained gang members and welcomed the “extraeconomic resources” afforded by these arrangements.
Venkatesh continually uses the language of corporate America to characterize the machinations of the street gang. For instance, in a subchapter of his dissertation titled “Mergers and Acquisitions,” Venkatesh writes of Anthony, a “quasi-independent” drug dealer who is ultimately convinced of the need to take up with a gang full-time:
Prince lured Anthony into a more committed role in 27th [street gang] activities by reminding Anthony of his precarious position. “That nigger ain’t stupid, shit! And you couldn’t tell he was carrying weight ’cause the nigger always been low-profile. That car you got [is] better than any ride that nigger drived. But he was getting large man, fat! And he needed security, ’cause. No, you know what I am saying–you could tell he was scared! Shit, carrying ’round that product?! Man was f’n to be killed! C-note told him straight up: ‘You need to be with us, ’cause you can’t walk these streets alone no more.’ Anthony knew this man.” …Anthony says he was reluctant to resign control to the [gang], but he realized he needed protection. The death of a close friend who was also a quasi-independent drug dealer, motivated Anthony to reconsider his marginal use of the [gang] for underwriting and security. He made the move from “market” to “hierarchy,” formally accepting Prince’s offer of a complete merger. He would no longer subcontract his work to the 27th St. posse but instead submit to a formal wage structure.
“How people experience their everyday life in ghetto communities is deeply tied to how we all live as Americans,” says Venkatesh. “There is a great deal of similarity between the outlaw capitalist, who makes money dealing drugs and consumes heavily, and the yuppie who manages an investment portfolio. There’s a great and important difference, but there’s also a significant similarity….The ghetto and the mainstream–these sort of ideological opposites in American society–are really quite related to one another….Very ‘disenfranchised’ people who may experience great social and economic hardships are not culturally impoverished and are not, even more importantly, a noncontributing population. This idea that there are just welfare queens and gangbangers who are…basically taking and not giving anything–it’s much more complex than that. And that’s the sort of story that I want to portray through narrating the experiences of these people.”
In an unpublished written account, Venkatesh tells the story of a battle he witnessed between two gangs in neighboring Taylor buildings. The story also involves two brothers–both members of the same gang–whose mother is slowly dying of cancer. The older son realizes he’s not ready to raise his younger brother by himself. He drinks beer out of a 40-ounce bottle to relax before the anticipated confrontation. A gang leader orders his crack dealers to terminate operations early and pays nearby families to leave the building before the shooting starts. The younger brother gets shot, leading to a debate over whether he should be taken to Cook County Hospital to save his life, whether it’s worth risking arrest, whether anyone at the hospital would even help the boy, and whether to tell his mother. The story involves many of the things people associate with street gangs–as well as some things that they don’t.
By 1991, Venkatesh had experienced enough to convince him that he wanted to do more than just document the community–he wanted to get involved in a positive way. “I wanted to try to give a little back to the community that was going to launch my academic career,” he says. “I had heard incredibly horrible stories of [Nicholas] Lehmann and [Alex] Kotlowitz [two authors who wrote best-selling books about poor blacks in Chicago] by residents who alleged that they had made all sorts of promises to them about royalty payments, long-term contact, and relationships, but they disappeared once their books came to press. I have no illusions that I may end up far from the south side of Chicago, and that Robert Taylor may no longer be a part of our living universe, but I still wanted to see how I could be a part of the community in a nonresearch capacity.”
In 1993 Venkatesh began spending time at the Boys and Girls Club at 51st and Federal, on the south end of the Robert Taylor complex, where he met and quickly befriended Autry Harrison, an employee who had grown up in and around the projects. Ten years Venkatesh’s senior, Harrison did not trust him at first. “No, man,” he says. “Come on now. I’m a black man in a black community. I don’t trust nobody.” It did not take long, however, for Venkatesh to earn Harrison’s trust and the trust of others at the club. Harrison says he knows why: “Because they really saw that [Venkatesh] wasn’t there about making something for himself. He was always about helping somebody else. And so that’s how everybody began to really know him–his trying to help somebody else. He didn’t just come there in the morning and [leave] in the evening.”
Venkatesh had been at the Boys and Girls Club for several months, helping to write grant requests, when he and Harrison were asked if they would head up a gang-intervention program. At that point, says Harrison, gang violence was erupting on a daily basis. “[Venkatesh] got that little fresh brain of his to working and thinking about the strategy we can use–not so much to say ‘no’ to gangs, but a strategy to use to say, ‘Let’s try this method of trying to get information across to these gangs without saying “no” to them.'”
Harrison and Venkatesh concentrated on two goals: reducing the violence and reintroducing gang members to positive influences, like schools and the labor market. A number of local businesses agreed to hire some of the younger members provided that they were computer literate and their reading and writing skills were adequate. Training was provided by the club.
One of the more successful strategies involved opening the club at night for low-profile meetings between gang leaders and neighborhood activists to iron out problems before they erupted into major battles. “What we did was slow everything down, so we can make [gang members] aware of their own community, man,” says Harrison. “You just make them aware, man. Ownership.”
“This just really burgeoned,” says Venkatesh. “We started out with a staff of maybe 2 or 3 people, and eventually it became a staff of somewhere between 9 and 12 people at any one time. And this was a very successful program, but eventually it got out of hand, and we lost control.”
The Boys and Girls Club was one of the only organizations working directly with street gangs, and consequently attracted gang members from all over the city. They came, says Venkatesh, because they were comfortable and felt safe. Then gang members began to come for purely social reasons, and the focus of the program began to blur. At some point the number of gang members reached a critical mass, overwhelming the staff, who could no longer control the activities. “Two of the staff members at the Boys and Girls Club were fired who were really working well with the street gang members, and there were a lot of internal rifts,” says Venkatesh.
The program became a victim of its own success, due in part to the fact that there were few, if any, similar efforts. As accolades and interest grew, the club, says Venkatesh, became less willing to let the program fold, even though it had “turned into a building that only street gang members were going into….Parents were afraid to send their kids there.”
Venkatesh and Harrison pushed hard to terminate the program and begin again. Ultimately they left, and the program was discontinued.
By acknowledging the gang as part of the community, says Venkatesh, the program alienated powerful institutions, including many church groups and the larger social service agencies. “The program never tried to tell the gang that they shouldn’t exist, though we always told them that their activities were not productive, were self-destructive, and so on,” he says. “Taking this stance made me see how the gang is actually a meaningful, historical actor. I was put into touch with people who related to the street gang in a much different way than those who spout the dominant social opinion: ‘Jail them!’ And this was a range of people. Senior citizens helped us, smaller churches came into the mix, school administrators, politicians, all of whom were trying to take a more practical, less virulent and reactionary approach toward intervention.”
The challenge for Venkatesh was to place in the foreground the noncriminal aspects of the gang, “not in order to romanticize them or approve of them, but to evoke the relationship of the street gang to a particular sector of the community for whom the gang is a resource, a provider, a partner, despite being a dealer and a criminal entity.
“I now am very cautious when I hear mainstream agencies wanting to reach out to gangs. This is a very difficult and thorny venture and needs to be thought through carefully. As far as my research is concerned, now I try to be very very careful about how I construe my policy recommendations so that people don’t hear me saying that gangs should be worked with de facto in any community capacity, that they should be coddled and taken in by social service agencies. This is particularly problematic in poor communities because an agency, funder, and other actors can boast of great success in their programs, but they may not be held accountable because the poor lack a public voice. They can’t defend themselves against exploitation and misrepresentation.”
Despite the way things turned out, Harrison believes the experience was a necessary one for Venkatesh. “Let me say it this way,” he explains. “You have to look at Sudhir. This man has been in school all these years; he has a PhD in sociology. He read all those damn books that say ‘This is the way society is,’ or ‘This is the way you can help this society or this community.’ So he been doin’ that for all them years. He really had to see what the hell he was going to school for. Why not come to Robert Taylor and see all of it? Not just pieces. I’m talking about gangs, drugs, killing, beating, frustration. You know–everything. What better place to go than Robert Taylor? So he had an opportunity to really work on his thesis, learn more about himself, you know, as an individual–you know, where he stands in this society.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Lloyd DeGrane.