In the company of gang leaders

Nearly 20 years ago, sociology student Sudhir Venkatesh headed into a Chicago public housing complex thinking he could gain an understanding into the life of the urban poor with a multiple-choice survey.

He ended up spending six years in the company of a gang leader instead.

Today, the Columbia University sociology professor tells audiences, he looks back at his time in the Robert Taylor homes and sees how naive he was.

"I thought I had all the answers when I started," Venkatesh told a Chicago bookstore audience recently. Researchers believe that they are experts and they "find out people they're studying are doing their best to humble them and put them in their place."

Venkatesh was back in Chicago to promote the book he based on that experience, "Gang Leader for a Day."

In 1989 Venkatesh was a first-year graduate student at the University of Chicago. Two years earlier, Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor, died in office and all ethnic and racial factions of the city were on edge.

Diving headfirst into the rising tension, Venkatesh devoted himself to studying the plight of the urban poor. While beginning his research, the young sociologist attempted to distribute a multiple-choice survey to public housing residents to better understand their living conditions.

In a housing project on the city's South Side, he came across a group of young men and he asked them his survey's first question: "How does it feel to be black and poor?"

The young men whom Venkatesh approached told him his survey was flawed and that if he wanted to understand life in an inner-city public housing complex he would have to spend time in them.

So he did. Venkatesh ended up spending six years researching the Robert Taylor Homes while earning his doctorate in sociology.

Venkatesh spent much of his time in the company of a charismatic gang leader known simply as J.T. Venkatesh recalled being intrigued by J.T. because he had a college degree and was using it to run a gang known as the "Black Kings."

Over time J.T. and his bodyguards came to know Venkatesh. They allowed the researcher to accompany them on their once-a-week walk-throughs of the buildings in the Robert Taylor complex.

In the stairwells, Venkatesh met squatters who were protected by gang members. Venkatesh met families getting by and residents entrenched in a complex drug-based economy.

Venkatesh says because J.T. did not allow him to see any of the violence inflicted by the Black Kings, he believed it did not exist at first. A few months into his visits, however, he saw a "far less polished" side of J.T.'s world. From this experience he said, he learned "how that power works."

Venkatesh's dependence on J.T. made him uneasy.

"I was so beholden to him," he recalled. The gang leader told the academic where to go and where not to go. "He was like a ward boss who knew everyone and had full control" over his domain.

Witnessing gang violence, Venkatesh began to question his purpose. "What the hell am I doing here? How do I explain what I see?"

Over time, Venkatesh was able to interact with elected tenant leaders and others in the housing complexes. Here he began to see positive aspects of life in the public housing community.

Gang Leader is not written as an academic book, Venkatesh says. "It's a personal journey and it's written like that. As I stumble and fall you get to ask, 'Well, why did he do that along the way?'"

The book, he says, contains neither policy recommendations nor solutions, simply his experiences of struggling to be a sociologist.

At his recent Chicago appearance, one member of the audience said Venkatesh's observations were not particularly revealing to him.

"As an African-American growing up on the South Side, this is common knowledge, common sense," said Jeremy Collins of Englewood.

But Collins said he appreciated Venkatesh's work because "he's an educated man who took a leadership role."

Dorothy Battie, a former resident of Robert Taylor and a character in Venkatesh's book, was also in the audience.

Venkatesh said that Battie helped to organize an informal network of single women who depended on each other for everyday things like stoves and showers.

Battie said that Venkatesh made a positive impression on residents. He "didn't come in just to get into your business," she said. "Tenants know and love him. Talk about outsiders looking in. He became an insider. He earned it. He worked very hard for it," she said.

Among the things he learned, Venkatesh said, is that public housing is "so complex (that policymakers) don't know where to begin." Social service and governmental agencies, he said, don't have a complete understanding of how lower-income people work.

Venkatesh said that more public housing residents need to be involved in the decision-making process.

"Awareness of how people actually live can go a long way," Venkatesh said.

In the end, he described the experience in simple terms: "I wanted to talk about people who made that place a home."

Venkatesh's current project, is "An Empirical Analysis of Street-Level Prostitution" which he is co-authoring with University of Chicago economist and "Freakonomics" author Steven Levitt.

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington died in 1987, and that the young men who told Venkatesh that his survey was flawed lived in a housing project on the South Side. An earlier version listed an incorrect year for Washington's death and said the young men were from the Robert Taylor homes.

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MATT WHITMIRE, 02-14-2008

Great coverage! I am excited to read this book.