Sudhir Venkatesh began studying sociology at the University of Chicago, and was given the task to carry out a survey on what its really like to be black and poor. Venktesh took to this task with great enthusiasm and a slight hint of naivety. Venkatesh went into the poor neighbourhoods which surrounded the University of Chicago and began his research into what it was like to be poor and black. Not long into his research he ends up being held hostage for several hours by the Black kings, a gang that controlled most of the surrounding area.
At first they thought that Venkatesh was from a Mexican gang but Venkatesh managed to somehow make them understand that he was researching and keen to learn more about the way they live. Surprisingly Venkatesh befriends J. T, a charismatic gang leader who is the leader of the Black Kings. This friendship between J. T and Venkatesh gave Venkatesh the opportunity to spend more time in the neighbourhood to carry out his research by shadowing J. T and his gang and watching how they lead the residents of the Robert Taylor homes.
When Venkatesh first enters the neighbourhood he already has his own views on how life in a neighbourhood like this one that is controlled and run by a gang works. Throughout his research he witnessed so many things ranging from domestic violence to drive-by shootings and so many different types of scams. Venkatesh shows us that the gang is both an advantage and a disadvantage to the neighbourhood. On one hand the gang are conducting a drug business in the neighbourhood, but on the other hand the gang have a duty to protect the residents of their neighbourhood and residents pay money which they call taxes to the gang for such services.
On some occasions Venkatesh makes us consider the fact that without the gangs “services” the neighbourhood could be potentially worse off. Throughout his research he witnessed so much that at one point his professors sent him to a lawyer to gain advice on what he perhaps might have to testify on at a later date or even tell the cops if he was ever to be asked questions on the details he went into in his research.
An interesting aspect about this book is the sense that Venkatesh actually liked most of the guys in the gang regardless of the things they done such as selling crack and the way they mistreated some of the residents of Robert Taylor. The most thrilling aspect of this book is the continuously growing friendship between Venkatesh and J. T, both men are fairly similar but the different circumstances in each of their lives could not be more contrasting. Venkatesh’s research is not all smooth running and he does make some errors.
At one point Venkatesh is carrying out interviews to see how the different Robert Taylor projects such as prostitution, childcare and many others work and when J. T and Co ask Venkatesh to disclose his findings he doesn’t think twice and he shares his knowledge. He later discovers that J. T used his findings to find everyone in the projects who were not paying “taxes” to the gang, and although Venkatesh insists that he was not aware of what J. T would do, you can’t help but wonder if he did know of J. T’s intentions and was doing these interviews to benefit both himself with is research aswell as helping J.
T learn more about his community and establish who was earning money and not paying duties to the gang. To conclude this book has many different views and angles to it, it portrays the value of different backgrounds and cultures and shows an understanding of how poor black people live day to day, it displays how Venkatesh grows throughout the book, developing into a sociologist, and shows every aspect of life in this neighbourhood, the good and the bad, providing an in-depth look into a world many people chose to ignore.