Review: Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh
Title: Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets
Author: Venkatesh, Sudhir
Narrator: Reg Rogers, Sudhir Venkatesh, Stephen J. Dubner
Length: 9 hours
Genre: Audiobook, Non-Fiction, Sociology
Publisher / Year: Harper Perennial / 2007
Why I Read It: I’d heard good things about it.
Date Read: 24/04/12
As a budding sociologist Venkatesh was put off by the format of the studies and practice that he saw and learned about at university. Instead he spent a lot of his free time wandering the city of Chicago and talking with older African-American men in the part about their experiences and lives. After becoming interested and involved in a project relating to city housing and poverty, he decides to actually venture out and meet those whose lives and experiences they are supposed to be researching. Venturing to the Robert Taylor Homes, Venkatesh learns that things aren’t as safe as he might have thought, but sparks a friendship with the leader of a local gang who takes him under his wing.
Written almost as a novel, following his adventures and learning, the book was informative and incredibly interesting. While very naive at times (such as passing on information regarding the income generating activities of the residents, or assuming what he learned / witnessed would be protected under the First Amendment) but also believable. We all have our blind spots and there are things that you just wouldn’t think of when you’re in situations, that might seem obvious to those on the outside. The format worked well, and the story is not only Venkatesh’s but that of the residents themselves and of their building.
In addition to painting the homes as they really were – as a community, as a place where life happens, as a place ignored and cut off from regular life – and the residents as real people, we get a glimpse of a life that many of us haven’t been a part of. I think works like this are important in terms of cutting down the stereotypes and prejudices that many have. In addition, I appreciated his discussions on the ways in which the white dominated academic studies portray gangs in a very negative-only light, while in reality in many ways gangs are providing some of the only services available in communities that the white civil service ignores. Not to say that gangs are great, but that it is a complex situation in which the residents do what they have to in order to survive.
As to the audiobook itself, the narrator for this title was very engaging, keeping the reader interested and with great tones and inflections. While I’ve not listened to a large number of audiobooks to date, I felt this narrator was one of the best so far. I would highly recommend the audio format for this title.