Sudhir Venkatesh in the House
Last night, folks braved the wind and rain to hear Sudhir Venkatesh discuss his book Gang Leader for a Day. I was one of them...OK, so I was already here, but you get the point. Venkatesh came to national prominence after his story was told in the runaway bestseller Freakonomics. While working on a PhD in sociology at the University of Chicago, Venkatesh insinuated himself into the life of JT, the leader of a crack-dealing gang that dominated the Robert Taylor Homes, one of Chicago's most notorious housing projects. Venkatesh shadowed JT, learning about life in the projects from the inside.
His reading was riveting, combining the most incredible stories with a great deadpan sense of humor. He stressed that his book was more of a memoir than a treatise on public policy, though many in the audience were obviously interested in hearing his thoughts on the urban poor. Most interesting to me was his discussion of what happened to the residents after the Robert Taylor Homes was torn down. According to Venkatesh, many of the residents of the projects lived a sort of communal existence by necessity. Often there would be a group of families who would come together because only one family would have an apartment with hot water, another family would be the only one with gas for the stove, etc. These families came to rely on one another, and when it came time to be relocated, they wanted to move together. The Chicago Housing Authority refused their request. Why? Because it's illegal to relocate members of the same race, ethnic group, socio-economic group, etc., because of federal statues against "re-ghettoizing."
Even more disheartening were the stories of residents who distrusted the world so much that after they had moved to the suburbs, they didn't call 911 during an emergency, electing instead to try and contact their former building manager from the Chicago Housign Authority, the woman who controlled many aspects of life in the project. Unfortunately that woman had passed away. Several people died specifically because they didn't believe 911 would help them. Why should they have believed in it? It had never helped them in the projects.