It was a rare occasion. My colleague and friend Paul and I had somehow ended up with the same day off. Being as how we see each other every other day of the week, I guess we figured our joint day off shouldn’t be any different. Paul showed me the sights of the city of Manchester, if by sights you mean the insides of dozen pubs and couple of curry houses, and it was a delightful day. And so it was that in the commercial heart of the city, taking in the fine weather outside Sinclair’s Oyster Bar, discussion turned to Gang Leader For A Day.
Paul had given me the book as a birthday gift as he’d heard I “had an interest in reading peoples’ favourite books”, and faithfully I leapt into it. It’s the second time on this project that my recommender has been male and it’s the second work of non-fiction I’ve been given. It’s the story, in the first-person, of Sudhir Venkatesh, who in his pursuit of sociological greatness ended up spending an awful lot of time with a terrifying man named J.T. and his gang, the Black Kings at the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. It’s got funny bits and shocking bits and kind-of-sad bits. It’s really surprisingly thorough for such a small volume.
Paul originally read it as a comparison for an essay with another book called Cop In The Hood, which I’m reliably informed isn’t quite so excellent. Since then he’s read in a good few times and dishes copies out on a fairly regular basis in confidence that everyone will find something in it.
Personally, I found it interesting. There was a lot of insight into gang and street-corner culture that was lent an emotional hue by the autobiographical style of writing. Venkatesh references his more academic write-ups of his time in the Robert Taylor Homes and although Paul greatly desires to read his analysis of the gang’s accounting figures (most famously referenced in the ever-popular Freakonomics), I have no such urge. I enjoyed the easy, friendly tone of the text; it enabled me to enjoy a sociological experience without having to academically pick apart a study.
At times, I feel, the book veered into bravado. The foreword claims Sudhir to be a fearless explorer of the frightful, dangerous subcultures in society, and whilst I certainly agree that I couldn’t do what he did, I still feel like there are passages (and only passages, mind) that are included almost exclusively so that Venkatesh can remind us how brave he is and was. Paul and I, on this point, are both torn. The man has a right to brag – he walked into the Robert Taylor Homes and ingratiated himself with the residents in spite of gang culture prevalent there, however we are both agreed that the book’s truly brilliant moments are when Sudhir is just plain naïve. There’s something significantly more charming about walking into a danger zone when the person involved is doing so completely blinkered to the precariousness of his situation.
It wasn’t long before discussion left Gang Leader For A Day and became about Paul’s lasting interest in street corner culture. He’s a fascinating person to speak to on the subject, and I recommend doing so should ever you meet. There’s a simultaneous fear, beguilement and admiration to it. As Paul says, he loves to read about it, and finds it utterly incredible, but is very glad that it takes part a long way outside of his own world. It’s captivating and alluring to read about, seductive almost, but the thought of being part of it shatters any romanticised illusions one may have. I think if we’re honest, we can all relate to that.
The latter 90% of our conversation was about The Wire. I won’t go on, there’s enough blogs about that.
A thoroughly pleasant day and a really intriguing book. Yet another that I never would have picked up without this project, but am very glad that I’ve now read. It’s very journalistic sociology, but it’s very entertaining.