BRIAN LAMB, HOST C-SPAN’S ”Q&A”: Sudhir Venkatesh, your book called ”Gang Leader for a Day” starts off in the preface with you writing, ”I woke up at about 7:30 a.m. in a crack den. Apartment 1603 in building 2301 of the Robert Taylor Homes.”
Let’s start with a crack den. What is it?
SUDHIR VENKATESH, SOCIOLOGIST, AUTHOR, ”GANG LEADER FOR A DAY”: It is most often a vacant unit, an uninhabited apartment in a public housing building that has been converted by the local street gang into a sales spot for crack cocaine, beer, sexual services and anything else in the underground economy that might be in demand at that time.
LAMB: What are the Robert Taylor Homes?
VENKATESH: The Robert Taylor Homes were 28 high-rise buildings – once the largest public housing development in the world – that housed anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 people at its height, built between 1958 and 1962 in an effort to give African-Americans decent, safe, affordable housing in an overcrowded ghetto in the post-war era.
And they have since been demolished. The experiment of public housing in America in the inner city has been, well, deemed a failure by …
LAMB: And that’s in Chicago.
VENKATESH: This is in Chicago, Illinois, on the South Side of the city.
LAMB: What year were you in this crack den?
VENKATESH: I came into the Robert Taylor Homes in 1999, and I spent roughly seven years with the residents, with the street gangs, and in places like the crack den for that period of my life, which was when I was a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago.
LAMB: Who is William Julius Wilson?
VENKATESH: William Julius Wilson is probably the most eminent sociologist of the American city and the American urban poor living in America today. He’s written several profound books on social policy and the condition of the urban poor. And he was my advisor, when he was a professor at the University of Chicago, at that time.
LAMB: On the cover of your book it says you are a ”rogue sociologist” and you took to the streets.
Is that correct? You’re a rogue sociologist? And what’s that mean?
VENKATESH: There’s a bit of a pun there. Some people might recognize rogue with a play on ”Freakonomics.” And that popular book by the economist, Steven Levitt, who is a colleague of mine.
The pun is that sociology began very much as a science that was built on people going in and living with another population, another group in a city – hobos, the wealthy, politicians – and coming back with that information.
And today, that’s seen as declasse. That’s seen – we’re the black sheep, those of us who practice that technique.
So, this is – in some sense, I’m a rogue sociologist because I’m reverting to a form of sociology that once existed and is no longer the mainstream of how sociologists practice their craft, which is surveys and Gallup polls and census data and asking many people questions in an interview form, rather than going in and living with them, with a small group of people.
LAMB: Who is JT?
VENKATESH: JT is an African-American gentleman, right now in his late 30s. I met him in his mid-20s. He was the street gang leader of the Black King street gang in part of the Robert Taylor Homes.
He was a college graduate, and he decided to quit his job as a salesman in corporate America in the late 1980s and return to the public housing community that he was from to run this crack gang and manage a huge underground economic enterprise.
LAMB: In ”Freakonomics,” they have a little chart that shows how much money he made. How much was it?
VENKATESH: I knew him over about a decade. And he made anywhere from, let’s say $90,000 to upwards of $150,000, $160,000. He actually moved up in the gang hierarchy from commanding one neighborhood to commanding many neighborhoods in the city.
LAMB: What’s crack?
VENKATESH: Crack is a form of cocaine, which is processed. And in the processing of it, it’s packaged in very small units. And you can sell it for $5 or $10. It produces a very strong addiction, and it forces, really, the individual, because of the addictive properties, to come back often throughout the course of a day.
And because of that, it generates high volume. And it’s very easy for a street gang, then, to make quite a bit of money by capitalizing on this product, which in the late 1980s and the 1990s, a little more than today, was the drug of choice in the inner city.
LAMB: Did you ever try it?
VENKATESH: No. I never did crack cocaine. No.
LAMB: And why not?
VENKATESH: I think being exposed to addicts and people who were struggling with addiction and struggling with use at that proximity was just enough for me to see that there was absolutely no attraction.
One thing that’s interesting to note is that the street gang actually prohibited its members from using narcotics. And generally from what I saw, they wouldn’t do it, because they were selling to people that they saw that actually were some of the – in terms of mental health and physical health – were some of the poorest residents in this community.
LAMB: How much did the cocaine cost when somebody would buy it from one of these gangs?
VENKATESH: The way that it was sold was, typically, a group of four to six people would form a drug sales team. They would stand on a corner. And they would have a 100-pack. And that 100-pack could generate $1,000. To actually – so, that’s what they would bring in as their yield.
For that 100-pack, however, to make it, would only be about $200, let’s say. So, there was an enormous profit being made by these young men in the inner city. So, the processing of it really expanded it in terms of what it could generate in terms of revenue.
LAMB: What’s a pack?
VENKATESH: It’s a little plastic bag that the – just, maybe, a little bit of crack cocaine is actually broken off a large rock. So, if you were to take a lot of cocaine and process it and boil it down, it generates – it coalesces and coagulates into a rock.
And little bits are taken off by these street gang members, and they’re put into a little bag called a pack. And it could be a $5 or a $10 pack. And that’s what’s sold on the street.
And if you drive in many inner city neighborhoods and you see these little plastic bags, these used plastic bags, that’s probably what was in them.
LAMB: What did they do with them once they bought them?
VENKATESH: The drug addicts? Most often they would smoke them. And they would smoke them in a pipe or in a cigarette. And again, it produces a very quick burst of a quick high, but it doesn’t last very long.
And it’s important to know that it’s a functional drug. And by that I mean that crack users, unlike the classic portraits of heroine users, are people who might do this on the job. You’d see UPS drivers or people, delivery folks, who would come in, get out of their car, buy some crack, probably use it very quickly and come back later.
So, because of the way in which it was used, seller and consumer would – and customer – would know one another, because it generated relationships in which people came back to the same person to buy their crack over and over.
LAMB: What’s the difference between crack and cocaine powder?
VENKATESH: Well, the form is different. So, crack is a hardened, processed form, and cocaine is in a powdered form.
Other important differences that we can point out are that cocaine tends to be used by people who are not in the inner city. It tends to be used by other ethnic groups. It tends to be used by people in the suburbs, people in rural areas, whereas the predominant form of cocaine that’s used in the inner city is crack.
And there’s also different penalties that come up, that are associated with the trading of cocaine versus the trading of crack. Generally, for the same amount of crack, you have a harsher prison sentence, a harsher penalty than for powdered cocaine.
LAMB: What do you do with powdered cocaine?
VENKATESH: Mostly people would snort it, sniff it. You could smoke it. You could – I mean, I’ve known people who have put it in breakfast cereal, because they think it’s going to be a more advantageous way of getting a high.
I mean, addicts will do practically anything. You can inject it, as well. You can dissolve it. But mostly, that’s smoked, where – snorted – whereas as crack is smoked.
LAMB: There are actually three places where your work is available for people to read or watch. And one is a documentary, one is ”Freakonomics,” and one is your new book.
What did ”Freakonomics” do for you? And how did you find your – and that book’s been on the market, for how long now on the bestseller list?
VENKATESH: Must be two years.
LAMB: At least. I think it’s beyond that.
LAMB: But, I mean, it’s got paperback – no, it’s not in paperback.
LAMB: It’s still hardback.
VENKATESH: It’s still hardback.
LAMB: How did you get into that book, and what impact did it have on you?
VENKATESH: I had met Steven Levitt, one of the co-authors of ”Freakonomics.” We were at Harvard together on a post-doctoral fellowship. And Steven and I had been very interested in trying to figure out what is the right model for understanding the underworld, street gangs, prostitution, et cetera.
And he had – we had written academic papers that compared the street gang’s finances to a corporation’s financial structure. And ”Freakonomics” was, I think, probably just the popular version of that, bringing some of those ideas out to the general public.
Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner tried to convince me for many – on many occasions to try and write a more popular book, because they thought some of the stories would get out. And many people recognized my name from the ”Freakonomics” tag.
And I actually resisted for a long time, until I became convinced myself that maybe there’s a value in bringing some of the folks – not just JT the crack dealer, but the many people in the housing development where he lived, who had to deal with him and who had to deal with the gang.
And so, I think ”Freakonomics” helped push me a little bit outside the academy into the wider public.
LAMB: The name, Sudhir Venkatesh, stands for what? Where does it come from?
VENKATESH: I was born in India, in Madras, in the south. And I came here when I was 4.5 years old. My father at that time was a graduate student at Syracuse University. And he is since – he’s a professor of business, and I was raised in California, where my mother also works.
So, I was an Indian immigrant, probably as part of the brain drain in the late 1960s, early ’70s, who came over.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
VENKATESH: Mostly in Southern California, in a very, very upper middle class, very exclusive, homogenous, largely white American suburb, Irvine, where the average income was probably more than what JT the street gang leader would make, you know, about $100,000.
It was a very isolated existence. So, when I left and went to the University of Chicago, and Chicago in general was a whole new experience for me.
LAMB: Where did you go for your undergraduate work?
VENKATESH: I studied mathematics at the University of California-San Diego, in La Jolla, another beach town.
And I actually thought I was going to be going down the road of hard science – engineering, mathematics, cognitive science. And an advisor of mine said, you should really think about getting some training and discovering what the real world is like. So he said, you should – which means you’ve got to get out of California.
LAMB: And so, you got your master’s degree or your Ph.D. where?
VENKATESH: I had my bachelor’s degree in San Diego. I went to the University of Chicago, where I studied sociology with William Julius Wilson. And I would leave there with both a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in sociology.
LAMB: And where are you now?
VENKATESH: Currently, I am a professor of sociology at Columbia University in New York.
LAMB: What impact do you think this book will have on your life now?
VENKATESH: Well, already – it’s been a very short time, and already, I think, it’s reached more people than conventional sociology can do. I mean, I just have not been able to access the number of audiences, whether it’s in the media or just people on the street and in the public. So, just at the level of access, I think this book has a wider reach.
I also think that this book, because it’s rooted in the lives of individuals and characters, that it can bring out a side of life in the inner city that sociology just can’t do. Sociology has a wonderful value. It tends to be scientific. It tends to be a little bit more dry. And when it talks about the city, it’s rooted in social policy.
This book is not a book about, for policymakers in the sense it’s not there to help them construct policy. It’s there to bring you very closely into the lives of people and in the lives of particular communities.
LAMB: How much of this book is in your dissertation?
VENKATESH: Very little of this book is part of my dissertation. This book is written as a first person narrative.
And this book is intended to give you a sense of how I discovered the world, so that you really start to get deeper and deeper and deeper into the public housing project, as I go deeper and deeper. And you start to see why I make some of the decisions I do, and why I make some bad decisions along the way or trip over my own feet.
And I wanted to write it like that, because sociology doesn’t have a place for you – these days – for you to understand how this kind of research is actually made. You see the article at the end of the day, but I wanted people to see the process of going in and making connections with people.
LAMB: When did the documentary run, and where?
VENKATESH: I produced a documentary and directed a documentary called ”DisLocation.” And it aired on PBS affiliates in 2005, mostly in the Midwest.
LAMB: Who paid for it?
VENKATESH: The documentary was paid by the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, primarily. They supported it through grants. And then it took about two years, 2.5 years to make.
LAMB: Lee-Lee and Willie, who are they?
VENKATESH: Lee-Lee Henderson is a single mother who was raised in public housing, part of four generations of people who have lived in public housing in her family. And she had – and the film chronicles her last days in her building as she prepares to leave.
Willie Kyles is an older resident. She was the first person to move into 4525 South Federal, which was a building in the Robert Taylor Homes. And the film actually chronicles the first resident, Willie Kyles, and Lee-Lee Henderson, a newer resident, as they prepare to leave the building, because it’s being demolished.
LAMB: What year did they tear down the 28 buildings?
VENKATESH: They started to tear down the buildings in 1996, and they just finished in 2006, tearing the last of the 28 buildings.
LAMB: Why did they tear them down?
VENKATESH: A move was underway in the late 1980s to rethink the value and the place of public housing in the America. And Congress mandated that all local housing authorities conduct viability tests to determine whether it was actually cheaper to renovate public housing or demolish.
And in almost every inner city around the country, the answer was that it was cheaper and more effective to tear down the buildings and rebuild them with mixed income, private market developments.
LAMB: People that lived there – and you said there was 30,000 to 40,000 people that lived in these Robert Taylor Homes – what were their circumstances? Who could live there?
VENKATESH: You had to meet basic income criteria. Almost all the families in the Robert Taylor Homes, of their 4,400 units, almost all the families were making under $10,000 per year for a family of four. So, it was a very, very poor community, 99 percent African-American in makeup. So, this was in the middle of a historic African-American ghetto.
When it began in the ’60s, it was actually two-thirds employed families, middle class – again, almost all African-American, but middle class. And that changed after the 1970s, with new income restrictions that made it possible only for the poorest of the poor to live there.
LAMB: What did it cost them to live there?
VENKATESH: That depends. Lee-Lee Henderson, for example, had absolutely no income. She lived on public housing. So, she paid no – she actually paid nothing in terms of rent. She had to pay for her light bill, but she paid absolutely no rent.
Other families, it was based on whatever you were making. So, it could up to something like $150 – probably not a lot for a middle class family, but certainly a lot for a family who might be making only a few hundred dollars a month.
LAMB: One last question before we look at some video. Who was Robert Taylor?
VENKATESH: Robert Taylor was the first African-American appointed as the chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority. And the public housing development was named in his honor.
LAMB: Let’s watch a couple of minutes of your documentary.
LEE-LEE HENDERSON, ROBERT TAYLOR HOMES RESIDENT: The building’s already gone. They ain’t trying to hit (ph) us.
So, this is basically what they want. They want this land. They’re going to get it. It’s going to be condos up and down here. They’re going to get them rich folks seize this land, and it’s just going to be us ass-hauled out.
VENKATESH: Lee-Lee was right. Robert Taylor is a prime real estate location in Chicago, because it is only a few miles from the city’s downtown.
The housing authority promised that over the next 10 years they’d build mixed income housing at the site of Robert Taylor.
The new community is going to look like these townhomes on the city’s North Side at the Cabrini-Green development.
About 90 percent of Robert Taylor families say they want to return to the new community. But there’s only enough housing being built for about 10 percent of them to come back.
This plan to build mixed income housing at Robert Taylor is ironic, because 40 years ago, Robert Taylor was founded as just that – safe, affordable, mixed income housing.
MAYOR RICHARD DALEY: This project represents the future of a great city. It represents vision. It represents what all of us feel America should be, and that is, a decent home for every family …
VENKATESH: Before the housing authority built Robert Taylor, the area around State Street was filled mostly with one-room shacks and tenements. There were hundreds of thousands of African-Americans living crowded together. Segregation made it almost impossible for them to live outside the ghetto, even for those families who could afford to live elsewhere.
So, Robert Taylor’s 28 high-rises stretched along State Street, with their new laundry rooms and gardens and playgrounds, they were a much-needed source of livable housing.
In 1962, Willie Kyles and her husband moved into 4525 South Federal.
WILLIE KYLES, ROBERT TAYLOR HOMES RESIDENT: I’ve been here – here, right here – 38 years.
KYLES: Two upstairs and moving down here. But I’ve been right here 38 years.
VENKATESH: So, you were here at the very beginning of this place.
KYLES: Yes, I was the second family that moved in here.
KYLES: Because the whole building was completed. Everybody got along with everybody.
VENKATESH: Are you excited about leaving? Are you – you don’t want to leave?
KYLES: If you’ve got to go, let me go. And then I can get my house built up, fixed up like I want to. And I’ll be there until I die, and then they can move wherever they want to move to.
VENKATESH: Who’s going to be moving with you?
KYLES: Well, there’s eight of us here. And I want a place for eight of us.
VENKATESH: Where would you like to move to, if you could right now anyplace you would, any place you could move to?
KYLES: Anywhere close I can look out and say, ”There is my old State Street!”
When I come to Chicago, I was on State Street, 921. That was as close to downtown as you’re going to ever get.
That’s when colored folk couldn’t cross Kedzie. No more than going out there with an apron on and wash the ceiling and clean them windows.
Better not be caught across Kedzie at dark, and you ain’t come from Miss So-and-so’s house. You wouldn’t see daylight no more.
LAMB: What happened to Willie?
VENKATESH: Willie Kyles, like many of the residents, ended up moving to the Dearborn Homes, another public housing development, because the housing authority couldn’t get these folks out into the private market. They couldn’t find them a unit.
So, they moved them into another housing development. And that was a real awful result for a lot of families, because they were in a place that had a different gang. They were not safe.
And eventually, she was moved into a substandard house – she was moved to substandard housing in the private market. And she’s since passed away, I think two years ago.
LAMB: Why did Robert Taylor Homes fail?
VENKATESH: I think the Robert Taylor Homes had a very difficult trajectory. Again, when it began it was filled with working families, as well as poor families. It was really a classic mixed income community.
But in the late 1970s, as African-Americans experienced greater mobility, they were able to finally leave the central core of the city and move into areas that they otherwise could not live in, and previously could not live in. And that left behind a very poor community.
And the second most important change in that process was that, when President Ronald Reagan came into office, he slashed the public housing budgets by 87 percent, which meant that there just wasn’t money to keep or upkeep for safety or for providing services to tenants. And the place just went downhill tremendously.
LAMB: What’s different about your documentary than your book? In other words, how much crossover is there?
VENKATESH: There’s really not a lot of crossover. The documentary chronicles the last six months of one building, and how residents are preparing to leave for a new neighborhood in the private market. What are they going to miss about their community? And is it difficult for people who, for generations, have had no experience living in the private market, to move there?
The book is really about my journey at an earlier period in time, rooted in a relationship with a street gang leader, trying to understand how residents come to terms with the presence of a crack dealing street gang in their community.
LAMB: Back to the documentary for a moment.
Who’s Beauty, and who’s Chuck?
VENKATESH: Beauty Turner is an activist, a writer, a journalist, who moved into public housing when her apartment was set on fire by an angry husband. And she moved into public housing. She became an activist there.
And then I met her and we participated. And she helped make this documentary with me.
Chuck – Charles Shepherd – is a young man who has tremendous learning disabilities and was taken care of by the residents of this building. And part of the film chronicles the ways in which the community comes around him and helps him to make a transition to the private market.
LAMB: Let’s watch.
HENDERSON: I’ve lived in the projects most of my life. And maybe sometimes put up to be rough and not safe, but it’s where a lot of people call home. And some people call that place home for over 40, 50 years of their life.
It’s just, to most people, a safe haven.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Take your time, hon.
VENKATESH: So, Chuck, you have faith that this is all going to work out for you?
CHUCK SHEPHERD, ROBERT TAYLOR HOMES RESIDENT: Well, I have to have faith. But I’m not really where – got to have faith. Just have to.
VENKATESH: I’ve been studying Chicago public housing for over a decade. In the ’90s, I lived with families in the Robert Taylor Homes, and I wrote a book about their community.
When the demolition started I returned, because I wanted to see how some of them were coping with the relocation.
I met Beauty Turner. She was living in 4525 South Federal.
She moved into the development about 11 years ago, because her house burned down and she couldn’t find a place to live.
She ended up raising three children in the development, and they’ve all gone on to college.
But she wanted to stay. She wanted to help the families get through the relocation process.
I often work with residents on my research. And Beauty and I decided to work together and follow some of her neighbors as they prepared to leave the building.
BEAUTY TURNER, ROBERT TAYLOR HOMES RESIDENT: We’re on the second floor. We’re waiting for you.
VENKATESH: One of Beauty’s neighbors is Chuck Shepherd. Chuck grew up in Robert Taylor. He has mental and physical disabilities, and because of that, he’s had a tough time moving out.
How are you?
SHEPHERD: Oh, I’ll make it.
VENKATESH: You’ll make it? You got five minutes?
SHEPHERD: Yes, I’ve got five minutes.
I’ve got a hole behind there that a rat chewed. There’s a hole right there.
The pipe is cracked in the kitchen. It leaks.
Any time I want to run water, this is what happens.
But they want me to give them $120 a month for this apartment.
VENKATESH: Do you pay rent?
SHEPHERD: Yes. I’ve been paying them rent for when, just in case they want to take me to court, they say, they want to ask am I current in my rent? I’ll say, yes, I’m current in my rent, but they just ain’t current with fixing everything.
VENKATESH: Have they given you any assistance trying to move out?
SHEPHERD: Not yet. All they’ve given me is that, ”We want our rent.” That’s all I hear is, they want their money.
I give them their money, I still don’t get nothing fixed.
LAMB: Just a quick question. Chuck seemed to be normal when you listen to him there. What were his physical and mental problems?
VENKATESH: Chuck is a very thoughtful, intelligent person. He has seizures on occasion. He has loss of memory. He has diabetes. And he can’t take care of himself. And he’ll go through episodes where he just needs other people around.
And he’s never actually had a nurse. He’s only been able to survive off the benevolence and the surveillance, really, of others in his building. And that’s something that he lost when he left the community.
LAMB: Where is he now?
VENKATESH: Chuck has been moving from apartment to apartment, living off insurance that comes for people who have disabilities. Chuck lost his housing choice voucher, or what’s known as a Section 8 certificate, that pays part of his rent, because he had a seizure. He had memory loss and he forgot to go down to the government office to sign the proper forms.
LAMB: Where is Beauty?
VENKATESH: Beauty is a writer, a freelance writer, and she lives in the South Side of Chicago. She actually has started tours for the media and for people who want to come and see where public housing residents are living today.
LAMB: Back to the book, some of the people in your book. C-Note, who was he?
VENKATESH: C-Note was a squatter who lived in the Robert Taylor Homes, who grew up there for most of his life. And he basically was in charge of many aspects of the underground economy.
If you were, for example, another squatter, and you needed a place to live, you would go to C-Note, and he would find a vacant apartment for you. And in turn, C-Note would make you maybe clean the floors of the building or fix somebody’s apartment.
So what happened was that C-Note and the squatters became the de facto janitorial service and the maintenance crew for the people in the buildings, because the housing authority just didn’t play that role.
LAMB: When did you feel that your life was in danger?
VENKATESH: I think there were a number of instances I felt as though I would rather be someplace else. And very early on, I experienced – I was caught in some drive-by shootings amongst some street gangs.
And I was one of the only people – perhaps the only one – who didn’t know what you should do, which is hit the ground. I had none of those instincts, so I stood as a tall tree. And the residents became very worried, because I’d repeatedly find myself in these circumstances where I’d stand up, and I became a target. And they tried to teach me how to ”bend your knees,” as they said.
So, I started sensing very early into the work that I just didn’t have the cultural capital to be able to make decisions appropriately in this particular place, and I’d better not stay here too long.
LAMB: Why were there drive-by shootings?
VENKATESH: Drive-by shootings were almost always on the – were almost always the result of two street gangs that were fighting each other, fighting over common turf for crack dealing.
So, there may be a park, and that was a public area that had great traffic. And the two street gangs wanted to actually control that park. So they would drive by each other’s territory.
Or they would shoot in each other’s territory, because they wanted to scare customers for crack cocaine, who would be scared to go there, and they’d have to go to the other gang’s territory to buy their crack.
LAMB: What’s the longest period of time you lived in a Robert Taylor home or apartment?
VENKATESH: I stayed with families for several weeks at a time. I was never a leaseholder. I was never on the lease. I never – this was over an 18-month stretch. I’d spend a few weeks, come back to my own apartment.
And I think doing that really helped me to see some of the, just the boring aspects of life, but important aspects – kids taking – parents taking their kids to school, fixing dinner, having dinner.
It also separated me off from journalists and folks who just didn’t have that luxury of spending more than maybe a week to get their story in some of these places.
LAMB: What was it like for you the first time you went to Robert Taylor Homes?
VENKATESH: The first time I entered public housing was as though – I felt I was going in a different world. I had come from Southern California, and I was entering a place where everything smelled different. It was concrete. It was crowded.
And actually, the first time I walked in with a questionnaire, and I asked people a set of questions from my questionnaire. But they looked and said, you know, you really can’t be using those kinds of questionnaires. You need to come in and live with us if you want to get a real proper understanding of what life is like.
LAMB: Our folks are watching something from the documentary, and it shows pretty sad apartments and the way they were kept up. Why were they – and is this a good example of what they all looked like?
VENKATESH: These apartments that we’re looking at are the apartments of squatters. And what they would do is, they would take vacant apartments and then bring a mattress in, and then try to put some stuff in the fridge, if it was working, and then make do. These are the worst apartments.
Now, most of the apartments were not in this bad a shape. But the rest of the apartments weren’t necessarily in great shape.
A common thing that would happen is that you would have maybe five or six families. And they would come together, and they would stay in touch with each other, because only one sink would be working, only one apartment might get hot water, only one stove would be working.
So, they always had to be flexible to know where they were going to shower that week, where they were going to cook that week, where they were going to sleep that week, because five of the six apartments might have rat infestation.
So, they weren’t all as bad as those images, but they weren’t all very good, either.
LAMB: Who was Ms. Bailey?
VENKATESH: In the early 1970s, the tenants fought for and won the right to represent themselves in the decisions of the housing authority, and it created something called the Local Advisory Council, which was made up of elected tenants who could represent the tenants’ interests in housing authority decisions over budgets and maintenance and things like that.
Mrs. Bailey was one of these tenant leaders. She began as someone who was paid by the housing authority to help them with their decision-making. She turned into a sort of a political boss. When the housing authority started to lose resources, if you wanted to get your apartment fixed, you had to pay Ms. Bailey a few dollars, and then she’d call a janitor.
So, she had a – she had the makings of a politico in the area.
LAMB: How many of these names are the accurate names for these folks?
VENKATESH: Almost all the names in the book have been changed, because as a researcher, I am supposed to protect the – I’m supposed to reduce the risk of human subjects. There are two names that have not been changed, because they appear in the documentary. And that’s Dorothy Bailey and Autry Harrison (ph).
LAMB: And why weren’t they changed?
VENKATESH: They weren’t changed, because they were part of my documentary, which falls under the guise of journalism. And you can actually, in the university system, use people’s real names.
They also wanted their names to be used. And they’ve been a central part in my own teaching. I’ve brought them to Columbia. They meet with my students. When I’m on a book tour, they come with me. And they’re very good at bringing the world of the projects to the wider audience.
LAMB: Why no pictures in the book?
VENKATESH: That’s a good question. I haven’t had pictures in any of my books.
And I think the consistent reason is that Americans have such strong images of what urban poor communities are like, that in my books, I’d like them to read, and maybe just for that one instant, start thinking about their own community – not necessarily in terms of poverty, but that, ”Oh, you know, here’s how these residents are reacting or responding to street gangs, to crime or to a kid that’s gone astray. Ah, I see that in my own community.”
And I’d like to play with the idea that maybe this is an American community in some respects.
LAMB: Who was T-Bone?
VENKATESH: T-Bone was primarily the accountant, the financial officer for the street gang. And over the course of time I developed a very close relationship with him. He was also in college, on the way to getting an associates degree at a community college.
And he turned over the ledgers that he had kept of the gang’s financial activity for four years to me, which then became the basis of Steven Levitt and my work on the economics of drug-dealing gangs.
LAMB: Why did he turn over those ledgers to you, in your opinion?
VENKATESH: A couple of reasons. I think T-Bone, when the federal indictments of street gangs for racketeering, on racketeering and organized crime charges started to come around in 1995, T-Bone felt as though he was going to go to jail or be killed. He felt that that was his alternative.
And I think he had this sense that he wanted to do something good. And maybe as a form of salvation, he actually turned these over in hopes that people would understand how the gang ran, the operation.
And as important, I think he took a certain amount of pride, if you can believe it, in running a tight ship. And he wanted me to see the proof, the evidence of that.
LAMB: What happened to him?
VENKATESH: I know that T-Bone went to jail, and I’ve struggled to find him. But the last I heard was that he was killed in prison, but I can’t confirm that.
LAMB: Who was Price?
VENKATESH: Price was the gang’s chief enforcer, and he was in charge of the security of the gang. So, that entailed preparing the gang for drive-by shootings, making sure that they were armed, that they had enough guns, that they had enough weapons, they had enough ammunition.
And also, in charge of extortion. So, Price was responsible for making sure that local businesses that were in the area were paying the gang a fee for protection, or the squatters who had moved in the community were paying him a fee for protection.
LAMB: Black Kings, is what the gangs were called. And how extensive was that in Chicago? And is it still going?
VENKATESH: In the 1980s and 1990s, most of the African-American street gangs in Chicago were organized in a pyramid structure with local factions coming up into a pyramid, with leaders at the top managing all of the gangs in the city. They were made up of not only adolescents and teenagers, but also 20-year-olds, 30-year-olds, 40-year-olds.
Today, it’s a much different situation. Today, it looks like it was maybe 40 or 50 years ago – primarily adolescents, primarily teenagers, not always economically oriented, but often just gangs of bands of youth hanging around the corner – vandalism, maybe a little shoplifting, or just bored and forming peer groups.
LAMB: Is there a Black Kings gang today?
VENKATESH: No. The Black Kings actually are a pseudonym for one of the gangs in Chicago – again, to protect the anonymity of – to ensure the anonymity of some of the people who participated in the research.
LAMB: In ”Freakonomics” they’re names something else, like Black Disciples or …
VENKATESH: In ”Freakonomics” they’re called the Black Gangster Disciple Nation, which is actually an umbrella of several gangs, so we could use that term and still, the reader wouldn’t be able to trace exactly which particular gang that we’re talking about. But that’s a real name.
LAMB: Could you go back and do this all over again? Is it still there, the infrastructure, the people and all that?
Besides, I know Robert Taylor Homes are no longer there.
VENKATESH: It’s important to note that in Chicago, as in many other cities, there’s been a fundamental change in the way poor neighborhoods are represented in the metropolis. So, whereas before in the U.S. we have had really central cities filled with poor people, because of public housing demolition, because cities have revitalized themselves, most of the poor neighborhoods actually exist on the outskirts of the city. So, American cities are starting to look much more like their European and their Latin American counterparts.
And so, if you wanted to do a study of American poverty or American inequality with respect to the African-American poor, you’d find yourself going as far away from downtown as you could possibly get, to the borders or to some of the inner ring suburbs.
LAMB: If we were in the Loop in Chicago, near the Sears Tower, which you can easily see in your documentary, and you drove south on State Street, what would you see where the Robert Taylor Homes used to exist?
VENKATESH: You’d see construction crews building a mixed income community. Forty-four hundred units of public housing were there. Today, the development team that is rebuilding that area is planning only 450 to 500 units of public housing.
So, a small percentage of those folks that moved out will be able to come back. But mostly what you’re going to see there over the next 10 years are townhomes, condominiums and market rate units that are there to attract a middle and upper middle class population.
LAMB: We saw video earlier of Mayor Daley – the father of the current Mayor Daley – saying this was the greatest thing that was ever going to happen. And then you said that Ronald Reagan stopped funding.
So, is it fair to blame Ronald Reagan for why this whole thing collapsed? Or should the City of Chicago maintain these buildings better?
VENKATESH: I think the City of Chicago was probably hampered in what it could have done, in the steps that it could have taken to maintain these buildings, simply because of the budget cuts from Housing and Urban Development after the early 1980s.
Having said that, there are decisions that the Daley administration made that certainly didn’t help matters. By, for example, taking the staff of the housing authority and reducing it from several thousand people to roughly 400, turning it into an agency that was responsible for keeping these communities habitable to some minimal degree and really foregoing that mandate and outsourcing a lot of the obligations in the form of – because of privatization.
So, I think the city could have paid a little bit more attention to some of the poor neighborhoods in the city.
LAMB: What were the reasons that Ronald Reagan’s administration gave for stopping the funding?
VENKATESH: Well, I think in the early 1980s, the withdrawal of resources from public housing was part of the conservative revolution in America. Democratic voters, suburban voters, white ethnic constituencies that historically had voted for Democrats had, I think, just gotten tired of spending all their money on the poor and the working poor.
So, I think that was part of the problem, was that people just were frustrated and had compassion fatigue, that they just didn’t want their dollars, their tax dollars, going to folks who looked like they would never be able to get out of poverty.
LAMB: Was there any evidence that any of the public housing worked?
VENKATESH: Oh, yes. Public housing worked very well for those folks who had no options.
There’s very good social scientific evidence that suggests for the really poor – the people who have physical disabilities, or they have large families, or they’re unable to find work – public housing is a tremendous resource. For those families who have lost a job, public housing still continues to be a place where families can come for six months or a year, until they can get back on their feet, yes.
LAMB: Go back to the video we saw of Willie. And she referred to eight people living in an apartment? And how big is the apartment?
VENKATESH: I believe Willie Kyles’ apartment was four bedrooms. And at any one time that I knew her, she had a minimum of eight people. And she’d have another five or six or seven people coming through the apartment.
These are folks that could be relatives or friends who might have lost their job, who might not be able to pay rent and who are shuttling in between various apartments. And so, public housing was a refuge to a much larger population.
LAMB: We have some video of something that happened around a barbecue that you write about in the book. Tell us about the barbecue.
VENKATESH: So, the barbecue was a way for residents to come together, to share food, to make sure all the kids had enough to eat, and to keep the solidaristic (ph) feeling in some of these buildings. And most of us would probably barbecue outside. They would do it in the dead of winter and barbecue on the galleries, which faced outside, which were externally facing. And they would just use a trash can, cut it in half, put some coal and then cook hotdogs and hamburgers for the community.
LAMB: Let’s watch this.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE)
VENKATESH: The residents started calling these barbecues the beginning of the end. But what wasn’t ending was the day-to-day violence that they had to deal with.
An enemy gang drove by, shooting at the building. Everyone had to move inside until Beauty talked with some of the young men and calmed them down.
Beauty has been dealing with this kind of violence since the day she moved into the development. It’s partly what made her an activist.
TURNER: When I got to Robert Taylor, two teenagers came up at the base of the building – a young man and a young woman. A young woman sat on the stoop at the end of the building, and I was watching them. I didn’t have nothing else to do, the daytime.
So I’m watching them and they’re playing. He’d kiss her and he’d run to the parking lot. He’d kiss and run to the parking lot. OK?
He kissed her one last time and he ran to the parking lot. This time a car pulled up on him, a white car. And as the car pulled up on him, three boys got out of the car, and they hollered out some gang alphabets. And they shot this boy down.
You could see this boy die. Everything stopped and went in slow motion. It started to rain.
But I was writing. And as I was writing, I was looking at the window and I was crying. And I was saying in the paper that I was writing, the mother shouldn’t be the only one in tears tonight. But everybody in this community should be in tears, because when she lost somebody, so then we – we never know who this child would have been.
He didn’t look like no more than about 15 or 16 years old. And as I continued to look out that window and watch this boy die, I called out to my son-in-law (ph). And then they was looking, too.
They dialed (ph). They finally came. The ambulance finally came and took him away.
LAMB: What can you add to that?
VENKATESH: Only that Beauty saw that part of her job was to console other people who had lost children in these kinds of circumstances, helping mothers whose children have died in a drive-by shooting.
And I think the toll has really – the toll on her has been tremendous in performing this kind of service.
LAMB: One of the things you notice in your book is – there are a couple of things.
The ”N” word is used almost in every paragraph. And explain that in a moment.
And the other thing is, why the bad language in the gangs? We heard them there using the ”F” word and others, and they usually put ”mother” in front of it, and all that.
What’s that all about? Where does that come from? And did you see any evidence that somebody was going to try to change that environment?
VENKATESH: So, this is the language of the streets. This is the language, the expression language in this particular community and this particular population. This is the language that is a response to the social conditions. It’s an aesthetic language.
Now, having said that, when these young men were not in a group situation, and I would see them in schools, their language would shift. Just as the language for many of us probably shift if we’re at home or at work or with different groups, so, too, they would go to a different form of speech, a form of speech that perhaps was more accepted in school.
But when they got back into the neighborhood and with other young men in these groups, they would go right back to having a different identity. So, they were able to code switch, and they did it quite often.
LAMB: Well, you were often referred to by the ”N” word. I mean, I saw where in some of your conversations, JT would refer to you that way. And people loved to – I mean, were you shocked when you first heard that? And how did you deal with that?
And did you end up calling others by that name?
VENKATESH: I was actually a little shocked at the beginning. And I asked them why. And this was probably about two years, 2.5 years into it.
And what they said was interesting to me, because they basically said that ”You have transcended most people who come and visit with us. You don’t have a job. You aren’t making any money as a graduate student. You take the bus over here. We never see you work. We never see you do anything. In fact, you look a lot like us.”
I mean, they were joking as they said it.
And I think that was a kind of a – there was a mild affection, perhaps, and they were almost endearing themselves to me and saying, you know, ”We appreciate that you’re taking this kind of time.”
And that was the way they did it, by using that word and calling me that word.
I was never comfortable using it. In the book I talk about one occasion where I tried to use it and made a fool of myself. But that’s part of me learning exactly how to – that I didn’t have to change myself to be a part of this, to study the community and to be a part of their world.
LAMB: I assume that came from the title of the book, and the chapter is ”Gang Leader for a Day.” What was that all about?
VENKATESH: It’s just a provocative way of saying that, for a 24-hour period I was able to observe a street gang leader as he went about the business of managing his organization and making the decisions that were necessary to keep a crack-dealing, entrepreneurial boat on the water and afloat.
I didn’t – well, wasn’t the actual gang leader for that day, but I was actually standing right next to him as he had to discipline his subjects, as he had to figure out how to extort a tenant leader, figure out how to extort stores, make decisions about supply and demand, and everything else that a businessman might make, but except in the underground economy where violence is the norm.
LAMB: By the way, where is JT, again, today?
VENKATESH: JT is working on a part-time basis, just managing the stores of various relatives – barber shops and beauty salons that his relatives own. And he makes a wage – so different from his world, his previous life as a street gang leader.
LAMB: Did he ever come close to going to jail? Or did he go to jail?
VENKATESH: He said that he actually was in jail. I tried to confirm a lot of things about his past – where he went to school, what he studied. And it was really difficult to do so. He hid a lot of his personal life from me. But he said he went to jail.
But when the street gangs were busted in the mid-1990s in the federal indictments, he did not go to jail, and many other leaders actually did.
LAMB: You tell a story about Ms. Bailey and a meeting where some of the people in that room thought you were there to sleep with their daughters.
VENKATESH: Toward the end of my work in this community, by the end of my research, I wanted to find a way to give back to the community. And I started a writing workshop for some of the young women who wanted to record and document their experiences. But they were too embarrassed, because their friends would make fun of them if they were doing this.
So, I had a car at that point. I would pick them up and we would go to a diner, late at night after their kids went to sleep. They were single mothers.
I did this for so long, the residents started to see that I was only picking up some young women and taking them away. And they held a meeting and they confronted me and said, ”Why are you turning our young women into prostitutes?”
They thought I was taking them back to the university to sell sexual favors to some of the students.
And that was one of these ways in which you never really knew how people were going to interpret your actions, even when you were trying to do good.
LAMB: We’ve got some video again from the documentary where some of these young folks are kicking another person. I know that’s minor compared to some of the guns and murders and all that’s going on. And it’s right there on the screen. What is that?
VENKATESH: This is a street gang beating. One street gang actually is beating up somebody who they thought is in a street gang and who is not. It was inadvertent.
They saw a young man walking in their neighborhood. They didn’t know who he was. He refused to leave, or he refused to declare his gang affiliation. So the local gang just started beating him senseless.
And actually, the way in which that was resolved was that Beauty went over to the young man and helped him. The police never got out of their car. You see the police cars drive through. They don’t do anything. But it’s actually the tenants who have to go and find a way to help this young man get out safely.
LAMB: From your research, seven years living in the Robert Taylor Homes, how does anybody ever get out of that world?
VENKATESH: People do get out. The way they get out is through a number of – through sheer persistence and will, through the help of families who keep them focused, through the help of community members – school teachers, clergy, the directors of Boys and Girls Clubs – folks who just never give up on them.
The problem is that there’s just not a lot of those community members around, relative to the demand in these communities. So, that’s partly why only a couple of folks actually are able to get out and move on to a more stable life.
LAMB: What was your story about the fiasco with the hustler, in which you – after you had the informing meeting with JT and Mrs. Bailey, and you alienated people around the building?
VENKATESH: I really wanted to understand how the underground economy worked. And it was difficult for me to get access to people who were selling food, fixing cars, stealing cars.
And so, JT, the gang leader, Mrs. Bailey, the tenant leader, both said, ”Hey, we’ll find those folks for you, and we’ll let you interview them.”
And they did that. And so, I was really happy to get all this data on what different people were earning. I went back to the two leaders and I said, ”Hey, JT and Mrs. Bailey, can you help me and tell me if this is accurate? Are people lying to me?”
They looked over the figures. And what I didn’t know is that they then went and starting taxing the very people that I had interviewed. So they used this as a form of information gathering, so they could find people who were making money illegally, but who weren’t paying them an extortionary tax. And that’s what they did. They used it for their own purposes.
LAMB: So, how did you get out of that?
VENKATESH: Well, I have to tell you that that was sort of the end of my field work. And people – I lost a lot of trust among the residents. And they couldn’t believe that I was so naive and just so stupid, really, that I would do this sort of thing, that I would share this information.
And this taught me a lot about trying to be much more careful about the work that I do. But this also goes to show you that I was not prepared for any of this.
I tried to find in manuals and books exactly how you’re supposed to ask questions and how you’re supposed to operate as a field worker. And there was really no education available.
LAMB: How old are you now?
VENKATESH: I’m 41 years old.
LAMB: Live in New York City?
VENKATESH: I live in New York City, yes.
LAMB: Teach at Columbia?
LAMB: Do you have a family?
VENKATESH: No, I don’t have a family. I’m single.
LAMB: And what do you – let me just ask you this. If the new president of the United States a year from now would ask you to come to the Oval Office and tell him or her how to solve the problems that you saw, what would you say?
VENKATESH: I would say that we need a combination of two things. Putting aside for the moment how we’re going to pay for it, we need a combination of two things.
One is a jobs program. But not just a jobs program. We need a jobs program that’s rooted in communities and rooted in community institutions, so that people like Beauty Turner are part of the folks that are doing the educating, the mentoring and keeping in touch with young people.
We could have that be government or corporate or philanthropic. It doesn’t matter, but we need …
LAMB: You have to make something? Is that what you mean? Either factories or …
VENKATESH: Fix roads. It could be a WPA-style program like in the New Deal, where you could write books or you could chronicle the history of your community. It could be artistic based.
LAMB: Do these kids want to work?
VENKATESH: These kids are dying to work. They’re dying to work and they’re dying to do something meaningful in their lives.
LAMB: How do you know?
VENKATESH: Not only is that what they tell me every day, but that’s also why they’re going into the underground economy. And in fact, that’s why they call the drug economy ”work.”
And they talk about it. They get up, they go and perform their shift, and they come home from their shift and they have money in their pocket. And they get all that pride from working in the illegal economy that they otherwise could get by working in a legitimate job.
LAMB: What’s your sense of the whole drug culture? Is it getting worse, or getting better, or what?
VENKATESH: I think it’s pretty diffuse right now. I think a lot of the hard-core addicts that went through the period of crack are no longer – there’s just not as many folks on crack and hard drugs like that. So, in some sense, we have a perfect opportunity to get young people and get them away from the drug economy.
But we need to act pretty soon to be able to do that.
LAMB: Do you think the recent decision about judges and the sentencing and all will change anything, where crack is not looked upon as that different than pot or cocaine?
VENKATESH: I think the parity in crack and cocaine, the sentencing guidelines, would be an enormous step. I think additionally would be giving judges greater flexibility, those folks that are closer on the ground, in terms of understanding the need for probation versus incarceration, and so on.
LAMB: About out of time. But could you – do you have enough material to write another book?
VENKATESH: I have enough material to write two or three more books, probably. I saw a lot in that time. Yes.
LAMB: What’s something important that you saw that you didn’t write about?
VENKATESH: The world of philanthropy, the world of folks who are doing charitable work, whether it’s foundations or community-based organizations that are doing the hard work – the social workers – every day, to keep these communities intact.
LAMB: What kind of a grade would you give them?
VENKATESH: Oh, I’d give them an A just for hanging around and struggling and trying to do their best.
LAMB: Sudhir Venkatesh, thank you very much for joining us. The book is called ”Gang Leader for a Day.”
VENKATESH: Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.