Book Review: Gang Leader for a Day

The community in the Robert Taylor Homes public housing project hustled to survive. Gang leaders provided community members with the care and protection that those in real power (the police and the Chicago Housing Authority) did not.

Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day is about one South Asian American graduate student and the seven years he spends with the Black Kings gang members in Robert Taylor. He eats with them, sits with them, and lives with them. He learns how they take care of families, kids, and squatters, how they grow their business and manage drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, and repairmen, and how they focus on resolving disputes through nonviolent means (shootings are bad for business).

Trust built over time is one of key themes of this book. “With people like us, you should hang out, get to know what they do, how they do it.” One gradually learns why the people at Robert Taylor trust the Black Kings more than they trust the police and the Chicago Housing Authority. The police raid the Black Kings for their cash, jewelry, and cars. The Chicago Housing Authority only responds to Robert Taylor maintenance requests when bribed with money or sex. “What about the ambulance?” “Oh, no, baby … They never come.”

You read about people in Robert Taylor and in the Black Kings who are thoughtful and ambitious: people want to change things for the better; people who say “I will do something important one day …;” people who stick together; people who care for each other; people who take responsibility for what they can control. They are people who will touch your hearts.