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.

People: Arie Haagen-Smit

“It took about 10 years for there to be concrete laboratory-proven evidence that the hydrocarbon emissions from tailpipes, when exposed to sunlight and nitrogen oxides, turned into photochemical smog.”

Arie Haagen-Smit, a biochemist who had been studying the flavor of pineapples at the California Institute of Technology, not only made that discovery, but fought hard to convince politicians, regulators and industry that cars were the biggest smog culprit in Los Angeles.

On Learning

Ulrich Boser, author of Learn Better, puts it this way:

“The basic thing is, we forget, and we forget at a very regular rate. People underestimate how much they forget, and people who are able to revisit their learning at a regular rate end up learning a lot more … This is stuff that dates back to the 19th century, but we really just don’t use it in schools or in colleges, even though we know that people forget a lot, and they forget at this very regular rate.”

The only way to remember is to summarize and explain things to yourself and others.