Many Americans have this idea about exceptionalism. America doesn’t have the problems that other places do. We read about Zimbabwe and Darfur and Pakistan, and we often say that those things couldn’t happen here. America’s too good for places where government, the community and state, doesn’t work. Unfortunately, that’s not true. Some of those failings are behind the scenes, like how young women turn to violent, brutal, vicious monologues that barely support them, because nothing else is available. (See the last entry.) Many of the others, the lost communities, are generally in places most Americans never see. That’s why we are amazed by descriptions like those in Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day. Over Spring Break, I picked this book up, having heard about it on NPR. I finished it in a day and a half. It’s the first book in the Musings to get the highest rating, 5 out of 5. If you are mature, and at all interested in communities (and I think you should be), this is a vital book. You should read it. I will warn you that the language that Dr. Venkatesh uses is quite brutal. It’s appropriate, because the life is brutal. The book is not for the squeamish. Then again, this blog has never been for the squeamish, either.
I thought for a while before awarding a 5, because that level of importance needs to be rare. It’s like giving A grades; if they’re common they lose value. For a while, I thought I was being generous because I had knowledge of the topology. When I arrived in Chicago in August 2000, some of the Lake Park infrastructure was still visible. When the 47th street entrance to Lake Shore Drive was under construction, I sometimes drove up to 39th street, passing the project on the right. I’ve seen the Robert Taylor Homes, the setting for most of the book, and driven through from time to time. I’ve personally seen the brutalist architecture of large, raw concrete buildings. I’ve seen the unprotected motel-style outside corridors that are completely inappropriate for windy, cold Chicago. I’ve seen mostly boarded up buildings. By 2000, many of the 28 original high-rises had been knocked down, leaving strangely open blocks of territory on State Street. These homes were several blocks from the subway, blocked on the west by the expressway. As even the CHA now states, “By containing a large low-income population on an isolated site, the Robert Taylor Homes property became a national symbol for the errant philosophy of post-war public housing.” They were miserable to view. It’s not hard, retrospectively, to see the problem. Take large numbers of relatively poor people. Choose sites far away from services and public transportation, because those are naturally undervalued. (As has been admitted, the projects didn’t even have the standard Chicago rectangular street grid, to further the isolation. Stack them in ugly buildings – the name brutalist actually comes from the french word for concrete, not how the buildings looked, but it works completely. Fail to maintain the buildings. Remove services and support, like police, banks, and medical services. Watch civil society disappear, and alternative forms of government develop. This means Gangs. After a few years, you get what’s described in this manuscript.
Dr. Venkatesh did the sort of naive idiotic dangerous thing graduate students are warned about. He went to the Lake Park homes to conduct a multiple choice survey. He should have been robbed, beaten, or killed. It happens every so often, even in the better neighborhood of Hyde Park. Instead, the leader J. T. adopts him, for reasons never fully explained. The author gains access, and over time, trust. He documents the world of the failed state, both in academic papers and the book. He worries about ethics and getting too close, even as that closeness furthers his career. (Navel-gazing I’ve never enjoyed reading, and that tradition continues here; these parts can easily be skipped.) In the end, the author gets the top-tier academic job, at Columbia; he has a happy ending. J. T. does pretty well; he gets to retire to the suburbs. The community, on the other hand, gets destroyed, razed with the buildings. The Robert Taylor Homes are like Ben Tre; “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”
This might be right; given the errors made in location, construction, and support, I don’t know if the community could ever have survived. It’s an utter embarrassment. You should read about it. As I did, I often cringed. I was also often amazed by J. T.’s skills. He is the best businessman I have ever seen, including the billionaires. With his skills, if he had my childhood, let alone the privilege one of many of my undergraduate compatriots, he would likely have two homes in the Hamptons. Instead, he’s got a stable middle-class life. If I were a business leader, I would read this book then try to hire J. T. After all, you can steal a lot more with a briefcase than a gun, right? If I were anyone else, even with the small flaws I have mentioned, I would read this book. It’s not happy, but it is revealing.