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Researcher Studies Gangs by Leading One

Jan 12, 2008 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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For seven years, sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh led a double life.

For days, Venkatesh stayed inside one of Chicago's worst housing projects living with poor families and hanging out with gang members. Then he would return to the tony neighborhood of Hyde Park, where he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago.

Now a professor of sociology at Columbia University, Venkatesh ventured into Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes housing project in the 1990s to do research for his doctorate. He befriended the leader of the Black Kings, one of the country's largest and most violent crack-dealing gangs, and led the group for a day. Venkatesh's new book, Gang Leader for a Day, captures his years inside the projects and how residents and gang members interacted, coexisted and raised families.

Venkatesh's guide during his research was J.T., the leader of the Black Kings who took an interest in the budding academic and showed him the ropes inside the projects. Though J.T. had a college degree, he left corporate America to run a drug operation that made him up to $100,000 a year.

Over time, J.T. challenged Venkatesh academically, pushing him to think more clearly about urban poverty in America. And after a few years of friendship, J.T. handed Venkatesh the reins to his gang for a day, a job Venkatesh found wasn't as easy as it looked.

Scott Simon spoke with Venkatesh about his seven years inside the Chicago projects.

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