Sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh
Venkatesh, an Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of African American Studies at Columbia University in New York. His newest book –American Project: The Rise and Fall of the Modern Ghetto,— (Harvard 2000) was awarded the 2000 Professional/ Scholarly Publishing Award of the Association of American Publishers. His research interests are based in investigating the social organization of poor urban neighborhoods. He lives in New York City.
Other segments from the episode on January 31, 2001
DATE January 31, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Analysis: Evolution of housing projects in Chicago
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Chicago is one of the cities in the process of tearing down its high-rise
housing projects that were built as a way to help people out of poverty.
many housing projects came to be seen as isolated, dangerous communities
kept people in poverty. My guest, Sudhir Venkatesh, has spent a decade
studying the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, one of the projects which is
in the process of being demolished. His new book is called "American
The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto."
Venkatesh teaches sociology at Columbia University. He first began studying
Chicago's underground economy. One study he co-authored focused on the
finances of a Chicago street gang. He got access to the books detailing its
drug operation. He found that the average foot soldier in this gang's drug
operation only made about minimum wage. I asked him to describe the typical
Professor SUDHIR VENKATESH (Columbia University): This person is probably
just getting out of high school, or probably dropping out of high school is
the more common story; usually between 16 and 18 years and simultaneously
looking to the street gang and the underground economy for a job, but also
looking in the wider world of work as well for employment.
GROSS: And what's the job description for that minimum wage work?
Prof. VENKATESH: You know, it's a combination of being able to tolerate the
risks of being on the street. And these are the ones that, you know--if you
see footage of street corners, these are the kids that are being sent on the
street to do the dirty work, so to speak. They are the ones who are
transporting the drugs to customers and handling the money. They're the
in the public eye. They're the ones, really, experiencing the greatest
danger of anyone else in that economy because once you get older, you really
aren't on the street and being exposed to police and so on. You're sitting
at home and orchestrating deals.
GROSS: Were you able to figure out what the odds are that if you start off
as a foot soldier making minimum wage in a drug gang that you'll actually
rise to more prominence and more money?
Prof. VENKATESH: We did. It's about a 2-percent likelihood that if you
start out at about a 16- to 18-year-old--and, again, you're making minimum
wage--it's about 2 percent chance that you'll be able to rise to the top of
neighborhood street gang. And at that point, if you are lucky enough to
become part of the officer class or a leader, your income just dramatically
increases. It shoots up to over $100,000 a year. So there's a real
in terms of where people start and where they end up. Very small likelihood
of getting there, but it's a dream that many people hold dear in that
GROSS: But at the same time you found that active gang members had a
one-in-four chance of dying over the four-year period that you studied. So,
I mean, you're talking about pretty big risks here.
Prof. VENKATESH: I think that was what shocked my colleague and I the most
out of this research--is that if you took 100 people who'd started the gang
in any cohort in, let's say, 1990, by 1994, we would expect that 25 of them
would be killed as a result of some activities that they were engaged in
the gang. That's an extraordinarily high risk. That's surpasses by many
degrees the risks just for African-American males in the inner city. So
something that we should be paying attention to from many standpoints,
including a public-policy standpoint.
GROSS: Now, you know, in terms of the expenses of, you know, gangs that
drugs, you came up with some interesting things; that the gang that you
studied employed mercenary fighters during turf wars at about $2,000 per
month. Is that per month per fighter or per month for the whole group?
Prof. VENKATESH: That's per month per fighter.
GROSS: Wow. And the death of a foot soldier cost the gang about $5,000 in
family compensation and funeral expenses. Was there a policy of
family for someone who died in the gang?
Prof. VENKATESH: There's actually a 30- to 35-year-old policy, because this
street gang has been around for that time, to take care of people that die
the service of the street gang. You know, before gangs became economic
entities invested in the drug trade, they would do that by trying to embrace
the family and finding them jobs or doing whatever they could to help them;
giving them resources. Now that they have petty cash, so to speak, they
about $5,000, sometimes more, to the family and even, on an ongoing basis,
try to give some money to the family of the member or to the--to various kin
to help them along. It's something that they take very seriously.
GROSS: One of the ways the gang you studied made money was by collecting
taxes from businesses that set up on their turf. Kind of sounds like the
Prof. VENKATESH: It's a lot like the Mafia. And, actually, if you ask some
of the older people within the gang who they took as their models, they'll
either cite corporate America or they'll cite "The Godfather," the movie.
They really wanted to emulate the Italian organized crime trade. You know,
they didn't really have a great knowledge of what that crime trade looked
like in the city, but it was through these idealized depictions in film and
TV that they were getting their notions. It was a strong influence. And
there were a number of notions that were important; not just the business
aspect, but the idea that the gang was a family, like the Mafia, in terms of
its sense of loyalty and respect for one another. So the funeral expenses
were an indication of the ways in which they tried to demonstrate a familial
component to their activities.
GROSS: Now one of the things that the gang you studied did was actually
money to one of the tenants groups at the Robert Taylor Homes, the housing
project that you studied in Chicago. Why did they give money to this one
tenant group, and why was the tenant group willing to accept it, and what
strings were attached?
Prof. VENKATESH: At the end of the 1980s when the crack cocaine economy
started to flourish in Chicago, one of the things the street gangs had to do
at the very local level was to make sure that they were staying out of the
eyes of police--a very obvious, but a very difficult thing to do. In public
housing, they were actively trying to help--I'm sorry--recruit tenants into
their activities. The tenants really rejected their offers for a long time,
for bribes and so on, but they were also experiencing a great deal of
frustration because it was at this very time, right after the second term of
Ronald Reagan, that the Housing Authority's budget started to decline.
social services in the wider community were not actively reaching the public
housing residents. The foundations and philanthropies weren't as concerned
with supporting public housing. So a small segment of the tenant leadership
decided that, `Well, this is our last choice to try and take care of some of
our needs.' And one of the needs that they wanted to take care of was
sure their kids got to school safely. Well, it just so happened that the
street gang was interested in a type of public safety as well, because that
helped them to sell their drugs more smoothly.
So the tenants and the street gangs started to engage in these community
meetings where they would try and find compromises. And one of the ones
they struck was that you could--a tenant leader would say, `OK. You, the
street gang leader--you can't sell your wares, sell your drugs on these
corners and in front of the buildings between the hours of three and seven
when kids are coming home from school and playing. And you can't do it in
morning. But if you do it late at night and you do it in the afternoon,
we'll look the other way.' So there were these complicated and sort of
perverse bargains that had to be struck between tenants and street gangs.
there was a lot of resistance among the tenants. But there was also an
constituency that said, `Hey, you know, until we get better police
we're going to live with this. It lets me go to work. It lets me bring my
kids home everyday.'
GROSS: Was there any disagreement among the tenants about whether it was a
good idea to make these deals with the drug gangs?
Prof. VENKATESH: There was considerable disagreement. There was
disagreement almost every day. You couldn't walk down the hall--and hear
people debating this. But what was interesting to me is that they were
so in a very democratic way. This was largely done at tenant meetings where
people would talk about the issues. They would talk about, `What did we do
the past when we had a street gang? What did we do in the past when public
order broke down? Did we make compromises with the people who are actively
destabilizing the situation? Why are we doing that now?'
And it--and they also elected their leaders. If they didn't like the
compromises that one leader was making, they held an election and they
elected someone else. This was democracy at work. So, in that sense,
were approaching in a very civil way and trying to figure out what the best
solution was for them.
GROSS: Now were the leadership of the gang that you studied residents of
the housing project that you studied and that they operated in?
Prof. VENKATESH: All of the leaders of the street gang had grown up in that
public housing development in which the gang was situated. They had--so you
can imagine that the entire building knew who they were. They had known
for 20 years, 25 years. They were related to them, some people in the
building--they were their friends and nephews and so on, so it was a very,
very intimate relationship between the street gang members and leaders and
the broader residential population.
GROSS: And so did some of the residents of the housing project know some of
the gang leaders as so-and-so's son or, you know, so-and-so's nephew?
Prof. VENKATESH: Yeah. You know, looking back and trying to think about
the portraits that we had about street gangs and urban, poor communities
then, you get the feeling as though it was an enemy within or some sort of
alien force that came into the community from nowhere. But it was far from
that. It was a group of kids who had a number of opportunities and couldn't
fulfill them or chose to pursue their lives as street gang members and as
distributors of narcotics and extorters and so on. And residents watched
transformation, and they actively intervened through the whole process.
You know, I'd have dinner on numerous occasions with families. And
they'd--and the street gang leader would show up for dinner and they'd talk
them. And they'd use that as opportunities to inveigh against that person
say, `Look. Look what you're doing to our community.' And, you know,
get in arguments and so on, but they did so with a sense of compassion and
with a real sincere wish to try and steer that person away from the street
gang back into the mainstream labor force and to pursue their education and
So it was a very complicated situation because if it was just an alien
so to speak, they could just have these people removed from the community.
But it was not; it was the children of other people in the building. It was
their own children, their own kin. So it presented--it put them in a very
difficult place in the sense of: How do you intervene? You look at the
person in many different ways and you want to try to help them in many
GROSS: Now that we're in the era when many high-rise housing projects are
being knocked down, have you found that gangs that started in housing
projects are having to find new power bases?
Prof. VENKATESH: Yeah. I've actually been following where they're going
once the public housing developments are torn down. And some are actually
anticipating the process and seeking out territories elsewhere, sending
foot soldiers and their troops to other territories where they have friends
who are also street gang leaders or the street gangs in those areas are also
in the same family of street gangs. And that's--as you can imagine, is
causing great concern for the recipient communities of public housing
residents that are being relocated. It's not something that anyone had
anticipated as being a problem. Everyone really thought that when you took
these buildings and demolished them that the gang and crime problem--the
so-called gang and crime problem would dissolve as well, but it's not. And
it's following the movement of public housing and the reorganization of
communities. Just like residents, the street gangs are moving on their
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh.
And he's done a study on a housing project in Chicago, the Robert Taylor
Homes. And his new book based on that study is called "American Project:
The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto."
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh. His new book is called
"American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto." And it's based
his study of the Robert Taylor Homes, a high-rise housing project in
Do you think that this is the end of the high-rise housing project era?
Prof. VENKATESH: I think it's definitely the end of the high-rise public
housing development. This was one of the signatures of modernist
architecture. And apart from maybe a few developments that are going to
remain in a few cities and a small number of cities like New York, for
example, in which the high-rise is still present, for the most part, we're
not going to see these sorts of residential communities anymore.
GROSS: What's the fate of the Chicago projects?
Prof. VENKATESH: Right now there are about 18,000 units. That's about 51
buildings in Chicago that are now slated for demolition--51 high-rise
buildings. And the current plan that the Housing and Urban Development--
Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Chicago Housing
have agreed on is that they're going to raze those units, all of them, and
use the Section 8 program, the rent subsidies, to help people move into
neighborhoods. The plan is also stating that over the next eight to 10
the places where the buildings once existed will be transformed into
commercial and residentially zoned areas, mixed income areas. But that's
guaranteed, so we're--while we've seen the demolition of these high-rise
developments, we're still awaiting the plans to see what those spaces are
going to look like and who they're going to host in the future.
GROSS: So how many of the Chicago high-rise housing projects have already
been torn down?
Prof. VENKATESH: They're being actively torn down every day. In the
development that I studied, the Robert Taylor Homes, of 28 buildings,
probably near a half are gone and the rest are going to disappear probably
the next three to four years; each one of those buildings containing 1,000
units, so anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 people living in a building. So
that's a lot of people in a short amount of time that are hitting the
housing market and causing a strain in Chicago, where there's already less
than a 1-percent vacancy rate.
GROSS: So in the meantime, while some of the buildings in the Robert Taylor
Homes have been torn down, there are residents living in the ones that are
Prof. VENKATESH: There are residents living in the ones that are standing.
And some buildings are more stable than others. And by that I mean that
buildings have actually been refurbished with not a lot of money. It didn't
take much to make them livable again, in the sense of fixing elevators and
on. And those buildings will be the last ones to be torn down.
The really tragic story is that in other buildings, residents are being
shuttled about from building to building, sometimes with two to three weeks
notice and forced to live in a place that they're not familiar with, maybe,
with a street gang that they haven't had any connection to, so they're
in vulnerable circumstances, or they're forced to move out and allowed to
back in. So it's a great deal of instability that's being seen for public
housing residents who have to stay within the buildings.
GROSS: Let's talk about what went wrong. Was was the vision of the Robert
Taylor Homes when it was built in the '60s?
Prof. VENKATESH: The vision for the Robert Taylor Homes, like many of the
other public housing developments across the country, was a weigh station
for families who were living in areas--predominantly African-American
families who were living in areas that had--didn't have decent, affordable
shelter. And these weren't supposed to be developments where people were
staying for longer than a period of a few years. And that's actually--that
vision was actually borne out until the end of the '60s and the early '70s.
You had in the Robert Taylor Homes, a majority, two-parent families. There
were as many people who were working as not working. There was a strong
There were people leaving.
At the beginning of the '70s, that started to change. And that start--that
vision of what public housing could do in terms of a set of social supports
for the poorest and neediest and the segregated in America, that vision
started to crumble.
GROSS: How did it start to crumble?
Prof. VENKATESH: There are a couple of important developments that were
happening that made public housing--the idea that public housing could be a
weigh station problematic. Perhaps the most important was the tremendous
loss for African Americans living in cities that resulted following
deindustrialization, the departure of plants to areas overseas and to the
suburbs and so on. The toll that that took on African-American families was
tremendous. Hundreds of thousands of people in Chicago lost their
jobs, many of them that were--who were living in public housing, and using
that as a step towards a private market unit. The second important
development, as people started to lose their jobs, was that at the end of
'60s there was decreasing money for community-based programs and
that helped African Americans to migrate and settle and to become accustomed
to the city. As those institutions, which range from schools and volunteer
associations and social clubs--as they started to leave the community or
dissolve, and many times they dissolved because middle-class
families were using their resources to move out of the ghetto. So it was an
effect of that as well.
That had an effect on public housing, and the public housing started to
primarily situated in concentrated areas of poverty where people were
and they didn't have resources in the wider community. So those were perhaps
the two most important changes that happened in the '70s.
After that, you started to see the street gang becoming more of an
entrepreneurial actor. Whereas once it was largely a group of youth or
adults, or even adolescents that were more of a petty nuisance, now it
to become older members of the community who needed gainful employment and
looked at the drug economy for that employment. And that started to place
residents in a bind in terms of how they could use the techniques of
resolution and mediation and intervention that they had known for so many
years. Those had become ineffective for this new type of street gang in
GROSS: And another change you write about is how the families moving into
projects had changed, that more and more of the families there were single
mothers with children and single mothers who were often very young, much
younger than most of the original families moving in.
Prof. VENKATESH: That's right. The first, second, third cohorts in the
early '60s and '70s, these were people who were in their 30s, sometimes in
their 40s. Lot of kids, sometimes they had grandchildren. They were all
moving in and, as we're talking, they're moving out again. At the end of
'70s, the people that were moving into public housing were single mothers,
sometimes as early as their teens, who didn't have the same experiences
out of the civil rights movement, coming out of the history of grass roots
community struggle that their parents and their predecessors had in knowing
that that's what it would take to make public housing work. And they also
were struggling to support their families. This was a community that was
primarily reliant on public assistance.
And for a short period of time, and this was a really interesting phase in
many housing developments in the '70s and '80s, when those two groups were
living with one another, it was interesting, to hear people talk about the
types of education and consciousness raising that the older residents tried
to impart on the younger residents, in trying to make them understand what
would make public housing work. As sort of giving them a warning that in
coming years, if you're not organized and taking responsibility for your
community, it just won't work. No one else will do it for you.
GROSS: You say that when the Robert Taylor Homes were designed, they were
supposed to have shops and services within the project. What happened to
Prof. VENKATESH: One of the first designs for the Robert Taylor Homes was a
series of mixed structures, some three-story buildings, some eight-story
buildings, winding pathways, maybe a store on this corner, a church here,
there. It was variegated; you wouldn't even have been able to tell it apart
from broader community. The federal government effectively made that
impossible for the Housing Authority to build in that way because they
a limit, a cost ceiling for each unit, a per unit cost ceiling that made it
difficult for the Housing Authority to try and make a very interesting
environment for residents. So they had to resort to techniques of mass
production--you know, bring in work crews and just building these concrete
steel monoliths that, you know, took a very short time to build. And it was
disappointing; there was a lot of political battles. Even the elder Mayor
Daley, who was not always perceived as a proponent of African-American
actually lobbied very heavily not to build public housing high-rises. He
wanted low-rises. He wanted a much different design for public housing
families, and he couldn't pull it off. There was--the political winds just
didn't blow in his favor at the time.
GROSS: Sudhir Venkatesh is the author of "American Project." He'll be back
in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Back with sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh. For the past decade, he's been
studying the Robert Taylor Homes of Chicago, a high-rise housing project
is now in the process of being demolished. His new book is called "American
Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto."
You're doing a follow-up study now of people who were between the ages of 16
and 24 back in 1990 when you started your study of the Robert Taylor Homes.
Why are you doing this follow-up study? What are you looking for?
Prof. VENKATESH: This is with a colleague who's an economist at the
University of Chicago, Steve Levitt, and I think we're interested in two
questions. One is a very basic question that we don't really know which
relates to street gangs: What happens after people have had long-term
exposure to gang activity, to criminal activity, at a formative period in
their lives? `If you see them 10 years from that date, are they working?
they still alive? Are they in school? Are they in prison?' and so on. The
other relates to public housing: Where do people go when they leave public
housing, especially young people? So those are the two questions that
And for about the past 18 months or so, we've been trying to track down all
the 118 youth who were living in this housing development and asking them a
series of questions about their lives and what they're doing. And we've
almost all of them, all the ones that are alive anyway.
GROSS: Do you have a sense of, like, what proportion of these people have
been able to actually get jobs in the legitimate economy and how many of
are working in the underground economy?
Prof. VENKATESH: We do. Part of our series of questions include job
histories and employment histories. And at this moment, I think it's about
to 40 percent probably still participating in the underground economy in
way. Most of them are participating on a pretty irregular basis--a couple a
weeks here, a few months there--and trying to supplement their income, so
not as though that's their sole form of income generation.
These other are--you know, I don't know if you'd call this a success or not.
There's only, I think, three that are making more than $30,000 a year. The
majority are making around $18,000 to about $22,000, $23,000. They're
with either kin or they're doubling up and living with other families.
There's a history of involvement in the criminal justice system for many of
them. Their jobs aren't lasting very long. It's a very unstable pool in
terms of their access to employment, their access to education and so on and
not a lot of them graduated from high school as well. So they don't have a
skills base on which to draw--to try and, you know, engage in social
through the economy and find better employment.
These are the people, if you want to think about it, that are the backbone
the service economy. They're working in fast food. They're working in the
custodial sector. They're working in the health-care sector but doing so in
very short tenures, maybe six months to a year, then having to find a new
and moving from job to job.
GROSS: Does your sociological research lead you to conclude what a lot of
people have already concluded, which is that once you're in poverty, it's
hard to get out?
Prof. VENKATESH: I don't think that we'd conclude that--I think we'd affirm
that it's difficult to get out but not impossible. And it's not random. So
one of the questions for us is: Does it matter if you're in a street gang,
let's say, or heavily involved in criminal activity when you were young in
terms of your chances of getting out of the neighbor and finding a better
And actually it's a pretty strong result that we have that says that if you
are involved in a street gang and involved in the drug economy, you have a
significantly greater chance of remaining a fairly unstable person with more
involvement in the criminal justice system, a smaller likelihood of finding
The people who chose to remain in school, who chose not to participate in
street gang--probably affirming an obvious point, but we can sort of prove
now--have a greater likelihood of finding a decent job in and around a
wage, buying a house in some cases, actually having less of a tenure with
criminal justice system, a less of an attachment with the criminal justice
system. So it does make a difference.
GROSS: But that's not the perception from what you were saying. The
perception of many young people who go into the drug business is that that's
going to lead them more swiftly to the house that they want and to the car
that they want to own and to a better life.
Prof. VENKATESH: Yeah. One of the most interesting moments for me over the
past year and a half or so has been to take these results and actually show
them to the people who we've been interviewing and to some of the street
members that we know. So we tell them, for example, that they have less
a 2 percent chance of becoming a leader, that they're not going to make more
than minimum wage for their entire career as a street gang member, that if
they continue to do this, they'll probably end up in jail two or three times
and so on and so on. And there's a pause. There's a pause for about 10
seconds in the room where nobody wants to say anything. And then somebody
comes up and says, `You know what? But I'm going to be different. It's
to be different for me.' So somehow the ghost of Horatio Alger seems to
the room and liven up everyone's spirit. And then the American dream, as
as they understand it, seems to be what they're going to be following again,
vis-a-vis the street gang and the drug economy.
So there's a--so what we're doing now is actually talking to these youth by
themselves. And when you do that, it's--you know, they get sad. They get
depressed, in a sense. They realize this, and they admit it. But it's a
feeling as though, you know, `If I work in McDonald's or if I work in the
fast-food sector, where's that going to take me in 10 years?' And then they
just leave it open as a question and--to me. And, you know, sometimes I
have a very good answer for that.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh
And his new book "American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto"
based on his study of the Robert Taylor Homes, a housing project in Chicago.
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest Sudhir Venkatesh is a sociologist who has spent a decade
studying the Robert Taylor Homes, a high-rise housing project in Chicago.
Venkatesh spent the first few years of his life in India, then moved with
family to the US where he lived in suburbs and around university campuses.
said he had to confront some of his own personal biases about poor
when he began working in the Robert Taylor Homes.
Prof. VENKATESH: Coming to a place like Chicago and living in a very
isolated university environment around the University of Chicago, you're
distanced off maybe not spatially but culturally and in terms of the
that you receive that tells you, `Don't go beyond this street. Don't walk
this time of night.' And so you think that there's something different
on across the street in that poor environment, and that's the kind of
assumption that I carried with me in the beginning of my field work and that
had to overcome; that these are dangerous areas, dangerous in the sense that
people were killing themselves every day. It wasn't that type of danger, I
found out, but, you know, you couldn't help thinking that while you're--you
know, based on what I knew during the course of my life in the US.
GROSS: Yet there was real danger. You witnessed drive-by shootings and
fights, and there was a lot of drug crime and harassment and intimidation.
Did you have senses developed at the beginning that helped you distinguish
you had to be fearful of, because they really were a criminal and they
were dangerous, and who were really, like, decent people who didn't mean
anybody any harm and didn't mean you any harm?
Prof. VENKATESH: Yeah. I actually think there is a great level of danger
terms of the fact that the people are exposing themselves to enormous forms
risk and crime. But what I quickly found out and that probably helped me
along the way was that people had correlative forms of resolving conflicts,
making sure that they weren't involved in conflicts; that the types of
activities that they knew that could affect them, they had ways of shielding
themselves of. And I think I learned some of those ways: how to read the
signs on a street, how to know what was happening.
Just to give you an example, during the first few months of my field work, I
was standing outside with a bunch of kids playing basketball, and all of a
sudden I noticed that there were no kids standing around me. Everyone was
crouched down behind either a car or a bush or a tree. I was left at the
court by myself, just dribbling this basketball, and then a drive-by
just happened to--a drive-by car came by, and the people started to shoot
the car. These kids knew exactly when that was going to happen. When they
explained it to me, it was a certain screech that they heard, the speed of a
car coming around a corner.
You know, I was standing there foolishly, but, you know, naively, just, you
know, watching this all happen. They knew instinctively what to do. And I
think maybe over the course of time, I learned those sorts of skills, maybe
not always for dramatic incidents, like drive-by shooting, but also in terms
of where to walk in neighborhoods, how to understand, you know, the postures
that people were greeting me with on the street, how to respond
when to act crazy, when to simply avoid the situation. But that took quite
GROSS: Was there another incident after that in which you did dive for
or hit the floor?
Prof. VENKATESH: There was one incident that I--it's tough for me to get
of my head, and that was watching somebody get shot and killed in front of
as a result of a drive-by shooting. And that person, that young kid, wasn't
member of a street gang; he wasn't the target of the shooting. And I
watching the community galvanize around that, literally, at that moment; the
people coming and approaching and bending over and looking at the kid. And
was incredible silence. If you could imagine an entire city street block
that's thriving with activity and bustling and people yelling and screaming
and laughing and playing all of a sudden becoming silent. You could
hear a pin drop--and that event stays in my mind--and then people just sort
moving about on their own, very silently again, as if in a vigil.
And I think that was a turning point for me because, until that point, I had
probably carried a bit of a romantic view about this as a field worker going
into this community and looking at what street gangs were doing and how
exciting and racy this was. And you see something like that, and it
the community in that way, you couldn't help but think that there's
wrong here. The task now becomes how to explain and how to figure out
what it is and what we can do about it.
GROSS: Sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh is my guest. And his book, "American
Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto," is based on his study of
high-rise housing project, the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago.
You're from India. You were born there and lived there until you were four
five, and then you moved to the United States with your family. Do you
that being from India affected the way the people in the Robert Taylor
who were predominantly or maybe completely African-American, reacted to you?
Prof. VENKATESH: I think it did. I think it did in several ways. I came
Chicago in the late '80s, after Mayor Harold Washington had passed away, and
he was the first African-American mayor in the city of Chicago. And at that
time, the political geography of Chicago was emotionally charged between
African-Americans and whites, although there was a strong Latino and Asian
presence. And I think, in terms of my field work, that actually helped me
a lot. I think if I was actually white or if I was African-American, I
couldn't do the field work in the same way because I'd be brought into all
those political debates and dialogues. Because I wasn't, I was allowed to
just hang out, and people didn't see that I was invested or their debates
going to affect me. So in terms of field work, I think it helped.
I think, also--and this I didn't expect--on another assumption is that, you
know, there were strong connections in the black community to the Asian
community, not simply in terms of the fact that there was Asian-American
owners in the community--Koreans, Chinese, South Asians, Middle
Easterners--but, also, that people had an awareness of India as a very
abstract concept in terms of their own participation in the civil rights
movement in the '70s; I'm talking about the older generation. They had read
about Gandhi. They knew the relationship between Martin Luther King and
Gandhi, and they asked me a little bit about that history, they invoked that
history. And, you know, that's something that I didn't expect, that sort of
awareness about an aspect of India that they took and made very important
central in their own lives.
So how they recruited me into their lives was, I think, based on the fact
they already had a relationship with India. Although it was very abstract,
meant something to them. And I really didn't expect that, but I think it
helped me curry the favor of people perhaps more so than if I was from a
different ethnic group.
GROSS: What about, though, the resentment that some African-Americans felt
about Asian business owners in the neighborhood? I mean, I think there are
were some African-Americans who strongly felt that these businesses should
owned by black people, not by Asians.
Prof. VENKATESH: Some of the hostilities that I felt, because of my
Asian-American identity, were rooted in some of these store owners in and
around the Robert Taylor Homes, who were engaging in a number of
practices with some of the housing development residents. A resident might
take their food stamps, which are worth a dollar, let's say, and the
commercial store owner would give them 50 cents. So this was an emotionally
and politically charged situation. And there was times in which I was
in the camp as being sympathetic with the Middle Eastern community, with
Asian-American commercial community.
The only benefit that I had was time in that I didn't demonstrate my
allegiances or alliances one way or another, and, you know, I think that, in
the end, that's probably what averted a lot of the hostility that I could
GROSS: So what reaction has your book gotten to the residents who you
with at Robert Taylor Homes?
Prof. VENKATESH: The first reaction--and I think I expected this--was shock
and anger, and I say that because for 10 years people had asked me what I've
been doing, and I said, you know, `I'm writing a dissertation at the
university, and I'll probably write a book.' And you can tell them that,
then you can come back and show them the book, and then that's something
different. And I think they placed me in the context of a number of works
that have been written about Robert Taylor and about Chicago public housing,
important works, like Alex Kotlowitz's book and Nick Lemann's work.
And for them, they interpreted this as yet another example of, `Someone
representing us and without us having a voice.' They may not have read it,
but I think that was the immediate reaction that I received from a lot of
tenants, was that, `I'll never get to write a book like this. Why is it
someone else will always get to come in my community?'
After that happened, I actually started giving some books away and doing
public readings and trying to meet with some of the residents who actually
read some of the works. And it became an interesting take on the fact that
they affirmed some things that they saw in the book. They instructed me as
what should have been there. It was a little better in terms of making me
feel more comfortable. But the initial reaction was very much--they were
angry, I think, to see yet another portrait of who they were.
GROSS: You've spent about a decade studying the Robert Taylor Homes in
Chicago, the housing project, and I'm wondering emotionally how you feel
them getting knocked down? Now do you think of that as a good thing, or are
you sorry to see them go?
Prof. VENKATESH: Yeah, when I go back to Chicago periodically, I drive by
I go by and visit families, and it's a real emotional experience, one,
of the people that I've known and having spent 10 years. You know, many of
these people took me into their homes, they trusted me with their lives and
their stories, and, you know, it's really sad to see them experience the
of hardships--or even if they're doing well, just to see them leave the
I don't think that, personally, it's a good decision to engage in demolition
at the pace that we're doing it. There's really, really no rush to try and
demolish and relocate families, and we're only causing ourselves hardships
the cities we live in hardships if we do it at this scale. I think we
step back and actually, one, figure out whether there's some areas of our
large public housing developments that are viable, and if so, how can we
them there, because the families need them more than we think?
GROSS: Because there's no alternative yet.
Prof. VENKATESH: Because there's no alternative for many of them, and
that the communities that remain an alternative are really no better than
ones that they're living in now in terms of levels of poverty and
And sometimes they're worse because they're usually the farthest away from
areas of job growth. So you're putting people--you're giving them yet
challenge in terms of being close to jobs and trying to improve their lives.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Prof. VENKATESH: Thank you.
GROSS: Sudhir Venkatesh is the author of "American Project: The Rise and
Fall of a Modern Ghetto." He's director of research at the Institute for
Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University.
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews two novels set in academia. This is
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New books "The Lecturer's Tale" and "Meetings of the Mind"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Two new books about academia have given book critic and Professor Maureen
Corrigan bad dreams.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
The literary gimmick, when you think about it, is obvious, as obvious as
purloined letter sitting right out in the open in Edgar Allan Poe's story of
the same name. Just stitch the academic farce novel, popularized by
Amis and David Lodge, to the traditional tale of terror, and you'll have a
viable, new Frankenstein's monster of a genre that walks, talks and makes
readers laugh and tremble. It's an obvious idea because academic farce has
always contained elements of horror. The luckless characters in Amos' and
Lodge's books, for instance, often brood over images of the fathomless void
that they'll be cast out into if they don't get tenure.
It's an obvious idea to blend the two kinds of stories, all right, but James
Hynes had it first, and he stamped it with the mark of his own devilish
and pitiless insight into all things academic. Hynes debuted his demonic
literary creation a few years ago in a brilliant short story collection
"Publish & Perish." To quote one of my favorite critics, "When I reviewed
that book, I said, `Hynes must have struck a pact with the devil when he
writing these tales because their tone is perfect.'"
I don't know what Hynes had left to barter with to produce his new damnably
funny novel "The Lecturer's Tale," but the unholy tradeoff was worth it.
certainly don't have to be an academia to enjoy this book. The desperate
career predicament of its main character, Nelson Humboldt, should engage any
reader who's ever sweated over getting the ax at work. And if you like
of the supernatural, well, the fearless Hynes has trod where even Stephen
has dared not go.
Nelson is one of the unclean, a visiting adjunct lecturer at a mythical tony
school called Midwest University. His deliverance from the limbo of his
untenurable position arrives in the first chapter of the novel. While
through campus on Halloween eve, Nelson trips, and his right index finger is
severed by the wheel of a passing bicycle. Emergency room doctors sew it on
again, as good as no better than new because what Nelson discovers is that
burning index finger has the power to bend people to his will. All he has
do is touch someone, and--Zap--his victim writhes and submits. At first,
nice-guy Nelson uses his finger for humble purposes, like getting the chair
his department to renew his contract to teach lowly composition courses, but
as Nelson grows more powerful, he grows greedier. Soon, the tip of his
approaching finger extinguishes or restores other people's very lives.
Hynes doesn't content himself here with taking cheap shots at familiar
targets. The wicked virtuoso humor of "The Lecturer's Tale" derives from
Hynes' expert knowledge of his creepy subject. He exaggerates to great
effect, but his portrayal of academe is always just within the range of the
Here's a description of the cagy career climb of a post-Colonialist scholar
named Lester Antilles(ph). In a discipline where scholarly heft was defined
by being more post-Colonialist than thou, Lester Antilles was the heftiest
the lot. As a graduate student at an Ivy League school, he had announced to
his dissertation committee that doctoral theses at major Western
were a primary locust of the objectifying Colonialist gaze on native
and he refused on principle to participate. In practice, this meant that
six years, he refused to take classes, attend seminars or write a
dissertation. As a result of this ideologically engaged non-participation,
was offered tenured positions, even before he had his PhD.
I could go on. There's the consciously working-class Brit expert on popular
culture, who churns out books with titles like "It's Not Unusual: The Tom
Jones Way of Knowledge," and the sinister Central European
post-post-deconstructionist whose intelligence is certified by the fact that
no one understands a word he says. Poor Nelson walks through this blasted
landscape hoping to mediate between the canon defenders and the theory
Only at the very end of Hynes' superb, supernatural farce do we learn
or not he'll fall through the cracks.
David Damrosch, who's a real-life professor of English and comparative
literature at Columbia University, also wants to be a mediator. In his new
book, "Meetings of the Mind," he recalls attending an academic conference in
Tokyo and feeling deep dissatisfaction with `the sad parodies of
work that conferences have become.' So he asks his three smarter and more
egotistical fellow panel participants to continue to meet with him over the
next 10 years to form a free-floating, intellectual community and really
participate in sustained scholarly dialogue.
`How moving,' I thought to myself as I read and wrote a review of what I
called `this charming and brainy little hodgepodge of a book.' But then
review was killed because I found out that Damrosch's book is not a memoir
all but rather a coy send-up of the memoir form as well as the academic
novel. Well, I was mad, first, because I had been duped and hadn't paid
attention to all the clever clues about masquerading that Damrosch scatters
throughout his book. Then I was repulsed because the other panel
participants, whom self-effacing Damrosch paints as being smarter than
himself, turn out to be just alternative personae of David Damrosch. And
I was saddened because I was honestly touched by the dream of collegiality
and intellectual engagement that Damrosch dangles in his book. The fact
"Meetings of the Mind" is a fake speaks to how far-fetched that dream
Maybe I'm guilty here of philosophizing in a self-serving way, but I wonder
what it means when the two best recent books about academia turn out to be a
wry horror story and a joke.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "The Lecturer's Tale" by James Hynes and "Meetings of the Mind" by
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with a recording featuring pianist Lou Levy, who we just learned
died last week at the age of 72. He was known, among other things, for
a great accompanist for singers. He worked with Peggy Lee, Anita O'Day and
Ella Fitzgerald. Here he is with Ella Fitzgerald in 1961.
(Soundbite from song)
Ms. ELLA FITZGERALD: (Singing) The sound a robin sings through years of
endless springs, the murmur of a brook at eventide that ripples by a nook
where two lovers hide. A great symphonic theme that's stella by starlight
and not a dream. She's all of these and more. She's...
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