Round Rock New Neighbors is a social organization of women welcoming women in the Round Rock area since 1978. Both "new" and "old" neighbors are welcome. For more information: rrnewneighbors.org [Barnes & Noble requires that RRNN's book club be open to the public, so you do not need to be an RRNN member to attend book club, and both men and women are welcome and do attend. ]
Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Gang Leader for a Day Draws Us In
It's partly the book choice that makes our discussions so stimulating, and it is partly us. This conclusion I have arrived at after much thought. I think of it every month when I choose the highlights among my notes from our meeting. I'm almost always amazed at the range of discussion topics we cover. The questions and information our presenters bring add a lot, too. For all these reasons, I recommend our meetings. If you haven't been to any, and you have been reading with us, you owe it to yourself to come to a meeting, whether to just listen, ask questions, or give us your opinions and insights!
Whereas our book choices vary widely, I felt that Gang Leader for a Day, by Sudhir Venkatesh, was a very unique choice. A survey of everyone present indicated that most read the book and everyone liked it! Jay introduced the book by telling us why he chose it. He had grown up in Chicago and in his post high school years he passed by the Robert Taylor Homes on the El (elevated train public transport) as they were being built in the early 1960s. Before their construction and while riding through the area eventually occupied by the Robert Taylor Homes, Jay noticed many older homes that had no curtains, and you could look right in from the elevated train which practically ran right through many backyards. When you are in Chicago riding the El past low-income apartment buildings, you are very close to the buildings. Real estate backing up to the El is close to the tracks and presumably is priced accordingly!
Here is Jay's succinct description of the history of the Robert Taylor Homes project:
In the ‘20s and ‘30s large numbers of blacks migrated from the south to Chicago in search of housing and employment. In the 1ate 1950s Chicago city leaders decided to replace overcrowded slum dwellings with the Robert Taylor Homes (RTHs) which were constructed between 1958 through 1962. At one time, the RTHs comprised the largest public housing development in the country. The project stretched for two miles along the Dan Ryan Expressway which was also under construction at the same time. The project eventually included 28 16-story high-rise buildings with a total of 4,400 units. Every three buildings formed a U-shaped cluster with a courtyard in the middle. The entire complex was planned for 11,000 residents, but at its height the complex housed up to 27,000 people of which 95% were unemployed African-Americans. In the mid ‘90s, the Clinton administration and city leaders decided to replace all the RTHs with smaller low rise homes, which resulted in the dispersal of many former residents throughout the greater Chicago area.
We looked at a map of Chicago to get some perspective on the size of the Robert Taylor buildings and their location in relation to other Chicago landmarks, including the University of Chicago and places some of our book club members had lived. Just as we were getting a feel for the map of Chicago, Pam unveiled a work of art she had acquired when she lived in Chicago in the 1980s and early 1990s.
On the way back and forth from work each day, Pam had noticed an artist who worked along the street, making drawings of the city with colored markers. She saw him working so many days, she finally looked at his work and then bought a large drawing made with pen and ink and colorful markers. She put the drawing under her bed in storage when she moved back to Round Rock, and she thought of it when reading Gang Leader for a Day. Thanks to Pam for showing it to us! Sure enough, the picture was drawn from a crossroads near the El and the Robert Taylor buildings! The drawing shows several landmarks and roads mentioned in the book! Pam would guess that the artist lived in the projects. The artist's name was Wesley Willis. He had a modicum of fame as a singer-songwriter as well as an artist. He lived 40 years, from 1963 - 2003, and suffered from schizophrenia. Pam found a nice video online showing the artist in Chicago going about his day of drawing. This was done while the artist was relatively young and healthy and is very sweet. Note the comments; some are by the person who knew Willis and made the video. Here is the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Rzg51SMhEo
For our discussion, Jay brought a batch of thought-provoking questions. We went through most of them, with several comments on each. As usual, we had some tangential meanderings. Rather than try to list our discussion answers, I will include a copy of the questions below, with thanks to Jay.
One particularly interesting question that we came up with concerned the results of tearing down the projects and dispersing the gang members and especially their drug business. We wondered how the large community who needed very low-income housing was able to relocate, with the projects being replaced with much fewer affordable alternatives. This would include both gang members and drug dealers and the few law-abiding citizens who were able to survive in the projects and still keep two feet in mainstream society as opposed to illegal activity. Jay sends a link to a long article that mostly answers this exact question. The answer, in a nutshell, is that drugs thrive in Chicago, but the gangs such as the Black Kings were broken by the demolition. The drug business is now run by a Mexican gang. led by someone named Guzman.
Here is one paragraph that seems key to the article:
Guzman grabbed control of Chicago partly by exploiting the disarray among its gangs. From the 1970s into the 2000s, organized mega-gangs divvied up drug-selling territories from public-housing towers, says Jody Weis, a former of Investigation agent and Chicago Police Department superintendent from 2008 to 2011. The city razed the housing projects just as federal prosecutors were using new racketeering laws to convict and incarcerate gang leaders. Read the article here: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-09-17/heroin-pushed-on-chicago-by-cartel-fueling-gang-murders.html
Below is a list of Jay's discussion questions:
1. How did the author’s ethnicity and previous education help or hinder his ability to conduct research in the RTHs?
2. What are the pros and cons of the author’s research methodology, and would a multiple choice questionnaire have been better?
3. When describing blacks, how did JT label “his” people, versus those who lived in the suburbs?
4. Why do you think JT consented to working with the author?
5. What JT behaviors and skills kept him in power as head of the Black Kings?
6. What benefits did Chicago gangs provided in the past, and how had they changed over time?
7. What would the RTHs community look like without JTs operation?
8. Beyond basic survival, what motivated the adult women in the RTHs?
9. To whatt extent do you think the city’s institutions helped to create the conditions in the RTHs?
10. If you were to design a bumper sticker for the RTHs, what would it say?
11. The authors of Freakonomics draw parallels between modern corporations and the workings of the Black Kings. Describe the similarities and differences.
12. Describe how community members exploited Venkatesh, and how the author exploited the community.
13. What are some of the similarities and differences between people who lived in the RTHs, and those who lived in the castes of India as described in The White Tiger.
14. Besides completion of his degree, what brought Sudhir’s research to an end?
15. Would you agree or disagree with critics who criticized the author’s book for pushing negative stereotypes of Africa-Americans?
16. Did reading Gang Leader for a Day make you more or less sympathetic to the problems of poverty among America’s urban poor?
17. In hindsight, what suggestions would you like to have made to improve the lives of these targeted to live in the RTHs?