What a great (reading) weekend.
Tony Hawks does it again.

I ask you: who just walks into the projects?

Well, evidently, Sudhir Venkatesh does.

His latest book, Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets, is so fascinating that I'll forgive him for having a foreword by Stephen Dubner, co-author of the book Freakonomics (I was not a fan of that title, largely due to their half-ass research).  Reading it is like being dumped in a whole other world, with no escape and no recourse (an experience which is echoed by the experiences of the residents of the Chicago inner-city housing projects that Venkatesh explored).

The first night he walks into the Robert Taylor Homes (with sociological surveys that included the question: "How does it feel to be black and poor?") he meets J.T., a leader in the Black Kings gang, who becomes largely responsible for letting Venkatesh trail around with him, and, years after they first meet, actually function as "gang leader for a day."  By that point in the narrative I'd actually grown a little tired of the author's voice--let's just say I don't think he's an unconfident man--but up until then the story is fascinating.  Venkatesh not only got to know gang members, he got to know their families and the other residents, which is the part I enjoyed the most.  Reading about how power runs through certain people, always in exchange for money, actually made me feel like urban Chicago was pretty much the same as anywhere else.  Except, of course, for the fact that no one who lives in the projects would call the police or an ambulance, simply because they would never come.

Venkatesh is also the author of the more scholarly but still really, really interesting books Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor and American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto.

It's a fascinating book.  Not quite as heartbreaking as Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family (set in the Bronx), but a very valuable read nonetheless.