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A Place That is Just as Real

By Margaret Hicks in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 8, 2006 4:10PM

Venkatesh_11_7.jpgWe first heard of Sudhir Venkatesh when we read “Freakonomics.” Venkatesh, Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, spent six years embedded with the Black Disciples gang in the Robert Taylor Homes. What he discovered, and what Leavitt and Dubner found so fascinating, was that working for gang members wasn’t so different than working for McDonald's. The rich make the big money, the underlings make almost nothing, and the bookkeeping is just as complicated.

Venkatesh is back with a new book “Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor.” “Off the Books” explains how much of the community in Marquis Park (a pseudonym for a southside Chicago neighborhood) is linked to the “underground,” how everyday working people rely on gang members and crime to fund their lives, how the clergy, even, must work with “crooks” to get the things they need. Venkatesh writes, "The barber may rent his back room to a prostitute; the mechanic works out of an alley; the preacher gets donations from a gang leader; and everyone has a hand in keeping the streets tolerable and keeping the goods and services flowing."

His experiences, his easy writing style and his lack of judgement all make for fascinating revelations. You know this guy hasn't been writing this stuff sitting on his laurels in some pampered office somewhere, but that he speaks a truth only a participant can glean.

You can see Sudhir Venkatesh on Thursday., Nov. 9, at the International House, 1414 E. 59th St.