On that single titular day when Sudhir Venkatesh "ran" a Chi-town ghetto gang for a day, he didn't have to shoot, rob or threaten anyone. Instead, the grad student got a choice glimpse at the kinds of decisions the manager of a large-scale "community-minded" criminal enterprise must make: how to determine who's in the wrong in a property squabble between underlings and what punishment to mete out to the guilty party, which drug crew to put on project-cleanup duty, where and how to arrange an all-hands meeting, whether or not to reward or demote employees for pushing inferior crack.
"The next day I would wake up free of the hundreds of obligations and judgments I'd been witness to," Venkatesh writes in Gang Leader for a Day. "But J.T. wouldn't. He'd still bear all the burdens of running a successful underground economy: enforcing contracts, motivating his members to risk their lives for low wages, dealing with capricious bosses."
If not for the rotting tenement housing, drive-by shootings and strung-out prostitutes, this book could be a chronicle of an aboveboard corporate enterprise. En route to his dissertation at the University of Chicago, Venkatesh spent the late 1980s and early 1990s in Chicago's since-leveled Robert Taylor housing projects, shadowing a notorious gang leader, community activists and malcontents hustling to survive in a neighborhood where dialing 911 was a complete waste of time. Wandering in initially as a wide-eyed, clueless Deadhead, the author finds himself increasingly complicit in a world of exploitation where building supervisors care about folks only to a point, a sort of frontier justice reigns and every block is a different gang's turf. Being seen with the wrong person can get you killed and housewives barter among one another other for food, space heaters, babysitters and clothing. What's especially intriguing here isn't the urban blight and middle-class astonishment, but that many of Venkatesh's subjects might have thrived in straight society, if given a chance — both the accounting-whiz gang lieutenant taking college courses and the handyman-mechanic. All but invisible before, their bitter voices are heard here.