I just finished reading an incredible new book that I'm officially recommending to everyone I know who is interested in urban poverty. The book is called Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets. In the book, Sudhir Venkatesh describes the years he spent hanging out in the Chicago projects with gang members, crack dealers, prostitutes, and people just trying to get by. The book isn't filled with great writing, but it's better than it had to be given how interesting and compelling the story is. I'll be sharing some of my insights on the book throughout the week, but in the meantime, I'd really recommend checking it out.
The biggest point that struck me about the book is how the absence of traditional power structures affects all life in the project. Out in the suburbs where Venkatesh and I grew up, there are the traditional models of authority: parents, police, teachers, etc. For a variety of reasons, those figures are largely absent from life in the projects. Into their places slide alternative power structures like the gangs.
The gangs as they are presented in the book are not as purely bad as they might otherwise be assumed to be. Yes, they sell crack and engage in drive-bys. Yes, they encourage the various forms of illegality that seem to thrive in the projects. But they also act as the defacto landlord, police, and general regulators of life in the projects. Their presence acts as a stabilizing force in the projects. The irony is, of course, that it is the gang's illegal activities that act to destabilize things in the first place.
The main idea I'm trying to get across here is that nature abhors a vaccuum. Where there is a power vaccuum left by inefficient government or policing, something else will step in to fill those roles. That it has been gangs in these low-income ghetto communities speaks to the very clear need to ensure that the kinds of services taken for granted by more affluent citizens are at least available to those on the other end of the social spectrum.