Notes From Underground

Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor by Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh (Harvard University Press, 448 pages)

In Sudhir Venkatesh's newly published Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor (Harvard University Press, 2006), readers are introduced to a cast-royale of rogues, some loveable, others little short of detestable, who inhabit a super-isolated ghetto neighborhood in Southside Chicago. Venkatesh calls the neighborhood Maquis Park -- to protect the people he's writing about, he disguises the identity not only of his subjects but also of the community they live in. For four hundred pages, Venkatesh describes in intimate detail the often bizarre world of economic relationships in this urban edge zone, largely outside the web of economic, political, legal, and law-enforcement structures that dominate mainstream American life. The result is a compelling, deeply disturbing ground-level view of today's underclass.

The Columbia University sociologist documents a world of "hustlers" -- broadly defined to include everyone from pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealing gangsters to unlicensed back-alley auto mechanics, gun sale mediators, dubious storefront pastors, and shakedown artists masquerading as "security guards" who inhabit a landscape most of his readers will never, can never, experience first hand. His intent is to make these (presumably educated, affluent) readers understand the extraordinarily complex web that defines the underground economy and that holds its players together in a series of relationships that he terms a "geography of illegal commerce." This geography in many important ways more closely resembles the economy of a third world slum than of a first world city.

Venkatesh's first book, growing out of his graduate research at the University of Chicago, was American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern American Ghetto, on Chicago's notorious (and now demolished) Robert Taylor Homes. He is fascinated with the lives and mores of the Windy City's urban poor, and has spent over a decade cultivating contacts in poor neighborhoods there, gaining the trust of locals and, in breaking down the powerful social and racial barriers between himself and his subjects, becoming a part of the fabric of life in these streets. Navigating that role successfully is, in itself, a tremendous accomplishment.

Off the Books is both deeply depressing and also strangely optimistic: depressing, because it chronicles the utter isolation and cycle of poverty within the post-civil rights era inner-city, a world in which all of those with any options leave the ghetto for newly integrated suburbs, leaving an ever-more-concentrated well of poverty in overcrowded, underserviced areas of the inner city. These are the men and women William Julius Wilson has succinctly labeled "the truly disadvantaged." What is depressing is not just the poverty described, but the fact that, to an outside observer, or reader, it's apparent the "hustle" conducted for everyday survival by the residents of "Maquis Park" can only doom them to perpetual poverty.

The hustle keeps their money outside the banking system, thus preventing them from building up credit and buying homes or businesses. It does nothing to tackle the presence of gangs, thus scaring away most investment. Finally, because of longstanding, and historically justified, suspicion of the police, it encourages extra-legal mechanisms to mediate disputes, thus making it ever-less likely that the state will fully establish control in these streets.

Venkatesh's book documents, with painful immediacy, what a history of discrimination, absent (or at least severely underrepresented) state institutions, redlining by banks, and unmitigated blight do both to the physical neighborhood -- one he labels a "compromised physical landscape" -- and to the individuals trying to survive in this neighborhood. "No matter how skilled, resourceful, and creative those involved may be, the world of hustling is fundamentally exploitative," Venkatesh notes early in his book. "It is premised on, or exists because of, the neglect of outside actors… The demands of the ghetto require an economy utterly different from what most of America can imagine. The barber may rent his backroom to a prostitute; the mechanic works out of an alley; the preacher gets donations from a gang leader."

One of the characters he quotes, a local merchant he calls Josiah Pegues, talks of the ghetto as a fish tank. It is, he avers, a place where outsiders throw in crumbs and everyone chases them down; the big fish get a few more crumbs than the little fish, but they are all just as reliant on outsiders, just as unable to generate their own sources of sustenance.

Yet, this is not a world subject solely to doom-and-gloom analyses. Venkatesh chronicles an incredible will to live in his subjects; he details the numerous improvisations ordinary people develop so as survive in even the most brutal and seemingly hopeless of urban environments. They craft a set of rules and codes of conduct to govern behavior even when the police and the mechanisms of the state are absent.

Novel relationships develop, strange bedfellows emerge -- the homeless men paid by immigrant storekeepers to sleep in their shops so as to ward off robbers; the five-and-ten-dollar prostitutes who work out relationships with storeowners as to where they can and can't solicit johns; the police officers who rely on networks of hustlers to tell them what's going on in the area; and the storeowners who drive petty thieves out to the malls so they will steal from shops in the suburbs rather than in their own 'hood.

How does Venkatesh tell this story? Generally he opts for a fly-on-the-wall, almost journalistic, intimacy. He very much aims to show readers the lives of his subjects rather than to theorize about these lives in the abstract. Readers are with Venkatesh as he chronicles backroom meetings (which, presumably, he attended) between some of the more motivated residents and gang leaders to try to hash out working arrangements that at least provide a modicum of security to these abandoned-by-the-state residents. They see him in conversation with hookers about sexual acts in abandoned lots; in discussion with murderous gang leaders as they casually talk about shakedown opportunities -- and the imposition of "street taxes" (read extortion) -- from local storeowners; and with the storeowners themselves about their business practices. These owners are willing to work off the books, avoiding licensing agencies and the acquiring of permits, paying no taxes to the government, employing casual labor at third world wages, not contributing any dollars to the state and in turn not really expecting any protections from it. He documents the existence of a parallel economy to that of mainstream America, one bound within the ghetto, reliant on desperate, often drug-addled and/or mentally ill people who are willing to work for chump change and no benefits, with barter playing a peculiarly large role.

His approach -- offering a pastiche of images of the ghetto economy rather than bombarding readers with statistics on income levels, life expectancy and so forth -- firmly situates Venkatesh in a long tradition of writers preoccupied with anecdotally chronicling America's underside and crafting verbal portraits of the colorful, often entertaining misfits on the margins: Steinbeck's Cannery Row, Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, Sinclair's The Jungle leap to mind here. So too does Jennifer Toth's Mole People, about New York City's underground homeless communities, and Venezuelan urban anthropologist Patricia Marquez's The Street is My Home, set among the street children of Caracas and their gangs. Perhaps more grandiosely, it brings to mind the oral history-cum-social-exploration of the mid-nineteenth century Victorian English journalist Henry Mayhew, whose classic book London Labor and the London Poor still sets the bar for this kind of reportage. All of these works humanize whores and dope peddlers, petty thieves and inebriated bums. Their great power is making the fabled, feared underbelly of modern society seem somehow less scary, more three-dimensional, and, ultimately, more real.

There's "Big Cat," the drunken, sociopathic local gang leader, who seems to honestly believe he's a "businessman," and "community leader," and who daydreams about one day going into electoral politics. There's the pastor who takes money from gangs, negotiates deals between residents and the gang when it comes to shakedown routines, and tries to set terms for the sale of drugs in parks -- yet who firmly believes he's doing God's work. And there's the shoeshiner, who also works finding squatters places to stay and taking fees from them, who makes $500 per month in the spring and summer and $750 the rest of the year, because, he says simply, "shoes are dirtier and people need a place to stay because it's so cold."

The book has its weak points. Perhaps most jarring is when Venkatesh tries to incorporate himself into the dialogues he describes. Witness, for example, the turf dispute he describes between two hustlers and his attempt to defend one of the hustlers to the other. "'I know him, I've known him for years,' I [Venkatesh] countered. 'Man is harmless as a crippled cat. Wouldn't hurt nobody, just sells his stuff.'" No matter how real this dialogue may be, it reads painfully. And then there's the author's self-admitted role as an "arbiter" in many local disputes. While he may indeed have intervened to calm tempers at times, the descriptions of these encounters seem somewhat contrived -- a way to convince readers of his bona fides, of his "street cred." The book is also rather repetitive, and could have done with some editing. Several passages are almost repeated verbatim, and some of the scenes toward the end of the book drag quite slowly.

Yet these are relatively minor criticisms. Overall, this is a fascinating look at a place and community that would otherwise remain entirely under the radar. If our economy and society throws up such spectacular inequalities, at the very least we owe it to the poorest of the poor to try to understand their lives, their struggles, their pain. Venkatesh takes us into this world; it's an often-ugly place, but, as Off the Books shows, it is also one that is strangely compelling.

Sasha Abramsky is a senior fellow at the New York-based think tank Demos. The author of Conned: How Millions Went to Prison, Lost the Vote, and Helped Send George W. Bush to the White House (The New Press, 2006), he lives in Sacramento and teaches writing at the University of California at Davis.

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