Nowadays, Sudhir Venkatesh is a professor of Sociology at Columbia University having completed his doctorate on urban poverty in America. His research for this doctorate is the inspiration behind this fascinating book; for seven years, Sudhir led a double life - graduate student by day, peripheral associate of a Chicago street gang by night.
Venturing into Chicago's poverty-ridden Robert Taylor Homes housing project in the 1990s, Sudhir realized that he did not want to focus on the standard and expected sociological issues of domestic violence, poverty and resident versus police issues that his professors were trying to usher him towards. Instead, he befriended the leader of the Chicago chapter of one of the most violent and notorious crack-dealing gangs in the country, and elected to write his dissertation about the Black Kings.
By befriending the gang's charismatic leader, J.T., the author was able to gain an unprecedented insight into the issues of urban poverty and also into the surprisingly difficult and complex job of being in charge of a violent street gang. J.T. Was a college graduate too, and had given up a rather good sales job in downtown Chicago to pursue a career as a drugs lord, and the two men bonded over a shared passion for academia and J.T.'s desire to push Sudhir into thinking more deeply about poverty and why it existed. Eventually he handed over the leadership of the gang to Sudhir for one day - a surprisingly difficult, challenging and illuminating day that opened Sudhir's eyes to the realities of life in the projects.
By the end of the book, three key things have happened. Despite the negative attitude of his advisers and professors, Sudhir has a dissertation written and a doctorate to his name. He and J.T. have a relationship that lasts long after the social experiment has finished, and the Robert Taylor Homes housing project has been demolished and replaced by a mixed-use, family-oriented community that decimates the Black Kings' drug business.
This book was extremely well-received by critics and sociologists alike for the accessible way in which the author presents his information. It is a sociology book that reads like a personal journal, or a gritty urban novel, and for this reason it teaches the top of the bestseller lists in a way that a more standard dissertation would never have been able to do.