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Analyzing Chicago’s Gun Violence and Gang Epidemic in Literature

Analyzing Chicago’s Gun Violence and Gang Epidemic: Comparing Gang Leader For a Day and Harper High School (Part One)

When most individuals hear the word ‘gang’ they tend to think of the mass media’s interpretation of gangs; ruthless, violent groups of people controlling huge areas of a city, shooting out at one another over trivial matters such as drug territory, a single gang leader with a “strictly enforced hierarchy branching out underneath him” (Lutton, 2013), throwing up gang signs at one another while representing specific gang colours and sports team jerseys. But that is not the case for Chicago. Many individuals that are living in Chicago’s South Side are dragged into a gang solely based off of what block they live on or for protection from the other threatening neighbouring gangs.  In the 2008 non-fiction novel Gang Leader for a Day, written by Sudhir Venkatesh. Sudhir a first year sociologist graduate student follows the Black Kings gang around Chicago for seven years (1989-1996) under JT; a leader in the gangs protection, examining the gang as they operated their cocaine-selling business, made peace with their neighbours, evaded the law, as well as seeking knowledge about the complex hierarchical structure of a gang. Alternatively, in This American Life 2013 podcast, reporters spent five months at Harper High School which is situated in Chicago, where in 2012 they experienced 29 of their students being shot. The reporters get a sense of how teens and adults are affected by the disastrous effect that Chicago’s South Side gangs’ violence. In order to reach vast audiences, both the non-fiction novel and the podcast use certain criteria ranging from descriptive words that paint a visual image into the audiences’ head and carefully establishing a perspective alongside with a purposeful message to a diverse amount of characters’ or guests that can represent everyone involved with the conflict. Ultimately, while both the the podcast and the novel are true personal experiences and stories, it is Gang Leader for a Day’s unique storyline and the use of visuality, establishing a message/perspective as well as the use of many diverse characters that makes it a more suitable choice of text for taking a dive into South Side Chicago’s recent gun violence and gang epidemic.

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Painting a visual image into the audiences heads’ is a vital tool that can create an emotional connection to the text. In Gang Leader for a Day, Sudhir Venkatesh takes the time to explain every intricate detail that he sees’ on his journey of research in the Chicago projects. On page 12 of the novel he states; “As I came upon the next high rise. I saw the faint markings on the pale yellow brick: Number 4040. At least now I knew I was in the right place. The lobby here was empty, so I quickly passed through another dank lobby. The elevator was missing entirely – and the walls were thick with graffiti. As I started to climb the stairs, the smell of urine was overpowering.” (Venkatesh, Page 12). Sudhir is seen here explaining the conquest he took across town to the Robert Taylor Homes in order to find a gang that is willing to comply to fill out his questionnaire for his sociology research assignment. Furthermore towards the end of the novel Sudhir is seen reminiscing his relationship and the deep, intimate bond that he has with JT that developed during his time in the Robert Taylor area. Sudhir explains the afternoon that he was experiencing while these thoughts of JT popped in to his head; “It was a classic Chicago summer afternoon: a cloudless sky, the muggy air broken occasionally by a soft lake breeze. […] tenants were barbequing, playing softball, and taking comfort in the cool shadow of the building.’’ (Venkatesh, Page 219).  It is evident that Sudhir Venkatesh does an amazing job of painting a rich portrait of Chicago and the poor urban communities within the heart of the city that houses the Robert Taylor Homes. A connection can be felt by the way Sudhir wrote, he intricately wrote every little detail in scenarios which lets the reader visualise everything that was happening almost like they were there in the spur of the moment with him. On the contrary, In  This American Life Harper High School podcast, the visuality that the reporters try to establish is very limited. In the podcast Ira Glass (one of the reporters) explains how Harper High School looks like amidst the fact that there is a gun violence epidemic that is killing many student on an annual basis ; “Though, if you’re picturing some kind of chaotic, depressing, ghetto high school in the middle of all of that, Harper is anything but. Amidst boarded up houses and vacant lots, it is a four story, yellow brick building. The grounds are neat and beautiful. The halls, walls, classrooms, cafeteria– everything is well taken care of. There’s order. Between passing periods, the halls are kept clear. It’s clean.” (3:15-3:53). Although Ira Glass is seen here describing and visualizing the scenery around him he used very basic descriptive words to describe it only addressing that “the halls, walls, classrooms, cafeteria — everything is taken care of” which is hard for the audience to stay intrigued with the story when they can not visualize scenes or a scenario completely. All in all, Gang Leader for a Day’s author; Sudhir Venkatesh used more descriptive terms which had more of an effect on the reader due to every scenario or odd scene that he would come across he would explain it in a detailed manner where it was easier to visualise everything that happened as opposed to the podcast which used very basic, undescriptive terms.

Carefully establishing a perspective alongside with a purposeful message is essential for the story, it create a pulse to the story. Without an established message a story just becomes a list of events that the reader will forget about, however, if there is something more which is able to capture the reader’s attention such as a unique message, the book will remain in the reader’s memory. In Sudhir Venkatesh’s non-fiction novel, Gang Leader for a Day Sudhir showcases that the South Side Chicago gang members that he followed around for seven years are human and not the evil, heartless villains the majority of the media is portraying. Sudhir states; “And we don’t just fight each other. We have basketball tournaments, softball tournaments, card games. Sometimes it’s just people in the organization who play, but sometimes we find the best people in the building […] so it’s a building thing.” (Venkatesh, Page 41). He showcases that not all gang members are involved in violence and drive by shootings, in fact are there to care for the youth and use their money in activities to help unite the youth with one another such as basketball tournaments that are not gang affiliated and game days funded out of their own pockets in order to help the youth in the community. Sudhir also describes how the younger gang members “Looked shaky, eyes wide, and fearful” (Venkatesh, Page 223), despite the fact that the media showcases that young gang members love to flaunt their toughness and their willingness to kill for their gang, but in Sudhir’s real life experience of following a gang he observes that the younger gang members are in fact shaking with fear when it comes to the real danger they are faced with on a daily basis. Sudhir Venkatesh does a very good job of establishing the main message in his research novel which is that the gangs that are portrayed by the mass media is a very inaccurate representation of them and that gangs in real life encourage the kids to stay in school, guard people in their neighbourhoods property when they are not able to, organize activities for the youth as well as act as escorts for the elderly and the youth. In America’s Life non-fiction podcast, Harper High School they showcase just like Gang Leader for a Day that the gangs depicted in the mass media are not the actual gangs that exist in the Southern Chicago neighborhoods. Ira Glass states; “When I ask kids what their parents don’t understand about gangs these days, they say it’s this. Their parents tell them not to join a gang, as if there’s some initiation to go through, some way to sign up. Today, whether or not you want to be in a gang, you’re in one.” (12:14-12:33). Ira Glass displays the message of the podcast efficiently by displaying that kids are in gangs whether they want to or not and that these gangs have “[…] no central leader, no hierarchy, no colours […]” (11:51-12:07).  Although both the non-fiction novel and the podcast display that that the ways gangs are represented in the media is very unrealistic to what its actual like in real life, Gang Leader for a Days’ author; Sudhir Venkatesh goes into a deeper extent in developing the novels key message by not only talking about the perspective of the outsiders in the community but by also looking at it from inside an operating gangs point of view which is a very unique point of view that is rarely seen.

Having a diverse amount of characters’ or guests from different backgrounds is essential in effective storytelling. In Gang Leader for a Day there is a diverse amount of characters and guests residing in the Chicago Projects that have a large presence in the novel. Sudhir Venkatesh expands his horizons and includes more people in his project because he senses that JT might get protective over his work and decide not to be 100% transparent with him, so Sudhir decided to create a portfolio of many individuals so that his work on the Chicago Projects is representative of the entire population of the Robert Taylor Homes. In his profile he included many individuals in the society that play different roles such as JT; a high ranking Black King’s manager during the 1980’s-90’s, who is the primary search subject in Sudhir’s research project, C-note; a regular squatter in Robert Taylor that makes a living off of fixing appliances and cars, Officer Reggie; A police officer that is stainitioned in Robert Taylor, Autry Harrison; a former pimp that is now a turned Boys and Girls Club director who guides the youth to stay away from the gangs and to envision a bright future and Clarisse; A sex worker in the Robert Taylor area that gives Sudhir insight on what’s it like to be a prostitute in the projects such as who can protect you, dangers of the occupation and the stigma surrounded around it. Sudhir Venkatesh successfully features many diverse characters from individuals with differing class, occupation’s and people that have a close relationship with the gang. His selection of guests makes the text representative of the entire community. The Harper High School podcast is also composed of many diverse guests that consists of current students and teachers at the Chicago Southside high school. In the podcast a panel of students are interviewed at the school that share their experiences with the violence in their neighbourhoods. Police officers are also among interviewed as well as social workers who deal with the troubled youth. While the podcast has a large amount of diverse guests that are interviewed throughout the entirety of the segment, many of the students stories and experiences are coming from the same perspective as opposed to Gang Leader for a Day, where all characters are unique with different experiences that they face as well as the perspective of life in the Chicago Projects different from person to person.

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Ultimately, while both the the podcast and the novel do a very great job of displaying the personal experiences and stories of individual residing in the South Side Chicago neighbourhoods, it is Gang Leader for a Day’s unique storyline and the use of visuality, establishing a message/perspective as well as the use of many diverse characters that makes it a more suitable choice of text for taking a dive into South Side Chicago’s recent gun violence and gang epidemic.

Works Cited

  1. Lutton, Linda, et al. “Harper High School – Part One.” This American Life, This American Life, 15 Feb. 2013,
  2. Schiller, Caitlin, and Blinkist Magazine. “Zuckerberg’s Favorite Books: Gang Leader for a Day.” Blinkist Magazine RSS, Blinkist, 27 Dec. 2018,
  3. Venkatesh, Sudhir. Gang Leader for a Day A Rouge Sociologist Takes to the Streets. Paw Prints, 2009.


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