Sudhir begins the narrative by describing his student days in the PhD program in sociology at the University of Chicago. He lives alone between Hyde Park, where the university is, and Woodlawn, a neighborhood of lower-income families, predominately African-American. Sudhir notes that in the first few weeks, although he enjoyed walking around both Hyde Park and Woodlawn, he realized there was a large gulf between life in the two areas. Sudhir wonders how to bridge this gulf, and, in the meantime, observes what he can about Woodlawn and the people living there.
The social geography of Chicago becomes an important part of Sudhir’s account. Here, he sets the stage for what, exactly, the South Side is – a predominantly African-American set of neighborhoods with a large, prestigious, and wealthy research institution plopped down in the center. It is this divide between “town and gown,” between projects and university life, that will lie beneath much of Sudhir’s narrative.
Sudhir writes that, as professionals, sociologists are divided between those who conduct quantitative, mostly statistical, research, and those who describe societies as they observe and experience them. Sudhir wonders whether he wants to engage in one or another of these subdivisions of his field, or if he has to choose between them at all. Meanwhile, he meets Professor William Julius Wilson, a member of the UChicago sociology faculty, and agrees to ask survey questions of African Americans living in the neighborhoods surrounding the university.
Professor Wilson will be a steady, but not overwhelming, presence in the book. From time to time, he will enter the scene to give Sudhir advice, tell him that his tack might need adjusting, or that his observations of gang life might need to be reined in slightly to adhere to researcher reporting laws. But for the most part, Professor Wilson allows Sudhir to do his work – and is proud of the research Sudhir produces.
Sudhir meets a group of older men, including two named Charlie and Old Time, in Washington Park, where he often jogs to clear his mind after classes. Sudhir talks to them about the South Side of Chicago, where many Irish immigrants used to live before they left for the Chicagoland suburbs, and before African American families began moving into the neighborhood. Charlie and Old Time say that they have little hope relations between white and black populations in Chicago can improve. They also say that they wonder whether black poverty as a social issue can be solved or even lessened, either by people suffering from it or by the local and state government charged with helping them.
Charlie and Old Time provide an opportunity for Sudhir to reflect on some of the political and social changes on the South Side from the 1960s to the 1980s. As Charlie and Old Time both note, there was a sense of genuine political possibility in that area in times past, especially when “gangs” were more closely related with politically-active groups like the Black Panthers. Charlie and Old Time are now seemingly more inclined to accept the racial divisions that seem so entrenched in Chicago, but they also think wistfully of how it used to be.
Sudhir appreciates speaking with Charlie and Old Time, but they recommend that he talk to younger men in the neighborhood to get a sense of the way things are now, rather than how they were in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Taking this advice, Sudhir visits a housing project in the Oakland neighborhood, in November of 1989. He still has his clipboard with a questionnaire, created by Bill Wilson. In the lobby of one building, Sudhir asks around to see if the young men congregating there know of anyone living in a couple particular apartments listed on his question form. The young men are confused as to why he’s in the project in the first place, and wonder aloud if he’s Mexican and a member of a rival gang, the Latin Kings.
The question, of course, is whether race relations in Chicago in the past were actually any better than they are in the present – and what those race relations today might be. The questionnaire that Sudhir uses in this section is, in essence, a parody of academic cluelessness; it makes it seem that no one at the University of Chicago has ever spoken to anyone in a low-income neighborhood. After all, who in any circumstance would have a good response to the question, “How does it feel to be poor?”
Sudhir is confused, and though he tells the young men he is a researcher from the university, there to ask questions of people living in certain apartments, the men reply that he must stay with them, and that no one lives in the apartments he’s charged with visiting. Finally, Sudhir convinces one of the young men to let him ask something. Sudhir does, reading off the sheet: “How does it feel to be black and poor?” The young men in the lobby laugh openly at what is, to them, an absurd question.
The response of the young men, viewed in light of the academic cluelessness of the questionnaire, is actually quite revealing. Though they find the questions strange and impossible to answer, they do not harm Sudhir, and they only offer him the slimmest of threats, wondering whether he’s not a “spy” for a rival gang. Mostly, they are just perplexed by his presence there – and they want to keep an eye on him, to observe him.
The young men do not threaten Sudhir, but they surround him until a man named JT arrives, and asks what Sudhir is doing in the Oakland projects. Sudhir repeats that he is asking questions for a UChicago survey of the neighborhood. JT, who Sudhir realizes is the leader of a unit of the gang of which the young men are members, tells Sudhir that he is not African American, as the survey indicates. Instead, JT identifies himself using a racial epithet, saying that African Americans live in suburbs and “have jobs,” whereas people like JT reside in the projects and are in gangs. JT leaves, still somewhat confused at Sudhir but not openly hostile, and the young men huddle around Sudhir in the stairwell of the project, treating him mostly with bemused indifference.
From the start, JT underscores just how different his world is from that of Sudhir. He doesn’t even identify with the term “African American,” even though, of course, JT is familiar with it, and sees how Sudhir is using it. But JT also notes that terms like African American belong to a world in which social divisions are made on paper, dissected by social scientists and politicians. As JT will go on to show, his world is far different from this “paper” world – it is more complex, harder to navigate, and it requires JT’s particular fluid intelligence.
Sudhir stays up much of the night, as the young men around him – “foot soldiers” in JT’s gang, known as the Black Kings – tell stories, smoke, and drink beer. JT comes back, after having conferred with his superiors, and talks to Sudhir again. He tells Sudhir that if he’s interested in learning about life in Chicago, he shouldn’t ask questions from surveys, nor should he be formal and “play by the rules” of academia. Sudhir listens eagerly to JT, and is surprised to hear that JT himself graduated from college and took some sociology courses there. JT lets Sudhir go in the early morning, and Sudhir is invigorated by his new firsthand experience with the members of the Black Kings (BK) gang, and especially with JT.
Sudhir doesn’t spend too much time thinking about it, but in truth he has very good luck on this journey with the questionnaire, and it could have very easily happened that he wouldn’t have met JT, or anyone like him, on his first or on subsequent visits. JT is, in this sense, a perfect subject: he is willing to talk about his life, he’s interested in the kind of work Sudhir does, and he respects the intellectual inquiry behind Sudhir’s project. But JT also knows enough about university life to see where Sudhir might be blind to life in the projects – and JT helps Sudhir to learn about precisely these areas.
Sudhir goes back to his studio apartment, wondering whether he should continue with his normal graduate routine that day, of classes and department business. But after showering, he buys beer and goes back to the same project. He finds JT and says that, if JT says Sudhir should observe people and their daily lives, then he, Sudhir, is happy to do it. JT says that Sudhir is courageous for returning, even if JT is still slightly confused by his persistent desire to research the community. They talk for a time, and when JT is called away on gang business, he tells Sudhir to return the following week, to continue observing life in the Oakland projects.
Sudhir here makes a fateful decision. Another researcher might have continued with the questionnaire, or, understandably, have been hesitant to dive into a research project in a community where he knows so few people. But Sudhir trusted JT – and JT was an easy person to trust. Thus begins the bond that will hold throughout the entire book. JT and Sudhir believe in each other, and grow close talking about their lives – and Sudhir carefully listens to, and notes down, much of what JT says.