Sudhir begins riding around in JT’s car and following him in some of his daily activities, although not, for the first eight months or so, any related directly to the Black Kings. JT tells Sudhir a great deal about his life. JT had a job in the professional, “office” world after receiving a college degree, but found that, in general, his being a black man kept him from earning promotions or gaining favor from his superiors. This angered JT, and he returned to the South Side and found himself quickly becoming a “regional manager” with the Kings. As Sudhir asks JT questions about life in the neighborhood, JT responds with a mixture of academic and earthier explanation, saying, for example, that academics’ idea of a “culture of poverty” is backward, since low-paying jobs offered to African American employees hardly prompt eager diligence and professional dedication. Sudhir listens to what JT says without noting things down until later, for he fears that JT will talk less candidly as he learns more about Sudhir’s research.
Sudhir realizes quickly that JT’s work with the BKs is structured as a kind of quasi-business – indeed, that the vast majority of the gang experience is modeled either on for-profit or non-profit behaviors in the “normal” markets of the world outside Robert Taylor. Thus, JT believes he ought to manage in certain ways, behave like an executive, obey chains of command, and otherwise work as one might in a corner office. The primary difference, of course, involves just what the gang is doing – mostly selling crack cocaine – and the violence that often attends this business. JT doesn’t seem to like the violence or the uncertainty of the drug market, but he often says that these are simply unavoidable parts of the work.
Finally, by late spring of the first year of his research, Sudhir is asked by JT to accompany him on a gang-related visit, to Curly, another member of the Black Kings. Curly manages the crack-dealing business at the Robert Taylor Homes, Chicago’s most notable, largest, and most infamous housing project, bordering the Dan Ryan Expressway. Sudhir agrees to go along with JT, and promises he won’t say anything – he’ll only observe JT’s and Curly’s conversation.
In the beginning of their working relationship, JT tries to keep Sudhir away from the day-to-day workings of the gang. There are perhaps several reasons for this: JT wants to make sure Sudhir is trustworthy; he wants to be sure he can present his own gang dealings in a coherent fashion; and he wants to protect Sudhir from some of the violence and complexity of the work he does.
Sudhir doesn’t take notes when JT and Curly meet in Curly’s mother’s apartment in Robert Taylor. But Sudhir does recall that the two gang managers spoke a highly-coded and specific language of drugs markets and regions, products and forms of resistance (other gangs, the police). Later, on the car-ride back, JT fills in Sudhir on what was discussed. He says that Curly, another regional manager (like JT) of the BKs, has been running drug operations in Robert Taylor. Curly is beloved in the gang and loyal, but he’s not great with business matters, and gang higher-ups realize this. JT wants a chance to broaden his profits beyond his current “franchise” in the Oakland projects, where Sudhir and JT met earlier that fall. JT is therefore happy to take over Curly’s job, amicably, of leading the BK drug trade in Robert Taylor.
Here, again, the workings of the gang seem very similar to those of a large corporation. Curly is a loyal member of the gang (or company), and the higher-ups recognize that it is important to keep him in a position of command, especially as regards managing lower-level “foot soldiers.” But the higher-ups also see that JT has an eye for business, and that he can drive up profits. This is the kind of work JT especially relishes, and so the diplomacy of this scene is evident—JT paying respect to Curly, and Curly acknowledging that JT would be better suited to the day-to-day work of boosting sales.
Sudhir is grateful for this information. At the end of the car ride, back near the university, Sudhir thanks JT for everything, presuming that, because JT has effectively been promoted to running the drug business in Robert Taylor, he’ll no longer have time to chat with Sudhir. But JT “craves attention” from Sudhir, and asks openly if Sudhir isn’t going to write his biography, a way of describing JT’s life that also depicts the difficulties of the illicit drug business in Chicago. JT notes that this is the kind of scoop Sudhir couldn’t get from a seminar, and Sudhir understands this to be true. He agrees to continue documenting JT’s life and conversing with him, even once JT moves over to the Robert Taylor drug market.
Sudhir fears that JT will now want to move on, or will not want to grant Sudhir the same kind of access to the work he does. But in this case Sudhir underestimates JT’s desire to have his life studied. Indeed, JT seems to believe that Sudhir wants to write his biography, and the only way Sudhir could do that would be to know everything about the nature of JT’s work and about any “promotion” he might receive in the field. Thus this is a break for JT’s career and for Sudhir’s research.
While JT is preparing to take over his new role, Sudhir researches (in the UChicago library) the Robert Taylor homes. Robert Taylor, named for a director of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), was part of a nationwide progressive system of public housing construction in the middle of the twentieth century. Its goal, like that of all “projects” in urban areas, was to “revitalize” neighborhoods by constructing state-of-the-art housing amenities, and by making them available to impoverished, often minority, communities at subsidized rates. Because these authorities were founded and projects built with good intentions by many involved, there was much optimism in the press, initially, for places like Robert Taylor. But over time, government neglect of the buildings, coupled with overarching economic factors in cities (like deindustrialization, and white flight to the suburbs) caused the projects to fall into neglect, and to become centers of gang-related drug trade and violence in places like Chicago.
As per this research, the Robert Taylor Homes and other projects like them in Chicago and across the country were conceived of as, essentially, utopian spaces. Many social thinkers from all different walks of life thought that these organized housing communities could one day alleviate poverty, or severely restrict it, in places like Chicago with stark divisions between “haves” and “have-nots.” One could debate whether projects like these were doomed from the start – and Sudhir notes that the organization of these communities into tall blocks made it very difficult, perhaps impossible, for people to communicate or feel they lived in a sensible neighborhood together.
Sudhir notes that, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, many in Chicago and across the US understood places like Robert Taylor to be centers of “criminality,” rather than beacons of hope for fairer living conditions for the working poor. Although people like Bill Wilson, Sudhir’s academic supervisor at UChicago, devoted their lives to understanding what it was like to live in poor parts of American cities, very few people, whether academics or journalists or non-profit workers, knew much about what it was like to live day-to-day in a housing project. That kind of ethnographic study was now becoming the center of Sudhir’s research.
What’s so striking about Sudhir’s research is just how novel it is – how few people have devoted the time and energy to understanding what life is like in housing projects, even though one could never drive on the Dan Ryan Expressway, or on any major expressway in any major American city, without noticing large regions dominated by them. Thus Sudhir’s work is notable in part because it reveals a community that was “hiding in plain sight” all along.
After a few weeks in the spring of 1990, when JT is situated in his new role as regional drug manager at Robert Taylor, he invites Sudhir to come down from UChicago to see his new surroundings. Sudhir meets Ms. Mae, JT’s mother, who lives in Robert Taylor. JT invites Sudhir to a party, with people standing outside eating and drinking beer in the sunshine, assembled around cars and basketball courts, and with music and general merriment. Sudhir is pleasantly surprised by the cordiality with which he’s greeted, as he arrives at the party with JT, who refers to him to others as his friend “the Professor.” Sudhir begins visiting Robert Taylor regularly, and continues his discussions with JT, who fills him in on the living conditions of people in Robert Taylor.
JT’s nickname for Sudhir, “the Professor,” is, of course, a joke –as JT knows that Sudhir isn’t a professor yet. But it also contains much of the complexity of their relationship. On the one hand, JT defers to Sudhir because he recognizes the depth of Sudhir’s education. On the other, the nickname is somewhat sarcastic, as it seems to indicate that, despite Sudhir’s smarts in the classroom, he knows very little about how to operate in a world like Robert Taylor.
In particular, Sudhir gets to know JT’s mother, Ms. Mae. Ms. Mae often cooks for Sudhir, and tells him about her life before moving to Chicago, in the South, where her parents were sharecroppers. Sudhir offers Ms. Mae money for food after several weeks of eating dinner with her, but she refuses angrily, telling Sudhir never to offer her money again. JT teases Sudhir about his conversations and dinners with his mother, wondering whether Sudhir doesn’t visit Robert Taylor only for Ms. Mae’s cooking.
Ms. Mae does not speak much in the text, but she is a central figure of care and concern, and Sudhir goes to great lengths to describe just how good her cooking is and how pleasant it can be to know that Ms. Mae will be waiting with food. Sudhir comes to view Ms. Mae’s house as a refuge, and he goes there when he wants to process what he’s just seen elsewhere in the Homes.
JT also takes Sudhir on tours of the different high-rises of the Robert Taylor Homes, and begins describing to him the complex economic systems of exchange, often outside the “legal markets” of Chicago, that support the Homes. Sudhir observes as JT, along with his associates (lieutenants) T-Bone and Creepy, monitors the squatters in the Homes, who pay the Black Kings a small fee to live there without being bothered by others. Sudhir notes how crack addicts buy their drugs, and observes that sometimes JT will send overdosed addicts to a medical clinic located within the Homes complex, both to help them and to make sure areas are cleared for continued drug sales.
The status of the squatters in the Homes is complex. Really, a great number of gang members and others in the Homes are not on official leases – generally these leases are kept in women’s names, to make sure that gang members can’t be tracked to specific buildings. This means that, in the eyes of the state, a good many of the men in Robert Taylor are really squatting, even if they’re BKs. But the BKs then patrol to see if others from outside the community are living in the Homes.
Sudhir meets others in the Homes, including “regular squatters” like C-Note, a handyman with many “side hustles” who washes cars and mends appliances for tenants in the buildings. Sudhir also meets Ms. Easley, a “tenant monitor” whom JT pays off occasionally so that young people in the building can have daycare and school supplies. Thus Sudhir observes that the Black Kings both maintain and are central to the gray-market economies of the Homes. Not only do the Black Kings sell drugs and control the drug trade—their most important source of income—but they also organize social events, act as landlords, and manage prostitution rings and markets for goods and services (like hair salons). Some tenants, like C-Note and Ms. Mae, are more than happy to share their experiences with Sudhir, who, after weeks of visiting the Homes, accidentally lets slip that he takes notes on everything he observes. But JT seems already to understand this, and is unfazed; indeed, Sudhir often writes up his notes over food in Ms. Mae’s apartment.
The BKs structure their own legal system that mimics the legal system that should in fact be operating in the Homes, but isn’t because the Homes suffer from institutional neglect on the part of city and state governments. The BKs collect money from people like C-Note, and this can be frustrating to tenants who do not have a lot to pay. But as Sudhir and, later, Ms. Bailey indicate, the tenants don’t have much of a choice, and they seek out entities that would be willing to monitor, keep up, and hold accountable others in the building. What at first appears to be a “lawless” set of families is in fact a tightly-ordered one – just not in the ways that suburbs, or wealthier parts of the city, are arranged.
Sudhir meets a woman named Clarisse, in her thirties, who is a prostitute in Robert Taylor and a relative of JT’s, although JT does not tell Sudhir this—Clarisse does. She says that she’s a “regular” prostitute in the building, and that JT allows her to do her work without interference. But JT also manages prostitutes who are “freelance,” who do not live in Robert Taylor and/or who have no personal connection to JT or to others in the management of the Black Kings. Sudhir notes that Clarisse says she does not smoke crack, although many prostitutes do. Sudhir also observes that perhaps 15 percent of the residents of the Homes are “hardcore” users of drugs like crack, whereas about a quarter use “occasionally” or socially.
Clarisse’s status within Robert Taylor is similar in many ways to that of “regular” squatters like C-Note, as Sudhir here describes. This is not to say that Clarisse’s work is in any sense “legal” – not even close. But the gang knows about her, and she knows about the gang. Clarisse is subject to gang “taxes” from time to time, but they don’t harass her, they don’t impinge on her customer base, and she does what she can to follow the rules they set (and occasionally revise). This symbiosis means that both parties can, largely, go about their business in peace.
Sudhir continues making notes on other “hustles” in the Homes outside of the prostitution ring taxed (but not directly managed) by the Black Kings. He observes C-Note in particular, who tells him his nickname comes from the fact that “he has a hundred ways to make a hundred bucks.” One summer day, Sudhir watches C-Note and some of his friends, also “regular” squatters, set up an auto-repair open-air market on the basketball courts. JT comes by after some time and tells C-Note to move, that there’s a BK-run basketball game scheduled for the courts that day, but C-Note resists. (Sudhir notes that C-Note was not typically angered by JT, and respected his rule over the Homes, but that C-Note always defended his right to make a profit in one of his hustles.)
C-Note is an important secondary character in the text. In some sense he is a foil to JT – a man who is street-savvy, who generally knows how to make money and, on occasion, to manage other people. But JT has a great deal more authority than C-Note does, and it’s not necessarily clear why – other than the fact that JT is the regional leader of a gang, and C-Note is not a part of the gang. Thus belonging to the BKs ensures an enormous amount of leverage within Robert Taylor – something from which C-Note does not benefit.
C-Note does not back down from JT, and refuses to move his auto-repair equipment from the courts. But JT insists and, finally, begins beating and kicking C-Note, and other lieutenants from the BKs join in. Sudhir watches from afar, aghast at what is happening, but worried about what will occur if he breaks up the fight. Finally JT relents, and some friends of C-Note take him to the clinic at the Homes, where doctors treat him for bruised ribs and cuts. Sudhir remarks that he is shocked and saddened by JT’s violent outburst. And, as far as his research goes, he realizes it might be dangerous and one-sided to see Robert Taylor only from JT’s perspective. He thus begins wondering how to broaden his ethnographic research at the Homes—how to gain research access to others living there.
This is the first of several important ethical episodes for Sudhir in the text. Although he tries always to go by what he calls his “intuition” or “compass,” this is an instance where he might have done more, as he seems to acknowledge later. Yes, it would have been enormously difficult to stand up to JT, especially when JT was heated about C-Note’s activities. But JT does seem to listen to Sudhir, at least somewhat, and Sudhir in this instance appears to let go of a chance to offer his opinion of JT’s behavior.