Sudhir Venkatesh, the protagonist of the book and its author, wakes up one morning in the Robert Taylor Homes projects in Chicago. He describes that, once awake, he notices others around him sleeping. He has been staying the night in a crack den, an abandoned apartment in one of the project’s buildings. But he is not there to ingest drugs, or to engage in any illegal activity. Instead, he is documenting the lives of those who live and work in the projects, as a PhD student at the University of Chicago. He says that Gang Leader for a Day is a book about what he learned, and saw, during his years studying low-income neighborhoods in Chicago.
The beginning of the book is striking, and is a chance for Sudhir to explain just what circumstances he finds himself in. It is also, to a certain extent, a self-dramatizing scene – Sudhir could have chosen to begin in any of a number of ways, but here he describes one of the more shocking, possibly dangerous, and, to the general reader, out-of-the-ordinary moments in Robert Taylor. The question, then, is: to what extent is this part of life in Robert Taylor representative? How else does it feel to live and work in that community?