Off the Books

The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor

August 1, 2007

Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh

Off the Books:The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor (Harvard University Press)

Sociologist Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh's work is so fascinating that an entire chapter of Steven D. Levitt's best-selling book, Freakonomics, was dedicated to Venkatesh's graduate school experiences of going door-to-door surveying residents in the infamous Robert Taylor Homes public housing projects on Chicago's Southside. Venkatesh learned quickly that he had to adapt his research methods in order to learn anything and spent the next eight years "hanging out" in the hood, where he admits his ethnic identity-"being neither black nor white" allowed him an access that others might not have had. Venkatesh's most recent work, Off the Books, uncovers the intricacies of the bustling underground economy in one small neighborhood that he calls Maquis Park. The complex economy that he describes includes drug dealers, prostitutes, homeless security guards, preachers, gang members, mechanics who operate illegally in alleys and a woman who runs a soul food enterprise from her home. I was riveted by this nearly 400-page book, mostly due to Venkatesh's ability to so clearly detail this community and the characters who inhabit it-with a good measure of theory to back up his observations. A must-read for anyone interested in fundamentally changing the way they think about the American ghetto. 

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