Sept/Oct/Nov 2013

Going Underground

Leonard Benardo


A decade ago, Sudhir Venkatesh inspired the insular world of academic sociology with American Project, his closely observed ethnography of the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. Venkatesh’s hard-fought insider access was hugely impressive: As he labored for years in the sprawling public-housing project, Venkatesh took participant observation to new heights, documenting the complex social networks that governed life in the Taylor homes.

By marrying the “thick description” pioneered by the esteemed anthropologist Clifford Geertz with an empirical grounding in the political economy of Chicago’s working poor, Venkatesh ably infused the familiar, dispiriting tale of the failure of the Great Society’s urban-renewal campaign with a more arresting counternarrative: the smaller, heroic efforts of the Taylor residents to scrape by, and forge the bonds of a thriving community, amid the crime and neglect of a de facto postindustrial Bantustan.

Venkatesh, now a professor of sociology at Columbia, has since turned his attention to the sinuous webs of urban vice, writing Off the Books (2006), a tour of Chicago’s extralegal underground economy, and the best-selling Gang Leader for a Day (2008), a visceral insider’s account of the city’s gang-led drug trade.

As he pursued such close-in accounts of illicit economies, the fashionable “global cities” meme—which lavishes attention on financial centers such as London, New York, and Hong Kong as linchpins of networks of international exchange—struck Venkatesh as undeniable if one-dimensional. By focusing so tightly on elites and financial services, today’s anatomies of the global city have downplayed the more contingent—and not inconsiderable—human gallimaufry of its designated masters of the universe.

Where are the actual individuals, Venkatesh wondered, who have integrated into their daily lives the extralegal markets for sex and drugs that feed the trademark vices of the global city? Where is the nexus that binds high and low, the formal and informal economies? And how has this shifting urban economic scene shaped the life choices of the various players and brokers who mine it for their living?

In Floating City, Venkatesh seeks to uncover the answers to such questions by extending the reach of his patented sociology of “hanging out.” Rather than primarily focusing on the subaltern players on the street, he’s now eager to understand the relations between uptown and downtown, the moneyed classes and the working poor, and the various networks of exchange that grease the underground economy. Venkatesh dissects the fluid reinventions of self and community that define New York’s trade in outlawed goods and services. Selling cocaine or sex is never a simple, unidirectional transaction in Venkatesh’s telling—parsimonious explanations are not for him. Instead, he delivers an expansive account of the varieties of social power that impinge upon the smaller worlds of vice trafficking in New York—and so, like his other work, Floating City is a model of ethnographic thick description.

Yet the results of Venkatesh’s layered “hanging out” never quite, well, hang together. While the book seeks to build out an ambitious narrative, bringing together the story lines of rich and poor in a web of off-the-grid exchanges, Venkatesh’s core observations are pat and unsurprising. He learns from immigrant sex workers and porn-shop denizens in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen that, despite everything, community binds people. He reveals that affluent, marriage-impaired johns can be self-involved and insufferable. And he tracks the no-win compromises that dog the lives of new immigrants eager to eke out a piece of the American dream.

It’s impossible to gainsay the richness of Venkatesh’s fieldwork. The book’s almost alluvial accumulation of human material bears strong testimony to the trust he’s won from his informants in New York’s various underworlds. He also maintains a sympathetic and nonjudgmental stance with just about everyone but his clueless well-heeled male subjects. Venkatesh is an accomplished researcher; his approach is painstaking and demands a form of interaction that most academics seeking to win tenure would be hard-pressed to sustain. It’s all the more disappointing, then, that his conclusions feel reductive, especially when it comes to the familiar bugaboos of gentrification and globalization. He couldn’t resist, for example, reminding his readers that “today’s champions of globalization are so busy celebrating the wondrous wealth and charming artifacts like food and music . . . that they have little time for the plight of the losers.” Still more tritely, this is how he takes in the vast sweep of New York’s underground economic scene: “The rapid change roiling this global city was creating winners and losers as far as the eye could see.”

Regrettable, too, are Venkatesh’s multiple references to how his fieldwork might turbocharge his career. “I was starting to fantasize about yet another documentary”; “I was already dreaming about the publications our alliance could generate”; “We’d bond and I’d get the access I needed and write the study and make the documentary and all would be glorious again”; “I saw my dreams of high-priced philanthropic consultancy . . .”

Venkatesh’s New York stories never detour into melodrama, but his penchant for interpolating his personal life into the narrative comes perilously close. It’s true that some of the book’s most affecting parts occur as he shares stories, both with the reader and his subjects, about the implosion of his marriage and the occasional self-loathing that it inspired. But a rounded account of a global city’s hidden wellsprings of underground exchange is a far cry from the saga of a rogue sociologist’s heartbreak—no matter how thickly it may be described.

Leonard Benardo is the coauthor of Brooklyn by Name: How the Neighborhoods, Streets, Parks, Bridges, and More Got Their Names (NYU Press, 2006) and Citizen-in-Chief: The Second Lives of the American Presidents (William Morrow, 2009).

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