Venkatesh, Sudhir Alladi

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Venkatesh, Sudhir Alladi


Education: University of California at San Diego, B.A., 1988; University of Chicago, M.A., 1992, Ph.D., 1997.


Office—Department of Sociology, Columbia University, 413 Fayerweather Hall, New York, NY 10027. E-mail—[email protected]


Columbia University, New York, NY, assistant professor of sociology and African American studies, and director of research at Institute for Research in African-American Studies, 1999—. Codirector, Youth and Globalization Research Network, Social Science Research Council. Documentary filmmaker, including Dislocation, broadcast on Chicago PBS affiliate WTTW, 2005, and of film Abhidya.


Century Scholarship, University of Chicago, 1989-90; Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship, University of Chicago, 1990-91; Patricia Lynn Baker Prize, University of Chicago, 1993; dissertation fellowship, Chapin Hall Center at the University of Chicago, 1993-95; Dissertation Research Grant, Johann Jacobs Foundation, 1994; John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation grant, 1995; junior fellowship, Society of Fellows at Harvard University, 1997-99; Young and Mid-Career Child and Family Scholars Award, Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, 1997-98; American Bar Foundation grant, 1998-2000; Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts grant, 1999; Joint Center of Poverty Research and Department of Health and Human Services grant, 2000; National Science Foundation CAREER Award for Young Investigators, 2000-04.


American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 2000.

Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 2006.

(Editor, with Ronald Kassimir) Youth, Globalization, and the Law, Stanford University Press (Stanford, CA), 2007.

Contributor to books, including Children and Their Families in Big Cities: Strategies for Service Reform, edited by Alfred J. Kahn and Sheila B. Kamerman, Columbia University, 1996; Sociological Studies of Children, Volume 8, edited by David Kinney, JAI Press, 2000; and Alternate Perspectives on Gangs and Communities, edited by Louis Kontos, David Brotherton, and Luis Barrios, Columbia University Press. Contributor to periodicals, including Social Science History, Theory and Society, Journal of Sociology, Journal of Community Psychology, Signs: A Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Social Services Review, American Prospect, Sociological Perspectives, Le Monde Diplomatique, Il Manifesto, Public Culture, Law and Social Inquiry, American Journal of Sociology, Contemporary Sociology, and Journal of Economics.


Sociologist Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh is primarily interested in studying the urban living conditions of the poor. Both his American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto and Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor aim to dispel some preconceptions and myths of life in ghettos and housing projects in his native Chicago. The former book is an examination of the Robert Taylor Homes project, which was completed in 1962 and once had 27,000 residents. In decline now, the buildings are being torn down and only a few residents remain. Primarily through interviews with current and former residents, Venkatesh tries to explain why the huge project failed. "The result is a fascinating study of community dynamics between various groups of tenants, including leaders and members of the Black Kings gang, and how they created and lived what Venkatesh refers to as an ‘ordered environment’—against incredible odds," according to Adele Oltman in a Nation review. Venkatesh describes the underground economy that evolved at Robert Taylor and how tenant leaders bribed police to keep authorities away while residents created under-the-table businesses such as car repair shops and salons to survive. The decline of the project occurred for several reasons, including the Chicago Housing Authority's inability to keep up with repairs, which made the buildings hazardous to live in, and because of increasingly violent drug gangs that wrested power away from tenant leaders.

Despite this dangerous turn of events, Venkatesh portrays the community as being populated with basically good people struggling against impossible circumstances. "Venkatesh is to be commended for rejecting the perception of the black ghetto as a morally deficient space," insisted Oltman, "and for letting the voices of the tenants be heard. The result is a rich account of the political lives of the leaders and some of its residents." Some critics, including Oltman, however, felt that American Project would have been a more valuable book had the author put his subject within a broader political and social context. "As an ethnography, American Project is an innovative, insightful and valuable examination of internal project politics," concluded Oltman, adding: "As a history that attempts to explain the failure of the projects, however, it is incomplete." Similarly, Christian Century reviewer Robert Westbrook stated: "If Venkatesh gives a full hearing to the tenants … his ethnography suffers from an inattentiveness to the wider context for project living." With a mixed reaction, David P. Varady wrote in the Journal of the American Planning Association: "While the book adds to our understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of community-based organizations in public housing, it offers few useful suggestions for America's public housing policy, and more specifically, it says almost nothing about how to improve HUD's HOPE VI program." Nevertheless, in American Prospect, Alexander von Hoffman concluded: "The brilliance of the author's approach is that he listens sympathetically to the people who lived and worked in this massive public housing development, yet he remains scrupulously objective."

Off the Books is a work similar in some ways to American Project, but this time Venkatesh examines the impoverished Marquis Park neighborhood of Chicago. The focus here is on the underground economy, and how criminals, gangs, and respectable citizens have formed a type of symbiotic relationship in order to provide each other with services that government has failed to supply. Police and politicians are often involved in the subterfuge as well, while clergy leaders take on liaison roles to keep the community together. The author again draws heavily on interviews with his subjects. "If Venkatesh's picture of the ghetto is accurate," remarked Kerry Howley in Reason, "the task is not to change the people within its borders, as conservatives would have it, or to ply them with subsidies, as their liberal counterparts would. Ending the isolation of Marquis Park means allowing its bustling informal economy to join the wider network of formal exchange." "Although the book's academic tenor is occasionally wearying, Venkatesh keeps his work vital and poignant," reported a Publishers Weekly critic, who described Off the Books as a "revealing study."



American Prospect, April 9, 2001, Alexander von Hoffman, review of American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto, p. 40.

Christian Century, July 4, 2001, Robert Westbrook, review of American Project, p. 26.

Journal of Negro History, January 1, 2001, review of American Project, p. 65.

Journal of the American Planning Association, March 22, 2002, review of American Project, p. 210.

Library Journal, September 15, 2000, Paula R. Dempsey, review of American Project, p. 104; September 15, 2006, Ellen D. Gilbert, review of Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, p. 78.

Nation, June 4, 2001, Adele Oltman, "Sub-Urban Planning," review of American Project, p. 30.

Publishers Weekly, September 4, 2006, review of Off the Books, p. 56.

Reason, May, 2007, Kerry Howley, "Ghetto Capitalists," review of Off the Books.

Social Service Review, September 1, 2001, review of American Project, p. 532.


Harvard University Press Web site, (May 15, 2007), interview with Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh.

Joint Center for Poverty Research, (May 15, 2007), curriculum vitae for Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh.

Prospect Magazine Online, (May 15, 2007), Diane Coyle, "The South Side's Dark Side," review of Off the Books.

Slate, (December 8, 2006), Patrick Radden Keefe, "Jurisprudence: Ghetto Capitalism," review of Off the Books.