What are good books on urban gangs?
January 21, 2008 12:29 AM   Subscribe

What are some good books on gangs, gang activities, internal organization and structure?

I'm working on a project that involves me having some knowledge of the internal workings of gangs in the Chicago area, but similar areas may also work. I'm looking for mainly non-fiction or biography, but an accurate fictional book may be just as good.

I'm looking for information on the internal structure and general activities of gangs in large metropolitan or urban areas.

To anyone that can help, thanks a million. I really appreciate it.
posted by MediaJunkie to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
This book, Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets by Sudhir Venkatesh, sounds like it would be perfect for you. It's even based in Chicago!
posted by meadowlands at 12:41 AM on January 21, 2008

'The code of the street' by Elijah Anderson might be good for background info. It's mostly about Detroit, I believe. 'The Corner' by David Simon has some good observations on 'street' life, but it's not focussed on gangs.
posted by NekulturnY at 1:15 AM on January 21, 2008

i totally second meadowlands. "gang leader for a day" by sudhir venkatesh just came out this month. his project was profiled a bit in the book "freakonomics," but basically he spent like ten years entrenched with a gang in chicago. really fascinating stuff.

i would also recommend watching "the wire," in case you haven't already. it's just really fantastic and it's been well-documented that it's pretty legit and might be a good primer on the dynamics of gangs and really give a face and to the people that you are reading about in your studies (in fact, venkatesh was just on the freakonomics blog talking about watching this season's first ep with a bunch of gang leaders.
posted by sacho at 1:29 AM on January 21, 2008

I don't know if you are looking specifically for books about the US - but there is a good one about UK gangs by Tony Thompson - called Gangs : A journey into the heart of the British Underworld
posted by mattr at 1:41 AM on January 21, 2008

Always Running: La Vida Loca is about growing up as a gangster in L.A. I highly recommend it.

While I was searching google to remember the title of that book, I also found this, which looks useful.
posted by Pants! at 2:03 AM on January 21, 2008

There's someone out there who wrote exactly what you need, and that man is Sudhir Venkatesh. His first book (Off the Books) explores the underground economy in South Chicago, and he gets close with the economy and the people invovled, including gangs and gang members. Looks like since then he's looked more into the gang aspect, and you can now have Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets (another is coming out in early February, but I can't figure out the difference.

Venkatesh can write great descriptions of people and the societies they are a part of. These are non-fiction, and somewhat academic, though, so they aren't necessarily *light* reading. From your description though, I think these will be great, and I hope you'll pick them up.
posted by whatzit at 3:12 AM on January 21, 2008

The Number is an in depth look at the "Number" prison gangs (the 26's, 27's and 28's) of South Africa. Really good.
posted by PenDevil at 3:13 AM on January 21, 2008

Paddy Whacked gives good insight into the Irish and Jewish sectors of organized crime from its inception to press time. It was one of those books that I loathed putting down when school started up again.
posted by arishaun at 4:20 AM on January 21, 2008

For historical perspective the Uncovering the Real Gangs of New York documentary, which comes with the "Collector's Edition" 2-DVD set of the Gangs of New York movie may be interesting. It includes lots of material from the Herbert Asbury^ book the movie was based upon, which of course may also be interesting.
posted by XMLicious at 4:26 AM on January 21, 2008

I liked Leon Bing's Do or Die.
posted by brujita at 5:07 AM on January 21, 2008

Chicago gangs.
posted by zerobyproxy at 6:05 AM on January 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

not a book but the history channel show gangland has profiled at least three high profile chicago gangs. the back p stones, latin kings and the gangster disciples.
posted by phil at 6:22 AM on January 21, 2008

Reymundo Sanchez (pen name) wrote both My Bloody Life: The Making of a Latin King and Once a King, Always a King: The Unmaking of a Latin King about his experiences with the Latin Kings in Chicago. The former is probably more what you're looking for, although as he was only a soldier, his account mostly provides his own experiences, rather than a larger picture. Still, it's definitely worth a read for your purposes. It's pretty much required reading for teachers in Chicagoland schools.
posted by SpiffyRob at 7:29 AM on January 21, 2008

Code of the Street is set entirely in Philadelphia (Elijah Anderson grew up in Philly and taught at Penn, until he defected to Yale). Just FYI.
posted by nursegracer at 7:43 AM on January 21, 2008

Also, if you can find a copy of Freakonomics, the chapter done with Venkatesh is a good quick read.
posted by nursegracer at 7:44 AM on January 21, 2008

Also, if you can find a copy of Freakonomics, the chapter done with Venkatesh is a good quick read.

Seconded. It is called "Why do crack dealers still live with their moms?" - here is Steven Levitt talking about it at a TED conference.
posted by rongorongo at 7:52 AM on January 21, 2008

Seconding In Search of Respect and Code of the Street.
posted by Who_Am_I at 7:54 AM on January 21, 2008

One of the few things I recall from my (excellent) high school anthropology class:

there was a guy doing early field work with the Vice Lords, a street gang located in the Chicago area. From googling these meager details, I'm pretty sure it was Lincoln Keiser. A overview of his work is here: http://www.revision-notes.co.uk/revision/627.html. A list of his books at amazon: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss_gw/103-4912649-9384668?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=lincoln+keiser&x=0&y=0

The book you want is probably Vice Lords: Warriors of the Streets. I'm pretty sure that I either read an essay or the slim volume as a teenager and was summarily impressed at how frickin cool this guy was (far before I'd discovered hemingway or vollman or all the other manly men of american literature).

You might also look to documentaries and history-channel-and-the-like eyeball bait (as they tend to produce a lot of breathless bullshit on the subject of gang violence). Ross Kemp on Gangs is a fairly decent British television show that covers gangs in various locales around the world. No Chicago show as of now, but you might find the others interesting. If they aren't playing on BBC (or you don't have access to the channel), it looks like you can find clips on YouTube or elsewhere.
posted by fishfucker at 8:41 AM on January 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I read Islands in the Street in grad school. Also. It was a well-written and fascinating book about gangs and their role in communities.
posted by gingerbeer at 9:36 AM on January 21, 2008

Street Corner Society is a great sociological book about the inner workings of gangs. But I'm guessing a book about the structure of a 1940's gang in an Italian-American slum area of Boston isn't too helpful. It is an amazing and vivid non-fiction book though.
posted by DOUBLE A SIDE at 4:25 PM on January 21, 2008

second freakonomics, that book is great.
To your topic, it comapres gang organization to McDonald's worker organization and is really fascinating in its simillarities
posted by radsqd at 6:51 PM on January 21, 2008

Ha, fishfucker! You're right, The Vice Lords is by Lincoln Keiser. He's my old cultural anthro professor--and yes, absolutely one of the most badass guys I've ever met. (He spent a fair bit of time along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, too, chronicled in Friend by Day, Enemy by Night, and was consulted a time or two by certain secretive portions of the US gov't, which subsequently ignored his advice. But I digress.)

He had us read both In Search of Respect and The Code of the Street, and thought Bourgeious was an irresponsible, disrespectful jerk but that Anderson had things about right. Which was about what I thought, too, but was a callow freshman at the time so I didn't trust my reaction til Linc said so too.
posted by hippugeek at 10:07 PM on January 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

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