Guide Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor

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Visit our multimedia page for video about recent projects and interviews with HUP authors. Join Our Mailing List: Subscribe to receive information about forthcoming books, seasonal catalogs, and more, in newsletters tailored to your interests. Recent News Allan Lichtman, author of The Embattled Vote in America , talked to Vox about the history of disenfranchisement in the United States and the dire consequences to American democracy of ongoing voter suppression. The Politics of Race and Class in the City In this revealing study of a Southside Chicago neighborhood, sociologist Venkatesh opens a window on how the poor live Venkatesh keeps his work vital and poignant by using the words of his subjects.

Publishers Weekly [Venkatesh] spent years in a square-block neighborhood on Chicago's South Side observing the clandestine work of gangbangers and mechanics, prostitutes and pastors. The result, Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor , suggests that in some American neighborhoods, the underground economy is a source not just of sustenance but of order, and that while shady transactions may be illegal, they adhere to a distinctive and sophisticated set of laws. Patrick Radden Keefe Slate.

The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor , is the riveting drug-dealer back story--and a lot more. Venkatesh, who is now a professor of sociology and African-American studies at Columbia, spent to following the money in 10 square blocks of the Chicago ghetto. He finds an intricate underground web. In it are dealers and prostitutes--and also pastors who take their money, nannies who don't report income, unlicensed cab drivers, off-the-books car mechanics, purveyors of home-cooked soul food, and homeless men paid to sleep outside stores.

Venkatesh's insight is that the neighborhood doesn't divide between 'decent' and 'street'--almost everyone has a foot in both worlds. The Wire meets academia, Off the Books is a great and an instructive read. Although the resourcefulness of certain drug dealers, back-alley mechanics, and fly-by-night day-care providers is remarkable, Venkatesh argues that under-the-table transactions work to further separate their participants from the economic mainstream.

Benjamin Healy The Atlantic In Off the Books , Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh defines the underground economy as 'a web in which many different people, from the criminal to the pious, from the down-and-out to the bourgeois, are inextricably intertwined' The story Venkatesh tells in Off the Books is specific to Maquis Park, but the underground economy he found there almost certainly has its counterpart in the black ghettos of large cities.

Indeed, its reach extends beyond the ghetto to the kitchens of restaurants, the homes of the well-off and the myriad service jobs that employ workers off the books. Yet it remains in the shadows, barely touched by researchers, a vast world usually ignored, misunderstood, or dismissed with stereotypes. Venkatesh's riveting account describes the underground economy through vividly realized characters Venkatesh finds the underground economy's origins in the racism, economic devastation, and political abandonment that have decimated many big American cities What can be done?

Venkatesh offers no concrete remedies. But that is not his point.

Off the Books

Off the Books is not about policy. Wonderfully written, brilliantly researched, it illuminates, as no other book has done, the ubiquitous world of shady activities that structure everyday life for the residents of the nation's Maquis Parks in ways few Americans observe or understand. Katz Chicago Tribune Would you like to tell us about a lower price?


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Listen to a short interview with Sudhir VenkateshHost: Read more Read less. Prime Book Box for Kids. Add both to Cart Add both to List. One of these items ships sooner than the other. Buy the selected items together This item: Ships from and sold by Amazon. Customers who viewed this item also viewed. Page 1 of 1 Start over Page 1 of 1. Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets. The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto. The World of the New Urban Poor.

Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor

Fugitive Life in an American City. Deep Inside The Underground Economy: Sponsored products related to this item What's this? Is Inequality in America Irreversible? The Future of Capitalism. Ace your daily challenges from health, work, and relationships. Find more happiness and meaning. Follows the ancient wisdom of the 8 Limbs of Yoga. Tim Ferris says he almost committed suicide until he was saved by Stoicism. Discover this powerful philosophy that will change your life. The book starts from the death of the gang leader and ends with it. This would be a nice narrative device if it were not for mind-numbing continuous retreading over the same thoughts, ideas and facts.

And it is not that Venkatesh repeats himself word-for-word but he just goes over the same territory and re-references or re-stresses or reiterates ad nauseam. At some point I started treating the books as a primary source a witness account rather than a synthetic scholarly work. Another major complaint is the scatterbrain treatment of the material. With all the repetition, some of the important economic background and the history of the formation of the ghetto is tucked in somewhere in the middle of the book.

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For example, the ghetto got so poor because most of the blue color jobs that the ghetto residents used to be able to get were shipped overseas. This fact is mentioned offhandedly in the introduction of one of the middle chapters. Another major annoyance is the lack of numbers and statistics in the book. How difficult was it to state what the number of people in Marquis Park was?

How many of them actually migrate out of it? It seems that there is a constant outflow of people. What is their average income? How does it compare to the other American inner cities? What are the economic dynamics of it? They have become poorer in the last twenty years, but by how much?

The author claims there is no adequate policing. How many policemen are there per resident? How does it compare to other parts of the city? The author claims there is overcrowding. How many square feet are there per resident? At last it would not have hurt this book to provide some sort of an idea of what is required to better the lot of the residents of Marquis Park.

Mar 02, Holly Wood rated it liked it Shelves: In this way, he fashions himself a story-teller of sorts, illustrating for the reader the day-to-day lives of those scraping out meager dollars in a variety ways not captured by traditional income studies, from illicit in-home catering services to extortion to prostitution. As a researcher, Venkatesh credits his South Asian racial background for his ability to negotiate a liminal identity within the community, belonging neither inside nor outside.

Venkatesh primarily relied on observation, watching agreements and transactions taking place throughout Marquis Park. He offers that he sometimes engaged individuals in formal interviews. From the text, it seems he employed this strategy to elicit meaning-making from participating actors, such as tracking down gang-leader Big Cat to document his perspective on his territorilizing of Homans Park despite the vocalized objections from the community He claims to have avoided direct participation observation where possible, but in his words: As a student of William Julius Wilson, Venkatesh is seeking to describe the effects of social isolation on Marquis Park.

However, where Wilson focuses on the structural changes which work to create the modern ghetto, Venkatesh argues that the complex underground economy he observes exists as a response to this structural alienation. However, he dismisses the notion that it is irrational or passively chaotic, but instead details how social actors and organizations actively contest one another to regulate its flow—like any other economic system. With this in mind, he organized his study around five specific groups operating in Marquis Park: As a scholar, Venkatesh should be commended for his skillful ability to depict the complexity of a power arena often underappreciated by researchers.

The emphasis on drama overshadowed reality and helped contribute to stereotypes many embedded researchers don't agree exist to quite the extent that Venkatesh describes. Jun 13, Gene Taylor rated it really liked it. Off the books is an engaging account of life in and around the underground economy in an American ghetto.

The author, Sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh , spent a large amount of time in the Chicago Southside neighborhood of Marquis Park, establishing relationships with residents and observing their daily life. This provided him with the ability to write a fly on the wall account of the web of exchange in the neighborhood that is occurring outside of the formal economy. The ghetto presents a range of o Off the books is an engaging account of life in and around the underground economy in an American ghetto.

The ghetto presents a range of opportunities for off the books work. Drug dealing and prostitution are obvious underworld activities, but the book details the surprising breadth of ways people hustle to make a dollar or two. One man has a niche doing minor car repairs in alleyways while another shines shoes and helps squatters find a place to stay for a fee. A Homeless man might be payed a few dollars to watch a store a night, while for a fee the local preacher may mediate your dispute.

The neighborhood is severely lacking in opportunities for traditional employment so the underground economy is an tied to residents doing what they can to just get by. The books consist of chapters focusing on differing aspects on the underground economy: These chapters are anchored by a cast of recurring residents like James Arleander the homeless mechanic who does car repairs in alleyways and Marlene Matteson, the president of the local block club.

While the books is very local in the focus, Marquis park is tied back to larger scale economic and political trends. One example of this is a very interesting discussion on how the entrenched poverty of neighborhoods like marquis park was in part an unintended consequence of the successes of civil rights movement. I picked up this book wanting get a better understanding of the kind of urban poverty fictionalized in television shows like The Wire.


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Marquis Park is a real place, populated by real people, who have to struggle in numerous ways just to get by. The book is in Chicago rather than a fictionalized Baltimore, but it is a very recognizable neighborhood. In terms of increasing your understanding this goes further than something like The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighbourhood as into the larges scale forces that helped to create and sustain the ghetto.

For any prospective readers I recommend that you go into this book with realistic expectations of what you are about to read.


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This book is not a page turner. While the material covered is quite interesting, there are a number of quite slow moving sections. Similarly the author has a habit of repeating some passages almost verbatim which would most likely have been cleaned up if the book was written with a popular audience in mind. The author does write clearly and there is no academic jargon so this book should be accessible provided you have a little bit of perseverance.

May 12, Marigny rated it liked it. I have a particular rule that applies to managing my bibliophilia, which is that any book I leave in a Macy's fitting room while trying on new pants to replace the ones that I tore that day on the way to work, is not a book that I need to replace in order to say that I have finished it.

I will admit this is a rule set more by recent precedent than by any codified regulation as such. Off the Books is not a book that anyone needs to finish without utterly compelling reasons such as survival, signi I have a particular rule that applies to managing my bibliophilia, which is that any book I leave in a Macy's fitting room while trying on new pants to replace the ones that I tore that day on the way to work, is not a book that I need to replace in order to say that I have finished it.

Off the Books is not a book that anyone needs to finish without utterly compelling reasons such as survival, significant monetary reward, or the militant enforcement of a stroller ban in your neighborhod thus allowing you not only to get to brunch without having to constantly dodge the ever increasing presence of SUVs-as-strollers on sidewalks, but to also enjoy said brunch without the screaming contents of said SUVs-as strollers, and the overly indulgent, equally winey, spineless, biped putrefaction that feels the need to loose their ear shattering brood on the rest of a reproductively temperate and peaceful brunch enjoying society.

Aug 23, Maya Rock rated it really liked it Recommends it for: People interested in Chicago. This book is about a ghetto community in Chicago and the myriad ways the people in the community make money illegally and how they are all interconnected in this web which is quite intricate and helpful in keeping people fed, but ultimately of course keeps them apart from the outside world and stuck in the ghetto.

There is not much in the ghetto that is not aimed at making people stay in the ghetto. I chose this because the Freakonomics people recommended it although I have yet to read Freakonom This book is about a ghetto community in Chicago and the myriad ways the people in the community make money illegally and how they are all interconnected in this web which is quite intricate and helpful in keeping people fed, but ultimately of course keeps them apart from the outside world and stuck in the ghetto.

Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor by Sudhir Venkatesh

I chose this because the Freakonomics people recommended it although I have yet to read Freakonomics, just read articles about it. It is decidedly more academic than I expected and there is a fair amount of repetition. The author continuously reiterates his thesis and a lot of it is small narrative paragraph followed by longer paragraphs on how this ties into his thesis. I was expecting more of a sort of journalistic expose of all the clever ways poor people make money off the books, and it is drier than that and somewhat slowgoing, however, for me, it really took after the preacher chapter.

It all made sense to me after I saw this was a Harvard University Press book. I don't really it's completely accessible for laypeople, but nevertheless it was informative and also has just made me reconsider the value of a dollar. Jan 12, Sklape rated it it was amazing. I highly recommend this book to those interested in a understanding the dynamics of the life among the urban poor.

Folks that navigate this economy are faced with situations and decisions that those of secure in our middle class lives can't begin to comprehend. The book explains the critical role that the storefront preachers play in the community. Moms in poor communities want the same thing as Moms everywhere--good schools, a safe community, and better life for their children.

Unfortunately, t I highly recommend this book to those interested in a understanding the dynamics of the life among the urban poor. Unfortunately, the American Dream, as we know it, is nearly impossible for these folks to achieve. Much of the economy is "off the books" and very unstable. I was impressed with the tenacity, perseverance and generosity of spirit of the people described in this book. We are so quick to judge others without fully understanding what they face on a daily basis. This book offers a window into a world ignored by many in our country.

It seeks to describe not prescribe--the solutions to these problems will have to be found elsewhere. Dec 16, Ilana rated it liked it. This book takes you inside an urban neighborhood in Chicago's southside as the author explores how various people make money to get by. As the reader quickly discovers, nearly everyone is involved in an underground economy, from the woman who sells soul-food from the back of her kitchen and doesn't report the revenues, to the street hustlers and gang members. More interesting, everyone's activities are inexplicably intertwined in a profound and intricate way and it becomes near impossible to dif This book takes you inside an urban neighborhood in Chicago's southside as the author explores how various people make money to get by.

Most depressing, you realize that in these poor communities, the underground economy is really the primary and at times - the only economy available for people to participate it. Interesting subject but the book really seemed to drag on and might have been better captured in a single essay. Nov 13, Dean P. Interesting look at the underground economy in a neighborhood in Chicago. The author lived for several years in Maquis Park, a poor black neighborhood on Chicago's Southside, and documents his experiences with the neighbors and community members there.

On one hand, it is a good look at the players in the underground economy of the 21st century. He explores the various means of licit and illicit economic behavior and answers the "why" on the motivations of the players. On the other hand, the author Interesting look at the underground economy in a neighborhood in Chicago. On the other hand, the author seems to struggle to develop a driving-force narrative. It really seems like this was more of a collection of observations, not a "story with a thesis. What, for example, does he think would help progress in the underground economy?

How can people move from an underground economy to an "above-ground" one? Oct 16, John rated it liked it Shelves: This serves as the smart companion to Venkatesh's other work, Gang Leader for a Day. Not to say the other book wasn't smart, but it was more dedicated to character studies and had a little more action.

This book gives you more depth to the economic and social background to the parts of Chicago in Gang Leader. Many of the same character types show up in both works. This one goes deeper into the reasons behind community interactions and examines the research about poor inner city communities.

Each chapter focuses on the different actors in the underground economy: Aug 17, Vasil Kolev rated it really liked it Shelves: The book explains the internal dealings of a poor black community in Chicago, showing the webs of connections between the residents. The different kinds people that inhabit and influence the society are well describer - residents, clergy, gangs, homeless people, activists.

There's no recipe for how to solve anything, it's just plain history and direct observations of the people and their interactions. The insight the book provides is useful for initial understanding of the culture of these gettos The book explains the internal dealings of a poor black community in Chicago, showing the webs of connections between the residents.

The insight the book provides is useful for initial understanding of the culture of these gettos, but doesn't dig in the more interesting for me issues like reasons for the overall poverty and the exact economic flows. Jun 09, David Gross rated it liked it Shelves: The innumerable economic exchanges that took place every hour, every day, no longer seemed random or happenstance.

There was a vast structure in place, a set of rules that defined who traded with whom, who could work on a street corner or park bench, and what prices could be set and what revenue could be earned. Dec 24, Don Monson rated it really liked it. Not for the faint of heart - or those bored by statistics - this book is a gripping peek inside a struggling community that the vast majority of us will never experience or comprehend. Venkatesh allows us to come as close as print will let us. Venkatesh's casual treatment of the harder aspects of life in maquis park only mirrors their own casual treatment.

But the picture that emerges is of a life that is far more vibrant than one would anticipate. However, that life sows the seeds of its own pe Not for the faint of heart - or those bored by statistics - this book is a gripping peek inside a struggling community that the vast majority of us will never experience or comprehend. However, that life sows the seeds of its own persistence - since it is so hard to make a living, it is inconceivable that one might leave it for a better existence, because if that other opportunity doesn't pan out, it will be very hard to build one's own situation back to its original capacity.

I loved this book and highly recommend it. Mar 30, Andrea rated it it was amazing. This was a very interesting book. The people in this community are connected and dependent on one another in ways I could not have imagined. Before reading this, I had a poor concept of what hustling entails, and how many different ways it manifests. To see the ways in which gang activity is embedded, and possibly essential, in the community was fascinating. The only fault is that the writing is pretty academic - dense and repetitive - reads like perhaps it was written for Venkatesh's dissertatio This was a very interesting book.

The only fault is that the writing is pretty academic - dense and repetitive - reads like perhaps it was written for Venkatesh's dissertation. The examples and content still made this a page-turner for me, despite the way it is written. Jan 30, Toria rated it liked it. After completing his doctorate at the University of Chicago, Venkatesh wrote this book in an effort to describe his experiences with the Urban poor in the South Side of Chicago. While insightful, the organization of the book leaves much to be desired. The messages he takes from his experiences are simple and powerful, but are often over explained leaving the last half of each chapter and especially the last half of the book repetitive and dull.

I would still recommend this book to people who are After completing his doctorate at the University of Chicago, Venkatesh wrote this book in an effort to describe his experiences with the Urban poor in the South Side of Chicago. I would still recommend this book to people who are also exposed to the urban poor as it can help the reader categorize her own experiences and more adeptly recognize those cultural barriers that are easy to overlook.

Jan 08, Noah rated it really liked it. The story he's telling is important, and when he's narrating directly, powerfully written.