A well-known sociologist explores how the underground economy is dissolving racial and class barriers in an increasingly globalized New York City.
Although Venkatesh (Sociology/Columbia Univ.; Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets, 2008, etc.) established his career via his penetrating studies of the Chicago underclass, he declares that in New York, a “new world of permeable borders beckoned [where] the criminal underworld interacts with the mainstream world to make the world of the future.” He notes that although the book grew out of research conducted since 1997 on sex workers and the underground economy in these cities, it is not strictly academic but also contains elements of memoir. After establishing his essential thesis about New York’s new permeability among ambitious residents willing to “float,” he delves into more specific social narratives, beginning with the lives of Indian video store workers and aging Hispanic prostitutes against the backdrop of Manhattan’s Giuliani-era gentrification. Venkatesh then moves on to a nuanced portrait of a Harlem cocaine dealer trying to decode the lucrative downtown (white) market (a section reminiscent of his previous book) and to the noirish lives of several women attempting to be successful as managers of upscale prostitutes. These women discussed the “large numbers of women [arriving] in New York with a surprising new openness to the idea of using sex work to supplement poorly paying straight jobs.” The author displays a piercing sense of empathy and ability to translate dry sociological principles into an understanding of the difficult lives of the urban poor. Less effective are his reveries on his own changing personal circumstances, which include divorce and the struggles of academic careerism, and his attempts to observe the feckless social and career rituals of Manhattan’s youthful upper class. Although the overall narrative is unwieldy and at times indulgent, Venkatesh has established a singular voice in urban sociology, and his immersive research and insights remain penetrating and unique.
Will appeal to readers fascinated by the intersections of class, prosperity and crime.