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Maquis Park residents, cut off from police protection at least partly because many of them are outlaws themselves, are also vulnerable to the Black Kings’ growing demands. In 2000 the gang’s leader, short on cash due to lagging drug sales, began exacting payment from local businesses in exchange for a bit of security. The payments were not voluntary, and stores were charged monthly fees ranging from $50 to several hundred dollars. In effect, they were being taxed by a shadow government.
Venkatesh does not note the obvious parallels between government coercion and organized crime, and he never probes residents’ feelings toward the police force that has left them to parry the Black Kings on their own. That’s a shame, because the enforcement of drug laws is largely responsible for the neighborhood’s fragile ecosystem. Prohibition pushes up the price of narcotics, feeding the community while leaving most of the attendant economic activity without police protection and vulnerable to plunder. Prohibition also helps fund the Black Kings’ reign, a lawless and often cruel alternative to the city of Chicago.
Venkatesh is also needlessly moralistic in his discussion of prostitution, his disapproval seeping through the veneer of academic objectivity. (He describes the neighborhood’s hookers as “selling their bodies,” a dated and condescending euphemism for sex work.) He can be repetitive and rambling, pumping out page after page on subjects of limited interest, such as the long, dry business histories of community leaders. But if Off the Books sometimes seems like an inelegant information dump, it’s also a gallimaufry of fascinating tidbits about the odd economics of the ghetto.
The book, then, is a reflection of the cityscape Venkatesh limns: chaotic and inconstant, but not without hidden value. Its strongest contribution is his redefinition of the urban landscape. Maquis Park emerges not as a holding pen for the idle poor but as a hub of spirited exchange. It has never made much sense, after all, to characterize the ghetto as both a seat of sloth and a hotbed of vice. Narcotics and guns don’t sell themselves. The wider world may not approve of sex work, but it’s still work.
At the very least, Off the Books should call into question a world in which fixing cars for cash is a criminal enterprise, one where the will to work clashes so constantly with the limits of the law. If Venkatesh’s picture of the ghetto is accurate, 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 Maquis Park means allowing its bustling informal economy to join the wider network of formal exchange. While that task is freighted with the historic legacy of discrimination, a city truly interested in encouraging ghetto capitalists would erase the lines between the licensed and unlicensed, the permit-carrying barbers and the outlaw beauticians.
There are no licenses, of course, for Maquis Park’s hookers and drug dealers. But if we don’t want poor Americans to conduct transactions off the books, we might reconsider what kind of activity we allow on the books. The ghetto, writes Venkatesh, is “a product of perpetual negotiations, of collusion and compromise, of the constant struggle to survive—to find a purpose for your life, to fulfill your desires, to feed your family.” It’s not a dome full of people waiting to be saved, he might add, but a force to be unleashed.