Sex, Drugs, and Sociology

One scholar's deep dive into the black markets of the Big Apple


Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York's Underground Economy, by Sudhir Venkatesh, 304 pages, Penguin Press, $27.95

Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociologist at Columbia University, has made a name for himself as an ethnographer-a scholar who spends time with his subjects, getting to know them, participating in their lives, and skating along the edges of journalism in the process of gathering data. Much of his attention has been focused on underground economic activity, including drug dealing and prostitution. His most recent book, Floating City, is a memoir of his years spent penetrating New York City's vast underground economy, with an emphasis on cocaine and sex.

The hard data is mostly published elsewhere, though there are enough numbers here to reveal that if prohibitionist efforts against drugs and prostitution ever came close to success, New York's economy would be devastated. Floating City is primarily of interest, though, for its insights into the culture and people of New York's illicit markets-a group that includes Venkatesh himself, whose observer status is colored by moralistic biases and a shambolic personal life, and is compromised by his close interactions with his subjects.

Underground activity comprises 20 to 40 percent of most urban economies, Venkatesh reports, but that doesn't mean it's identical from city to city. In Chicago, his previous stomping ground, illicit activity was based around tightly knit neighborhoods, but in New York it functions through networks that transcend geography and social barriers, with access controlled by cultural markers. Venkatesh suggests that this is a glimpse of the evolving future everywhere. "In the new world," he writes, "culture rules. How you act, how you dress and how you think are part of your tool kit for success."

The strivers in this world, including the entrepreneurial black coke dealer, Shine, and the equally ambitious Latina prostitute, Carla, continually seek access to the "white world" of higher-income, better-paying customers. But to gain access to this market, it's not their skin color they change, but their social signifiers. Shine studies GQ and Esquire for clues to proper attire in SoHo bars and artsy parties, and he deliberately reins in his black mannerisms. Margot, a madame, creates a "finishing school for hot young black and brown women" where she teaches young prostitutes basic tricks of the trade, flattery, and more sophisticated makeup application and dress. "Margot knew her clientele. Over the next six months, Carla and her friends doubled their income."

Which is not to say that this new world is all upside. Manjun, a clerk in a porn shop who helps introduce Venkatesh to sex-trade participants in a gentrifying Hell's Kitchen, is apparently murdered after wandering too deep into the criminal underworld. Carla is beaten by a john and worse, and Shine stomps an employee turned competitor. But it's interesting how relatively few disputes in this outlaw milieu seem to end in violence. The networks that connect buyers and sellers also develop dispute-resolution mechanisms, usually in the form of trusted people acting as mediators. And when violence does occur, it is somewhat constrained by informal rules that dictate how far it can go without inviting retaliation.

The permeability of barriers is a major theme of Floating City, and that includes legal barriers. Many of the participants in the underground economy wander back and forth between legal and illegal activity, supplementing the wages made driving a taxi or bartending with referral fees from prostitutes and drug dealers, or supplementing drug-smuggling income with a family restaurant.

"Angela's role in the life of Manjun's shop seemed to perfectly demonstrate my thesis," Venkatesh writes of a relationship between a streetwalker and a porn store. "The illegal money she brought in helped keep the legal business alive, and the legal business gave her a refuge to conduct her illegal business. There was no clear line between underground and aboveground."

Many of the lower-income entrepreneurs Venkatesh encounters are illegal immigrants, stuck working off the books and unable to open bank accounts because of ever-tightening immigration controls, especially in the wake of 9/11. They seem destined for marginal lives. It would be interesting also to know what role the explosion in occupational licensing has played in pushing people off the books as well.

But a good many of the participants that the author encounters -especially in the sex trade-opt for it in preference to or as a supplement for legitimate jobs. The money earned from a few "dates" easily overshadows that made from cleaning other people's toilets or selling fast food for minimum wage. The escort service managers Venkatesh interviews discuss a new wave of women from middle-income backgrounds open to sex work, since it pays so much better than legal jobs.

The person in the book who may be least comfortable with all of this legally transgressive economic activity is Venkatesh himself. "You seem pretty judgmental for a sociologist," one call girl tells him. He's especially uncomfortable with the buyers in the sex trade, admitting, "after nearly fifteen years of research, I could count on two hands the number of conversations I had had with johns." He even walks away from a seeming treasure trove of economic data on the sex trade offered by a helpful john who is a lawyer and accountant. It's hard to see how you can do a thorough job of researching economic activity by looking only at supply and deliberately ignoring demand.

Venkatesh spurns that proffered data when he discovers that the helpful john and his friends feel sorry for him. In fact, the author is something of a mess, as his marriage disintegrates and he frets over the response his unconventional professional approach is eliciting from colleagues. His vulnerability is obvious to those he meets, since he is plagued by frequent panic attacks.

This vulnerability opens doors for Venkatesh, though it also sometimes trips him up. Margot, the madame, declines to introduce him to some of her employees, since he's "um, not totally together" and might respond badly to being thrown into a pool of attractive sex workers. Also apparent is Venkatesh's condescension toward his subjects, which he begins to confront toward the end of the book.

But Venkatesh's sometimes messy trips across the barrier between academia and the underground economy are very much in keeping with the story of a world in which boundaries are increasingly fluid and social networks ever more dynamic. Black markets have always existed to provide goods and services that people want and that governments don't want them to have. Floating City is a fascinating glimpse at just how adaptable and real those markets are.