Book Review: Floating City by Sudhir Venkatesh

For those of us for whom “vice” equals sending text messages while driving over the speed limit on a freeway, there’s a natural curiosity about the dark side of society — curiosity about what happens after hours, in seedy neighborhoods, among those whose livelihoods depend on breaking the law. Hookers. Drug dealers. Loan shark frauds. The curiosity begins with complete ignorance about the practical realities. For example, if I wanted to buy cocaine in San Francisco, I have no idea where I’d even start. I don’t want to, but I’m still curious about the process and the people. Who controls a given block? Who are the pimps and how do they recruit the hookers? Where and how do the bosses keep their cash?

This curiosity partially explains why so many of us are glued to TV shows like The Wire — it opens up a side of urban American life that’s as foreign as Beijing to someone like me. And yet, despite several of these shows on the air, it was still a total shock to find out a couple weeks ago — via an FBI affidavit — that just a few miles away, in San Francisco’s Chinatown, there is serious organized crime going on, with state politicians trafficking guns across the border, gang leaders ordering hits on enemies down the block, briefcases of cash being delivered to drug kingpins in dark alleyways, and other allegations pulled straight out of Hollywood bang-bang-shoot-em-up central casting. This stuff is happening right here, right now, just across the way. And I am utterly ignorant of all of it.

51crPRZL9JLA few years ago, a University of Chicago sociologist named Sudhir Venkatesh made waves by integrating himself into the Chicago gang scene. Now, in his latest book called Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York’s Underground Economy, he integrates himself into New York’s sex trade. He meets people in the ecosystem, somehow earns their trust, follows them around, and writes about what he sees.

It’s an interesting book, and I had a couple broad impressions. First, there’s a fluid connection between the underground economy and the above-board economy in a given city–the hookers who sleep with Goldman Sachs managers; the hotel maids cleaning the semen-stained beds who owe their immigration status to a Yale finance graduate who runs an immigration smuggling ring; the drug dealers who cut deals with cops in order to make sure the Wall Street trader is hyped up enough to want to order the full menu from the prostitute; and so on. This overground/underground relationship is best understood in network terms, with distributed nodes and a constantly shifting structure. A second big picture impression was about the nature of global cities like New York, where the desperately poor interact with the exceptionally wealthy in such varied off-the-books ways. These mega diverse American cities play host to a recent immigrant’s quest for the American dream, a quest that oftentimes is financed by an “alternative economic path” that should be framed, Venkatesh reminds us, in more complex terms than just by the laws they transgress.

Venkatesh writes that “good sociology is always a mixture of close focus and long shot. You dial in and pull back, dial in and pull back, a delicate dance over the data gaps.” The book’s highlights come more in the form of colorful nuggets (“dial in”) than scintillating sociological conclusions (“pull back”). It may seem surprising, for example, that after spending so much time with prostitutes Venkatesh failed to discuss the question of whether prostitution should be legalized in the U.S. But I, for one, am glad he didn’t. Isn’t it more interesting to find out that hotel bellmen and taxi hailers get kickbacks in the form of free sex with the prostitutes to whom they refer a lot business?

Venkatesh himself is definitely part of the book. Plenty of sentences begin with “I.” Other reviewers have criticized this aspect of the narrative. Perhaps I’m more interested than most in the internal machinations of an academic sociologist spending his days surrounded by hookers and drug dealers and trying to write a book through it all and, surprise surprise, whose own marriage is falling apart in the process — so I didn’t mind the authorial interjections. It does add a dark tone to the book. But it makes the author’s own sympathy for his subjects feel authentic. And that sympathy is contagious. I came away feeling more understanding of the need for many of the people in the book to hustle their way to a living–to create a better life than the impoverished environment they were born into.

(Thanks to Aaron Hurst for sending the book to me.)

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