Even Off the Books, you still need a space

Finally got a copy of Sudhir Venkatesh’s Off the Books, courtesy of a suburban library. It’s a study of a poor ghetto area within Chicago. Few are “employed,” but many are working, hustling to make a living.

“I soon discovered that the seemingly random collection of men and women in the community…were nearly all linked together in a vast, often invisible web that girded their neighborhood. This web was the underground economy.”

So how are these folks making a living? Pretty much any way you could imagine. Of course some of the work is illegal– prostitution, drugs– but much would be legal if it was performed in accordance with applicable laws and ordinances. People are selling clothing, food (some of it home made), used equipment (some of which may have been stolen), maybe providing security services for local stores and even apartment building owners. Sure, off-the-books activity can avoid some taxes, but among the underground services is the preparation of income tax returns. (Thus the preparation of the books is off the books). Life is difficult, because almost everyone’s poor and public services are, well, not uniformly superb.

There are several reasons why it’s difficult to escape to a better life, one of which is that underground work doesn’t produce a credit rating nor, really, a resume. And many people are simply afraid to leave their familiar community.

A few community leaders help keep things functioning, but receive little benefit.

“It is by working off the books, in back rooms and behind the scenes, that local residents come up against the limits of their [work]…Because they have done this surreptitiously…they are implicated in the very dangerous and destablilizing activities they are trying to address…[and] they can never really show themselves to those in the social mainstream– phiilanthropists, advocates, employers, and so on– who would otherwise find their work courageous and worthy of acknowledgement and reward. It is nearly impossible for the press and political leaders to recognize their work…Thus, in the long run their success as mediators does little to help them advance personally.”


“Even in a depleted ghetto, there will be collective actors in place who attend to neighborhood affairs, and it is important to … note that their time and energy are taken up by matters that do not always make it onto the radar of the wider world. They may be working in the immediate present to make sure that children can walk safely on the widewalk or through the park…To do so, they may have to find the pimp, car mechanic, or other hustler and iron out the problem themselves. Doing this repeatedly can mean reduced time to prepare funding proposals… Unlike their suburban counterparts who are more likely to have decent city services and far fewer shady types roaming about, they do not have the time to luxuriate and plan for the future.”

What does a Georgist see in this book? Of course it is that land is key; one needs a place to produce, and even just to live.

Underground entrepreneurs possess skill, business acumen, and tremendous potential for innovative skills and strategies. What most lack is a physical space to ply their trade….Some have equipment that must be housed, others need a place to sell…others need sites to advertise…Private, sheltered, decent space is at a premium.”

“To hustle, one does not simply set up shop in an alleyway or on a street corner. Chances are that others have already claimed that spot. Moreover, it is likely that any claim to use turn and earn revenue will be contested by other entrepreneurs” such as block club presidents or precinct captains. “In the ghetto, one must negotiate public space before one can hustle.”

“Very few middle-class Americans see an alley as a venue for monetary gain; but in the ghetto these spaces are full of possibility. “

“Street hustlers can offer various services to merchants including security, cleaning up, advertising. “[H]ustlers who offer merchants these services are not necessarily looking for additional income…Many have other entrepreneurial schemes…and so need a private sheltered space. James Arleander[a pseudonym] articulates a typical hustler viewpoint:

“You can always make money…But getting a place is priceless. That’s the hardest thing, to just have some place to keep your [tools and belongings] and … hide from…people who may be upset at you.”


It’s a book worth reading if you’re interested in how some poor people manage to survive, or even just another perspective on how the city works. Unfortunately, Harvard University Press has done a terrible job of copyediting, from page 1 (where a woman is introduced as a “widower,” or is this a new kind of political correctness?) , though the discussion of “subway” stations on Chicago’s south side (there actually are none south of Roosevelt Rd), and the “Department of Parks and Recreation” (no such agency in Chicago, folks, you mean the Chicago Park District), to the hustle that pays $50/night, or is it $50/week, depending on which part of page 312 you believe. Maybe that can be fixed in the next edition.

One thought on “Even Off the Books, you still need a space”

  1. Pingback: Tax Insanity

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.