When outright chaos exists, it's easy to forget that there is still a community of people who are connected by thousands of individual strands of commerce, dependency and power.
Nowhere is this illustrated better than in the Robert Taylor Projects of the late 1980s - the height of the crack epidemic. During that time, gangs ruled the people's world and the chaos of crack addition, homelessness, endemic poverty, and frequent violence turned the place into an inferno that defies the imagination of many middle-classers like yours truly.
It's a world where over 50% of people admitted to frequent or occasional crack use. Where young gangsters participated in voter registration drives financed by crack money. Where drive-bys during the community BBQ were a not-all-together infrequent experience. Where the local cops signed up at the precinct to participate in "raids" on gangster parties where they literally rob the thugs blind.
Where just about everyone was on some form of social assistance, the average take home yearly salary is $10,000 and it's not seen as uncommon for women to use sex as a way of keeping the heat on during the winter.
It's also a place where crack addicts, prostitutes, teenage gangsters tatted out and perpetually high and drunk intermingle with grandmas who cook collard greens and mac'n cheese next door to tenant hustlers constantly out to make a buck.
In his fascinating sociological study Gang Leader for a Day Sudhir Venkatesh explores this world and evocatively illustrates the depths of a vibrant and self-sustaining communal system which offers many of the same services we take for granted everyday.
One of the most interesting aspects of Venkatesh's story connects to the interdependence of community leaders, gangsters and residents. Due to the corruption of the Chicago Housing Authority and the general disinterest of many Chicago police in entering the area, many residents were reliant on the gang organization and local powerbrokers (like tenant housing presidents) for their well being.
Door falls off its hinges during a subzero Chicago winter? Better have a good relationship with Ms. Bailey (the well connected favor broker and building president) - otherwise you'll be freezing till the cows come home before the CHA processes your request.
Beat up your girlfriend cause your high on crack and think she's cheating on you? You don't need to worry about the cops if you live in Robert Taylor, but you sure as hell need to worry about the local gang members who's business, along with selling crack, monitoring (and taxing) the area's prostitutes, and all sorts of other illegal activity, is to also to keep law and order. Why? Because a safe environment is just good for business.
One of the most fascinating things about all this is the way that community forges itself out of anarchy to deal with people's most basic (and sometimes more complex) needs. The veritable and diverse black market and underground economy featuring the sale of everything from children's candy to car repair, from babysitting to crack processing facilities (read - your kitchen stove) shows just how people adapt to their environment's economic demand.
Most interesting of all is Venkatesh's examination of pooling of resources among young un-wed mothers who's partners were either involved in the local Black Kings gang and not around or had been involved in the Black Kings until a rival gang member had gunned them down.
None of the women had enough money to maintain all the necessities of running water, electricity, childcare, and (unsurprisingly in North America I guess) television. To solve the problem, they formed a collective - eat your heart out Lenin - whereby each paid for one thing and then pooled the resources with the others.
The result? You woke up in your apartment, sauntered over to Shironda's place to get your food from the refrigerator and eat breakfast, then skipped down to Lisa's apartment several doors down to have a shower. Finally you ended up at Clarisse's apartment where you plunked yourself in front of a TV. Indeed these communities were so vibrant and tightly knit that according to Venkatesh, when the buildings were all slated to be torn down by the Clinton Administration, many families' main priority was to find a new home close by their neighbors to allow the effective continued pooling of resources.
Ultimately, the Robert Taylor projects were torn down and replaced by middle class condos. Their population dispersed to other poor and working class-black neighbourhoods in and around Chicago. However, their example of how community can survive in even the most hellish areas should give us a little hope - particularly when we're staring at the our own Robert Taylor in the streets and buildings surrounding Main and Hastings.