Floating through New York’s Underground Economy

Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York’s Underground Economy, by Sudhir Venkatesh Penguin Press (2013)

Sudhir Venkatesh’s Floating City documents the author’s time in 21st century New York among the city’s “hustlers, strivers, dealers (and) call girls,” as one of the book’s alternate subtitles describes it. The book is largely a memoir and a collection of anecdotes, loosely tied to the central themes of the need for adaptation, flexibility and various forms of social capital for those trying to make it in New York’s underground economy. The book notes that it is the behind the scenes story of research the author did for academic publication. As such, it documents experiences that could not be a formal academic context. Much of the story focuses on Venkatesh’s interactions with a working class drug dealer trying to break into more upscale markets, a wealthy socialite turned madam, and sex workers from various levels of the trade.

Sudhir Venkatesh is best known for his book Gang Leader For A Day as well as his contributions to the chapter “Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live With Their Moms?” in Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics. Both of these works draw upon his experiences observing and living among crack dealing gang members in the Chicago projects. Floating City picks up shortly after Gang Leader leaves off with Venkatesh as a sociologist at Columbia University attempting to work his way into New York’s underground economy.

Those looking for the driving narratives and unique story that made Gang Leader entertaining will likely be disappointed. Venkatesh’s New York experiences do not fit into a movie-like narrative the way his Chicago experiences do. However, the smaller, often unrelated story lines do hold the reader’s attention, and the book provides quick glimpses into the illegal economy.

Readers with libertarian, voluntarist or anti-prohibitionist leanings will be simultaneously pleased and frustrated with this work. Venkatesh observes that the illegal nature of the activities he describes makes them more risky, more dangerous, and increases the likelihood that those involved will be subjected to violence. Without directly stating it, he illustrates the ways in which prohibition makes the sex and drug trades far uglier and crueler than they would otherwise be. Much of this will garner sympathy from the left-wing market anarchist. The disappointment comes in Venkatesh’s refusal to go from descriptive to prescriptive. While he identifies real problems and correctly notes the role that prohibitions play, he never states outright that such prohibitions should be abolished. While doing so may be a statement of the obvious, failing to do so is a missed opportunity to make this a more meaningful read. The possibility merits more attention than Venkatesh chooses to give it.

Despite this shortcoming, left libertarians will also be pleased with Venkatesh’s depictions of instances where those with limited capital are able to use what they have to improve their lives and provide mutual aid when they are able to do so without the state’s interference. In one instance, he describes an older man with a history of using the services of sex workers in his corner of Hell’s Kitchen. He suffers a stroke and loses the use of his hands. A local bartender and several sex workers arrange for gypsy cabs to transport him, and see to it his home is stocked with food and toilet paper. Meanwhile a local porn shop gives him access to a back room, for evenings with sex workers, who it turns out have not actually had sex with him in years. Rather they caress him and listen to his stories, thus fulfilling a role closer to a therapist than to a stereotypical “prostitute”.

Venkatesh reveals this sort of arrangement to be common, and quotes one sex worker, who describes work with one client as primarily telling him “why he shouldn’t leave his wife”. The line between sex worker and therapist is often quite blurry and one has to wonder if work as the former could be a gateway to latter, if not for the prohibition and licensing requirements associated with the two fields.” Similarly, Venkatesh observes that drug dealers and gang leaders often justify what they do as “good for the community.”

They have a point. To an extent, drug sales provide a source of income for people who often lack the social capital needed to get or hold a conventional job. Furthermore, many legal businesses are kept afloat by the sex and drug trades. Legitimate business is useful for money laundering or as places where sex workers can entertain clients in back rooms. He notes the people who frequent the bars, porn shops and other businesses involved in the underground economy also routinely lend each other money, bet on sporting events, fix each other’s cars and are generally expected to be economically engaged in this way.

Venkatesh repeatedly notes that such communities exist throughout New York and often are built around networks of individuals from all over the city, crossing racial, cultural and class lines as well as geographical ones. These networks also include doctors who sell medicine or provide care off the books, landlords willing to rent rooms for short periods, cops who are willing to look the other way and fake ID sellers who procure visas for immigrants. He notes that successful entrepreneurs of the underground economy must float among an assortment of neighborhoods, cultures, and classes — this observation gives the book its title. He contrasts this highly connected, diverse economy with his experiences in the Chicago projects, where the people he met were more localized, in all senses of the word.

While noting that drug dealers commonly claim to work for the good of the community, Venkatesh expresses extreme skepticism, and notes that the more successful of them are more than willing to initiate violence when anyone gets in their way. One of the book’s major story arcs provides an excellent example. When Venkatesh’s primary contact in the drug world finds a former underling unexpectedly competing with him, and successfully taking business from him, he beats the underling and leaves him in a pool of blood in a back alley. The perpetrator finds this course of action necessary for protecting his own well-being. Again, the voluntarist reader is forced to contrast this with a genuine free society in which the sale of recreational drugs is not only legal but has the same legal protections as all other businesses. In such a world, competition and initiative would be rewarded with more customers rather than punished with a beat-down. Cliches about liquor store owners not starting turf wars come to mind.

Similar thoughts come to mind from the book’s discussions of the sex trade as well. Those managing sex workers make it clear that, in their line of work, they are likely going to be assaulted by customers at some point. The victim could be the manager or the sex workers themselves, but the assault is inevitable. The violence toward sex workers contributes to a few ongoing stories in the book, one of which ends in a suicide.

Theft is also a problem. In one instance, a shop keeper whose business is kept afloat by allowing sex workers to use his backroom has the money he made from this venture stolen, ruining his marriage and forcing him to return to his native country and into uglier parts of the sex trade. Multiple stories in the book feature money made through illegal activity stolen and the victims having no legal recourse. Put plainly, the prohibitionist system we live under makes many of the most vulnerable people subject to endless theft and violence. Venkatesh makes the case that those involved in illegal (albeit consensual) activities are not afforded the same protections as everyone else and are routinely victimized, made poorer and have to struggle harder as a result.

Even those who wish to leave the sex and drug trades have obstacles to overcome due to the illegal nature of their work, as discussed in the “Exit Strategies” chapter of the book. Despite developing a good business acumen or managerial ability working in these areas, one can hardly put these experiences on a resume. Of course, the constant risk of theft and assault also makes it quite hard to save money. While Venkatesh discusses this problem in depth, he fails to fully implicate the state and its prohibitionist practices as causes of these problems.

The experience of poor and working-class people in the underground economy contrasts with sections of the book in which Venkatesh interacts with those on the high-dollar side of the sex trade. He emphasizes that wealthy individuals trying to make it as sex workers often have forms of social capital that poorer people and immigrants lack or have to take painstaking efforts to learn. Furthermore, sex workers from elite backgrounds tend to have a multitude of other options if the market becomes unfavorable.

The interplay between both worlds is a common theme throughout the book, which emphasizes that success can be achieved by navigating between the two in today’s globalized and gentrified New York. While this brings opportunities for some, the majority of the people Venkatesh documents fail to achieve these opportunities and remain trapped in cycles of poverty and abuse. This gives the book, especially the latter chapters, undertones of tragedy, which the state’s actions greatly contribute to.

Overall, the book is a decent read, despite its failure to fully diagnose the problem. It is not the book best suited to acquaint new readers to Venkatesh, as it feels more like a collection of field notes and anecdotes than a coherent story or an in-depth academic piece. Furthermore, there are spots where the Venkatesh’s attempts to analyze himself and his motives do little to compliment the material. That said, it is an easy read that largely succeeds at holding the reader’s attention, while providing a few slices of life from New York’s underground economy.

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