The Social Organization of Street Gang Activity in an Urban Ghetto

by Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh
The Social Organization of Street Gang Activity in an Urban Ghetto
Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh
The American Journal of Sociology
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The Social Organization of Street Gang Activity in an Urban Ghetto1

Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh

Harvard University

This essay draws on long-term ethnographic data to analyze the shifting relations between street gangs and their broader commu- nity. The essay focuses on one particular moment in the evolution of a ghetto-based street gang, namely its attempt to "corporatize" by accumulating revenues in underground economies, in order to demonstrate that neither the structure nor the practices of the street gang can be understood apart from the social organizational context of the larger community it inhabits.


The urban poor ghetto, the "socially isolated" inner city, and the "un- derclass" neighborhood have all become powerful phrases in the popular discourse on race and urbanism. They are grounded firmly in American consciousness, and they carry strong, cathected understandings of citizen- ship, individual responsibility, normative social behavior, and so on. One of the strongest images produced by these catchphrases is that of the street gang lurking about in dimly lit streets, preying upon the local residential population, and destroying community social fabric. Out of the extraordi- nary attention of media and state institutions, street gang activity has become depicted as a signature attribute of ghetto life, along with other resonant behaviors such as teenage childbearing and welfare dependency. Conventional wisdom suggests that the contribution of a street gang to its surrounding communities is largely negative and its L'positive func- tions" (Klein 1995) minimal. Often, however, the power of such images obscures a fuller portrait, in this case, of the range of activities of a street gang-delinquent, normative, and mundane-and the complex ways it participates in the social life of a community. To date, this estimation of

I would like to thank Daniel Cook and the reviewers of AJS for editorial assistance and the Chapin Hall Center for Children, Amherst College, and the Society of Fellows at Harvard University for research support. Direct correspondence to Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, Society of Fellows, Harvard University, 78 Mount Alburn Street, Cam- bridge, Massachusetts 02 138. Email: 

O 1997 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0002-9602 /98/10301-0003$02.50

AJS Volume 103 Number 1 (July 1997): 82-111

the street gang as a primarily destructive community actor remains based

more on the weight of popular imagery and emotion than on a foundation

of research and evidence.

To redress this one-sided perspective, I analyze the relations of street gangs to their broader community (hereafter referred to as the "gang- community" relation). My focus on the gang-community relation ad- dresses both an empirical and theoretical gap in the research on street gangs. Concerning the former, in their assessments of the state of the field, researchers repeatedly single out the lack of attention to the ways in which the street gang interacts with other groups and institutions in its neighbor- hood (Spergel 1995; Fagan 1996, p. 42). With some exceptions (Jankowski 1991; Horowitz 1987; Padilla 1992; Moore 1991), scholars generally do not examine the street gang's engagement with the local neighborhood and other surrounding spaces.' This includes the ways in which the street gang interacts with other social groups and institutions, how residents cope with some of the associated phenomena (e.g., patterns of symbolic expres- sion, illicit economic activity, criminality), and, finally the patterns of change and continuity of gang and community over time.3 Similarly, some scholars have criticized the conventional theoretical frameworks applied to the study of street gangs because they fail to incorporate a social contex- tual dimension (Bursik and Grasmik 1993; Spergel 1995; Jankowski 1991).

To explore the relations of gang and community and the theoretical relevance therein, I focus on patterns of street gang activity in Blackstone, a midsize public housing development located in a poor ghetto of a large midwestern Specifically, I examine a set of struggles that occurred during 1992 among tenants, street gangs, and community institutions. From May to December of that year, these actors debated with one an- other and engaged in political battles to control affairs that affected the

Jankowski (1991) and Horowitz (1987) offer the most direct examinations of gang- community relations. Moore (1991) relies on interviews of gang members themselves: she asks them to recount their experiences with families, schools, etc. Padilla's (1992) account of the gang in the community is surface level-e.g., his community history narrative is broad and relies largely on secondary, quite general resources. This is only a partial criticism because his ostensible object of analysis is the entrepreneurial dimension of street gangs.

Concerning the final point, Fagan (1996, p. 42), in a review of literature, writes: "Changes in gangs have occurred simultaneously with rapid changes in the social and economic structure of cities and suburbs. . . . What has been poorly understood, how- ever, are the links between changes in gangs and changes in neighborhoods and com- munities."

4Name~of persons and locations have been changed to ensure anonymity, as have some minor geographic attributes that would enable ready identification of the field site. However, the lack of disclosure has been minimized in order not to influence the argument that is proferred.

social and material welfare of the housing development. Noteworthy in these interactions was the role of the street gang. Historically, despite their visibility, street gangs in Blackstone did not occupy a legitimate community presence. Their involvement in public forums, community events, and local decision making was minimal; moreover, resident interaction with street gangs was quite circumscribed, primarily in delinquent activities such as small-scale drug distribution or larceny. Both the role of the street gang and their relations with the broader population changed toward the end of the 1980s when the gangs began to 'lcorporatize" (Taylor 1990)-that is, when they directed their energies toward systematic involvement in drug distribu- tion-and began using their illicit revenues to fulfill a range of community needs. In 1992, after the street gangs' economic expansion was well under- way, many of the long-standing relations between gangs, residents, and local institutions were disrupted and a historically novel social organization emerged. My main concern in this article is to analyze this process of corpo- ratization and the ways in which it redefined the experience of street gang activity for residents of the housing development.

To begin, I review some of the theoretical and empirical trajectories in street gang research, pointing both to the insights that researchers have made as well as to their shortcomings. I introduce some theoretical con- cepts from recent scholarship in critical urban sociology that will be ap- plied subsequently to the analysis of interactions among street gangs, resi- dents, and institutions in the Blackstone community. The overall aim of the article is to contribute to the growing body of research on the interplay of space and social structure and to shed light on the nuances and com- plexities of the role of a street gang in community social life.

Methods and Setting The data in this article are based on my ethnographic fieldwork in Black- stone and surrounding communities. The Blackstone housing develop- ment was built in the late 1950s and is situated within a larger set of predominantly black ghettos that consolidated in the mid 20th century. In the post-1960 era, several profound social transformations deleteriously affected these ghetto spaces. The key components were the outmigration of industries and the ensuing loss of employment for blacks in blue-collar jobs; the subsequent segmentation of the labor market into a high-wage sector, out of reach for most displaced blacks, and a low-wage service sector where blacks competed with women and minorities for menial and part-time work opportunities; the "flight" of economically and politically powerful constituencies to suburban and nonghetto central city areas; and the evisceration of public institutions due to cutbacks in federal and state funding (Caraley 1992; Wacquant 1992) as well as the redirection of re-

sources by municipal entities to other ethnic and higher-income neighbor-


Once the development was a mixture of working and unemployed households. Today welfare monies comprise the main source of reported legitimate income for Blackstone's approximately 8,000 residents: only 4% of households report receipt of income from legal employment. In place of mainstream markets, an alternate economic opportunity structure has become entrenched in Blackstone and the surrounding ghettos and is anchored in the availability of sporadic part-time work, the distribution of illicit goods and services, informal labor including car repair, gypsy cab service, domestic work, and the sale of homemade goods such as crafts, clothing, and food items. As welfare monies have become insufficient to meet even the basic needs of the urban poor (Edin 1991), this alternate economic structure has become integral for the daily sustenance of Black- stone's households.

Since the mid-1960s, there have been continuous struggle and contesta- tion among residents and the state's two most prominent representatives in Blackstone-the public housing authority and law enforcement agen- cies (on the municipal and federal level)-over issues affecting the housing development. Initially, according to residents, street gang activity did not cause the greatest tensions. Instead, the most sustained disputes were an- chored in issues related to the built environment. For example, in the 1960s, tenants protested the failure of housing authority management to maintain safe and working elevators, and in the 1970s, they demonstrated against the reluctance on the part of city police to patrol hallways, stair- wells, and other semiprivate areas within buildings. Only in the 1980s, when the local street gangs experienced a social and economic resurgence, did the disputes expand to include street gang activity, but, in these mat- ters as well, physical space was central as tenants fought the attempts of law enforcement agents to enter apartments without procuring search warrants.

Most recently, tenant groups and street gangs duel to "represent the community," including the struggle both to control local informal eco- nomic activity and to win the support of the broader residential popula- tion. As it is used in conversation, "community" retains both a functional and a symbolic designation. It references an objective entity, namely, the physical boundaries and structures that constitute the housing develop- ment. It also denotes a common subjectivity based on shared experiences, symbols, and sentiments. Each of these bases of affiliation afford legiti- macy to the person who speaks in a representative capacity.

In the analysis below, I concentrate on four actors who spoke most forcefully on behalf of the Blackstone community during the May- December 1992 period: the Council is a body of tenant-elected officers

who act on behalf of the residential population; the street gangs most ac-

tive during 1992 were the all-male factions; the Grace Center is a social

service organization that provides social, recreational, and educational

programs to Blackstone residents; and, the state, understood as an embod-

ied social actor, is represented by the housing authority and the municipal

police department, whose roles, though formally circumscribed, are im-

mensely significant in their scope and symbolic effect.

For nearly four years, I conducted intensive participant observation in Blackstone. My ethnography began fortuitously in 1991 when I met sev- eral street gang members during a foray into an urban poor residential community. (At the time, I was administering a formal social science sur- vey for a research project at a local university.) Having befriended these gang members, I moved into their world, accompanying them into Black- stone and other spaces where they were actively involved in illicit eco- nomic activities, member recruitment, and the general expansion of their street-based organization. My fieldwork quickly became anchored in LL~~mm~nity"

concerns; observing the gangs' attempts to establish them- selves in different neighborhoods, I wished to understand in greater detail how the street gang is situated in broader social structures, both at the level of local social organization and in relation to systemic-level phenom- ena such as labor market structures, state law enforcement practices, and the like. To facilitate these interests, I focused more directly on social life in the Blackstone housing development since one could locate numerous social institutions-resident based and external-within this geographic space. Though explicating the minutiae of gang structure became less of an immediate research objective, I quickly learned that even the organiza- tional development of the street gang itself was fundamentally a product of its relations with other actors in its "local and larger community" (Jan- kowski 1991). Thus, this article is motivated by this modest fieldwork epiphany.

STUDYING THE STREET GANG The literature on street gangs is expansive and varied, but a cursory look at methodology and substantive areas of inquiry reveals particular pat- terns, tendencies, and gaps. Researchers employ diverse methods of data collection and analysis, including statistical analyses of rates of criminal activities among street gangs (Block and Block 1993), structured inter- views of gang members in institutional settings (e.g., Curry and Spergel

1992), and direct ethnographic observation (Hagedorn 1988; Taylor 1990; Moore 1978). The substantive areas of focus in street gang research vary but tend to address definitional and methodological issues (Klein and Maxson 1987; Horowitz 1990; Decker and Kempf-Leonard 1991), patterns

of gang involvement in illicit activities (Padilla 1992; Taylor 1990; Skol-

nick, Blumenthal, and Correl 1993), organizational structure (Jankowski

1991; Sheley et al. 1995), gender and sexual relations (Taylor 1993; Camp-

bell 1984; Moore and Hagedorn 1996) and (sub)culture and identity (Vigil

1988; Conquergood 1992). Common to most of the scholarship on street

gangs is the tendency to favor social structural and attitudinal data over

practice and interaction. Actual behaviors are not frequently or systemati-

cally recorded (Spergel 1992, p. 124). Where lived experience has been

documented, significant revision of extant theoretical and conceptual ap-

paratuses ensues (cf. Moore 1991; Moore, Vigil, and Garcia 1983; Taylor


An area of relative paucity, both in terms of theory and empirical atten- tion, is the social contextual status of the street gang, that is, its relation- ship to broader spaces and institutions (Spergel 1992, p. 124).5 Jankowski (1991) clearly demonstrates the importance of the social contextual status of the street gang in his work, Islands in the Street. He argues that the researcher must have an appreciation for the larger sociospatial context within which the gang is embedded because part of the specificity of gang activity derives from an exigency of the "[gang] to be integrated into both the local and the larger community" (Jankowski 1991, p. 32).6 In practice, this integrative process translates into a dynamism whereby the gang and other community actors (e.g., police, schools, families) engage in ongoing interaction. "Integration" becomes a contingent state that has to be contin- ually reconstituted. And, through such engagement, social relations of power, friendship, solidarity, animosity, and so on that involve the street gang are reproduced. Thus, the street gang and those actors with whom it interacts mutually determine each other's status and identity in local community social organization.

It is precisely such processes of integration and codetermination that are not well documented in street gang scholarship. Several factors, theo- retical and methodological, have directed the study of street gangs away from such phenomena. I have already alluded to one, namely the collec-

Some of the more noteworthy exceptions have focused on the relations of gangs to educational institutions (Monti 1994; Padilla 1992), law enforcement approaches to street gang activity (Klein 1995)) and the role of the gang in its immediate neighbor- hood (Suttles 1968; Padilla 1992).

In Jankowski's (1991) framework, any analysis that fails to consider this continuous interaction in its full import risks numerous analytic pitfalls, only one of which seems to be the misinterpretation of street gang activity and structure. More fundamentally, without constructing a community context for the gang, one could mistake the gang for another similar social actor-e.g., one could fail to differentiate between a street gang and other social collectives that may exhibit one or another feature of "gang activity" but not all at once.

tion of primarily attitudinal data. Whether in the form of fixed-choice questionnaires or life-historical interviews, only a limited understanding of the status of the gang in community social organization has been de- rived through data on beliefs, values, and attitudes. A second factor is the disproportionate concern of researchers with the origins of gang activity, on both the individual and collective levels. Why did gangs come into being in a particular community and not another? Did nonurban street gang activity form independently or through contagion vis-A-vis the trans- migration of metropolitan street gang "sets"?' In this context, the repro- duction of existing gang activity over time garners less attention, as does the gang-community relationship, since the tenure of gang activity is highly contingent on the response by others locally (cf. Moore 1991). Third, a study of community relations would lead street gang research into nondelinquent areas of study, a move that to date has been blocked due to the dominance of a criminological paradigm for both academic and popular inquiries (Sumner 1994; see also Bursik and Grasmik 1993; Klein 1995).

A fourth factor, the one that I will address in greatest detail in this article, is the interplay of space and interaction that buttresses the scholar- ship on street gangs. This relation, theoretical in nature, has framed the possibilities both for conceptualizing the gang within a broader social and institutional context and for studying its patterns of interaction with other actors in that space. Specifically, since the mid 20th century, when Thrasher (1927) and Shaw and McKay (1931) set the tone for research on youth delinquency, researchers have acknowledged that street gangs must be understood in relation to their surrounding environment and that sys- temic factors can affect the character of street gang activity. To argue for this linkage between macrosocial context and locally situated behaviors, researchers typically correlate community characteristics such as demo- graphic patterns or social structural attributes with other aggregate data such as crime rates. Thus, the link between street gang activity and sys- temic factors is often asserted but not well explicated either theoretically or in specific empirical areas. (An important exception to this mode of analysis is Sampson and Grove's [I9891 research, which is more nuanced and incorporates community-level variables that mediate the impact of social structural forces. To date, however, their model has not been ade-

A street gang family is composed of numerous, geographic-based subunits, called "sets." Each set possesses a leader, lower-ranking officers, and a rank and file. In Blackstone, there are four such sets, and along with other neighborhood sets through- out the city, they comprise the Saints street gang "family." To ensure anonymity, and because it is not imperative for this analysis, I offer only a limited description of the Saints' citywide organizational hierarchy.

quately incorporated by scholars of street gangs. This essay can be seen

as an attempt to build on the spirit of their approach.)

A strand of ethnographic street gang research commonly referred to as

the "underclass school" is noteworthy in this regard because it has success

fully uncovered some of the spheres of social activity where street gang

activity assumes its texture and force due to broader systemic transforma-


Scholars adhering to this perspective appropriate William Julius Wilson's (1987) theory of the reproduction of the underclass. Wilson's the- ory is not intended to explain street gang activity, nor is it ostensibly an analysis of deviant behavior; nevertheless, according to Spergel (1995, p. 150), "the underclass formulation, or variations of it, has been a useful basis for explaining gang development and its sustenance by gang re- searchers and scholar^."^ These researchers argue that the contemporary street gang is a product of postwar systemic factors that have deleteriously affected the economic and institutional fabric of inner cities.1° Specifically, the gang partially fills the void left by other community-based institutions. Adaptation is the central trope-a "cluster concept" (Sartori 1969)-for underclass researchers to explain a range of phenomena: for example, the gang can be a substitute for poorly functioning familial structures; its value orientation offers a moral chart for those youths excluded from mainstream cultural systems."

Since most street gang studies pay little or no attention to contextual and interac- tional dimensions of street gang activity and since others have conducted adequate literature reviews (e.g., Spergel 1995; Klein 1995), I anchor the ensuing theoretical discussion to strands of street gang research that explicitly consider social interaction and the larger contexts within which street gang activity takes place. The underclass school is best exemplified in the works of Padilla (1992), Moore (1978, 1991), Hagedorn (1988), Vigil (1988), and Taylor (1990) (and to a lesser degree Terry Williams [I9891 and Phillipe Bourgois [1989]).

Since these authors published their seminal texts, many have modified their alle- giance to the underclass perspective. Hagedorn (1991) and Moore (1991) have used the specificity of the Chicano experience and differences in lower- and working-ciass communities to suggest that the underclass perspective is not fully explanatory.

lo Horowitz (1987) criticizes the underclass school, specifically Moore (1978) and Hagedorn (1988) for their economic determinism, i.e., their reduction of gang organiza- tion, behavior, and external relations to the effects of economic changes such as pov- erty, deindustrialization, etc. Instead, she calls for the need to incorporate "cultural" variables that foreground individual experiences and outlooks, i.e., that allow for the possibility that individuals may have different reactions to similar structural circum- stances.

'I The following are some common examples of explanations based on the adaptation trope: In the absence of legitimate economies, gangs provide income generation and cultural affirmation for young men and women (Hagedorn 1988). Midst pervasive disruption of household and familial arrangements, they provide quasi kin- or peer- based social ties by becoming a "partial substitute for family" (Vigil 1988, p. 12; Thrasher 1927, p. 340); in the absence of effective educational institutions, the gang (and the prison) has become a de facto socialization center where youths acquire the

Currently, the underclass perspective is the "most popular and influen- tial" one used to "explain a whole range of socially disordered or deviant behaviors" (Spergel 1995, p. 149).12 However, the use of adaptation to link a wide range of social activity to macrohistorical contexts has not enabled a more detailed analysis of both interaction and gang-community dynam- ics. Street gang members are portrayed as active agents struggling to lead meaningful lives in impoverished contexts, yet, other community actors are often not given a voice or mention in analysis. For example, if gangs are substitutes for families in underclass communities, what is the relation of gang members to parents and siblings? Similarly, do household mem- bers and communities broadly intervene in the gangs' rising familial role? The complexity within, and differentiations among, the range of processes that are captured in the catch-all category of adaptation (and its analytic synonyms: adjustment, response, substitution, etc.) becomes erased as quickly as they are gathered together within this single analytic trope.

To build upon the contributions of the underclass school of street gang research, while providing a more fine-grained analysis of social interaction and the gang-community dynamism, I argue that space is not a lLnatural" entity to which individuals adapt but a social product, structured through the interactions of persons, groups, and institutions that are embedded in definite social relations. On the one hand, the formal qualities of a built environment exert a powerful effect on individuals by shaping the possi- bilities for their behaviors. On the other hand, individuals produce their space by investing their surroundings with qualitative attributes and spec- ified meanings (de Certeau 1984, p. xxi). To see this linkage of human geographies and human practices, consider a community within which a territorially based street gang resides. On the one hand, the ways in which residents and gangs move about their neighborhood are conditioned by attributes of the built environment, including the density of buildings, the layout of streets and alleys, and the placement of parks and public spaces. However, by laying claim to certain "turf" (i.e., by symbolically appropri- ating spaces, policing areas, and monitoring the behaviors of strangers) and offering services such as protection for residents, the gang effectively

knowledge and skills necessary to survive in their unstable environs (Padilla 1992; Moore 1978); and, where the values of the "middle class" are "no longer present," street gangs have created "their own societies" to fill the normative void (Taylor 1990,

p. 111). l2 "Social disorganization" theory is founded on the notion that community controls (or the lack thereof) contribute to street gang activity. Numerous authors appropriate concepts of this theory, yet few have applied it in toto and in depth to the study of one particular community where gang activity persists. Instead, as in the case of the

underclass school, one will find acknowledgement of ideas and principles that derive from a social disorganizational theoretic framework.

imposes onto this formal space a symbolic map that residents of the neigh- borhood are aware of and use to guide their own travels. Residents' fear of crossing the symbolic boundaries that separate one gang's "territory" from another is an exemplary indication that this qualitative map can affect their everyday interaction as much as any physical obstacle. In this manner, the space in which individuals constitute their everyday lives- what I refer to in this article as "social space" following Lefebvre (1970)- is socially constructed, a product of the interplay of the formal built envi- ronment and a more personal, meaning-laden geography.


Summer 1992 proved to be a pivotal moment in Blackstone. Street gangs, tenant bodies such as the Council, and governmental agencies such as the housing authority began to act in ways that deviated from their past behavior. Stated summarily, the Council has been the dominant tenant- elected representative body in Blackstone since the early 1970s. So strong was their presence in the seventies and eighties that residents' everyday experience was determined by their relation to the particular Council rep- resentatives in their building: that is, a "building-centered" social space reigned whereby diferent buildings had diferent histories, reputations, levels of service, maintenance and attention by administrative agencies, rates of criminal activity, and so on. During the mid-1980s, tenants grew frustrated because the Council could no longer procure effective physical maintenance from the housing authority, nor could they lobby law en- forcement with success as in the past. As important, Council representa- tives were unable to dole out benefits such as part-time employment and emergency loans to residents. The Council was partially strapped because the housing authority had rescinded its own commitment to upkeep and physical maintenance, in some instances diverting budgetary resources from L'maintenance" to "security" needs-a practice that provoked the ire of Blackstone residents and caused numerous protests.

In the void created by both Council and housing authority inaction, the Saints, a local street gang, channeled illicitly obtained revenues from drug economies to the general residential population. This process was part of the street gang's overall L'corporatization" (Taylor 1990) and had several effects on social relations within the community: (1) it enabled the Saints gang to vie for the sponsorship of resident constituencies that had previ- ously granted their allegiance to the Council; (2) as such, the base of ten- ant allegiance the Councils had previously relied on was no longer self- evident, and their influence with government agencies that administered Blackstone slowly eroded because they could not unproblematically claim to be spokespersons.

To date, corporatization has been understood primarily as an economic process whereby the gang eschews its "territorial" or symbolic interests in favor of monetary gain.13 To be sure, revenue generation based on the exchange of illicit goods certainly buttressed the rising social status of the Saints street gang in Blackstone. However, their rise to economic superior- ity was one constitutive part of a more comprehensive social advancement that involved interaction with a broader community of actors and not only other "outlaw capitalists" (Davis 1990). In effect, the Saints con- sciously tried to "integrate" (Jankowski 1991) themselves into the social fabric of Blackstone, using economic power as their foundation to build relations with residents and local organizations. The result of their corpo- ratization was the emergence of a novel social space in Blackstone, that is, a new orientation to local geography in which the symbolic distinctions of local street gangs challenged the building-centered distinctions that had previously undenwritten the power of the Councils.

The empirical explication of this multifaceted process of corporatization by the Saints street gang is organized in three sections below. I begin by examining public forums in Blackstone at which tenants discussed the Saints' increasing involvement in community affairs. These discussions became prevalent after May 1992, when the gang war between the Saints and their enemy, the Roaches street gang, reached its apex and threatened the safety of daily commerce and intercourse within the housing develop- ment. I then analyze a central dilemma that residents faced as they tried to control the behavior of street gangs; namely, whereas residents labored to reduce the public violence and drug distribution of the street gangs, they also consciously employed street gang members to provide services for them, thus creating a set of conflicts that hampered their ability to adopt a consistent posture when combating street gang activity. Third, I

l3 Taylor's (1990) study of Detroit street gangs is generally void of any larger sociologi- cal concerns, most notably shifting relations of the street gangs to their respective communities as a result of monetary pursuits. He does, however, include interviews of nongang affiliated actors. Kinnear's (1996, p. 19) explanation for the increased involvement of older gang members in drug distribution is largely assertive and, apart from attributions of age-specific motivations for informal economic involvement, is not well grounded in sociological factors or community-related concerns. Government reports also reproduce this economic perspective by counterposing "neighborhood" gangs with "crack-selling" gangs (GAO 1989, p. 47). Padilla's (1992, pp. 91-116) account assumes a less economistic stance when describing how the "Diamonds [become] a business gang." Yet, he too reproduces the internalist fallacy by emphasizing organi- zational exigencies such as the need "to develop and maintain a sound financial base" (1992, p. 113) and saying relatively little about the ways in which the gangs' social organizational status affected its embourgeoisement.

look at the ensuing implications of these interactions for the organization of social and spatial relations in the housing development.

The Impact of Corporatization

The May-December 1992 period brought to the surface many of the ten- sions that accompanied the Saints' historically unprecedented attempt to ground themselves in the social organization of Blackstone. According to tenant leaders such as "Ms. Willis," the most important issue brought "into the open for all to see" was the increasing acceptance of street gang re- sources by residents. With respect to the adaptation analytic framework, the motivations of residents to accept street gang dollars and in-kind sup- port (e.g., nightly escorts to the grocery store) can be accounted for as a function of macrostructural constraints. Specifically, Blackstone's resi- dents are generally quite poor and do not possess access to monetary, legal, social service, and other institutional resources; thus, it would not be alto- gether surprising that as a "survival strategy" (Stack 1974) residents would accept the offerings of the street gang. This explanation is not entirely inaccurate since it attempts to link macrosocial attributes of Blackstone with emergent social action on the part of individuals. However, it simpli- fies the agency exercised by residents because it cannot help explicate why some tenants preferred to reject street gang assistance, nor does it unravel why tenants' decisions to accept the gang's assistance occurred at apartic- ular historical juncture. By contrast, a more in-depth understanding of residents' attitudes toward, and historically shifting relations with, local street gangs can better account for their decision-making process.

To elaborate, in the 1980s, the Saints family of street gangs took over the power to distribute drugs in Blackstone from the Roaches family. The Saints were led in these efforts by "JT" whose set is currently the most powerful of the four Saints sets in the housing development. In May, the Roaches gang initiated a series of violent attacks on Saints members in an effort to recapture drug distribution territories. Many of these attacks were poorly planned and did little to recapture lost markets. Typically, the younger members of the Roaches became drunk both with liquor and the zeal to fight the Saints; disobeying their elder leaders' commands, these "shorties" executed "drive-by" shootings in areas controlled by the Saints. On one of these drive-bys, the Roaches fatally shot a young girl and wounded her friend, both of whom were playing in front of a housing development building. This incident not only accelerated the gang war, but it prompted forthright community discussion of the deleterious effects of the increased involvement by the Saints gang in drug economies. In other words, what, on one level, signified street gangs grappling for control over drug economies, referenced on another level a crisis in community social organization.

The unexpected consequence of the gang wars was an expanded public discussion of the new behaviors and statuses being exhibited by different community actors. These discussions began in June 1992 at l'community control" meetings. Here, tenants and their elected Council representatives discussed the effects of street gang activity for the safety of public spaces and semipublic areas such as stairwells and lobby areas on the first floor of buildings. For much of the three-hour dialogue, the conversation was dry, centering primarily on the possibility of diverting the Council's fiscal resources toward upgrading "tenant patrolsn-these patrols are comprised of pairs of women who conduct systematic lLwalkabouts" within buildings in order to locate illegal or dangerous behavior. Toward the end of the meeting, tenant-police relations and resident collusion in gang-controlled drug economies were raised for discussion:

"Who's running things 'round here?" an unidentified voice from the back of the room yelled to the Council representatives sitting around the front table.

"You all don't control nothing," yelled another voice in support.

A Council member replied, "You don't either, nigger, so don't be getting all over me. We got to work together to take control of our community. If you don't feel safe walking around the building, help us out with tenant patrols."

"Tenant patrols?!" an elderly man sitting in the front row said mockingly in reference to the residents' practice of walking through their buildings each hour to identify trouble. "We need the police to kick these drugs out the building, tenant patrols ain't doing shit!"

"Tell 'em nigger!" yelled a voice from the back. "Police is the ones ought to be patrolling, not 50-year-old women too old to see shit."

"Women wouldn't have nothing to see if you all didn't let them gangs run up in here doing whatever they pleased," barked a Council officer in response.

"Shit, you the one getting they money. Don't act like you ain't. How you bought that big screen TV anyway?"

As is apparent, this exchange witnessed several accusations. Specifically, residents blamed one another for supporting street gang extortion, partici- pating in gang-controlled drug distribution, and refusing to speak publicly against inadequate police protection.

The meeting ended when residents conceded support for a twofold in- tervention strategy: first, Council officers would negotiate with the street gangs to end the sale of drugs within buildings. As one man said, "Feeling unsafe when I go out is bad, but at least I want to feel like I ain't gonna get shot pulling up a chair in front of my door and watching the world go by. Inside these buildings, that's where we need to be safe, that's where police gotta do something for us."

Second, Council officers would pressure law enforcement agencies to provide more responsive and effective policing inside their buildings. At a "town hall" meeting one week later, when confronted with the tenants' requests, city police officers responded by asking residents to "cooperate with law enforcement." The officers openly criticized residents who, by withholding information and refusing to allow police to enter their apart- ments without search warrants, were effectively lending support to street gangs. After the town hall meeting ended, Clara Davis, a prominent ten- ant leader, explained to me that residents of Blackstone "stopped cooper- ating with police a long time ago, 'cause [the police] harass us so much and they don't do a damn thing anyway: At least the gangs is giving us something, so lot of us prefers to help them 'cause we can always go to them and tell them to stop the shooting. Police don't do anything for us and they can't stop no shooting anyway. Call me what you want, but all I know is that [the Saints] is the ones providing security around here, not no police. And, my brother was a Saint when he was younger, so you know, it's a community thing 'cause we all niggers anyway when it come down to it."

Davis's comments above suggest that residents' decisions to cooperate with city and housing authority police are not only a product of the per- ceived impotence of law enforcement agencies but are also affected by the regnant ties between residents and street gangs. For example, she points to historic relations between gangs and residents when she says, "my brother was a Saint [gang member] when he was younger." Despite their admis- sion that gang activity is the root cause of many community instabilities, residents embrace gang members as wayward kin rather than ostracizing them completely as social deviants who need the discipline of law. At other moments, residents who have lived in Blackstone since the 1960s and 1970s will compare the ambitions of contemporary street gang fac- tions to their predecessors, for whom community service was quite promi- nent (yet participation in underground economies was relatively minimal). Finally, although gang affiliation is arguably the principal public identity for many of the individual members, much of the social interaction in Blackstone occurs in situations where gang membership is not marked and where gang members are known by other roles (e.g., son, niece, neigh- bor's son, etc.). Thus, a great deal of everyday social life affirms common experiences for community members as opposed to differential experi- ences that result from gang affiliation. Witness, for example, the rebuke made by "Ms. Jackson," an elderly tenant who moved into Blackstone in 1968, of a housing authority officer's claim that gang members are the sole cause of community decline: "Keep our apartments clean. Make sure that [the] security [guards] leave the lobby and walk through the hallways and stairwells. Don't let weapons come in the buildings when the metal

detector goes off! We ain't asking for much. These gang members is our kids. We'll take care of 'em. But, they need work, and we need to have [you] take care of our homes."

These strong symbolic ties between gangs and (non-gang-affiliated) resi- dents are themselves grounded in material linkages that have formed be- tween the two groups. In the 1980s, the Saints channeled revenues from drug economies to residents who lacked financial resources or who were simply willing to remain silent in police investigations. The most direct examples were loans and lines of credit to residents (which, depending on personal relations, could either be given interest free or offered at an exorbitant 100% rate of interest), periodic disbursements of groceries and clothing to households, and the purchase of bail bonds for jailed residents. The Saints gang also organized recreational leagues in the community at which residents would compete for trophies and bragging rights. Partici- pants were given clothing and uniforms (emblazoned with "Blackstone and Proud" on the back) as well as shoes and equipment.

To paraphrase Bourgois's analysis of individual decisions to enter crack-cocaine economies, the decision by Blackstone's tenants to accept street gang monies is "by no means strictly economic" (Bourgois 1989, p. 639) nor a simple response to a field of limited resources and opportunities. To say only that tenants "adapted" to social contextual constraints dis- misses the symbolic forces outlined above that motivated their decision making (cf. Bourgois 1989, pp. 638-40). And, as I suggested, the function- alist resonances of "adaptation" cannot explain why the response occurred at a particular moment in time. Consider, for example, "Ms. Willis's" struggle to obtain monetary support for a Council-sponsored neighbor- hood party during a conversation Ihad with her. Her reluctant acceptance of street gang resources is replicated by other tenant leaders who are un- able to locate funding for their activities:

"I asked the housing authority [for the money] first, you know them?

They're the ones who's supposed to give us money for these kinda things-

you know little parties, community things. But, we can't get a damn dollar

out of these folks. They got their little group over there, and we ain't seen

a penny of the 'community' money."

"So, you want me to give you some money. . . . Well, to tell you the truth,

Ms. Willis, I really don't have all that much money myself," I said.

Disbelieving what I said, she shook her head and replied, "Well, now

how you gonna tell me that when you drivin' round that little sports car

o'yours . . ."

"So, you won't be able to throw the party, then?" I said, trying to remain


"Guess, I'll go back to Ottie [a street gang leader] again. I just don't like

takin' 'dirty money' if I can avoid it. You know?! But whatcha gonna do?"

As Ms. Willis made clear, accepting street gang assistance is not only a difficult decision for residents to make but, as important, before the early 1990s, she says many Council of$cers (and other tenant leaders) did not accept such gang largesse. Only after this date could one find systematic patterns of giving whereby the Saints' leaders funded the Council's activi- ties.I4 Others affirm her assessment. For example, until the early 1990s, Council representatives with whom I spoke stated that they did not feel threatened by local street gangs. Ms. Jackson, mentioned above, who has been an activist in Blackstone for nearly three decades, recalls that street gangs were always present in large numbers, but their status was re- stricted to intergang activities, and they held minimal influence in commu- nity affairs. Council officers felt little need to "use [the gang's] money, hurting our image in the eyes of other tenants" (Ms. Jackson). When the street gangs became more influential and increased their own philan- thropy, Council officers and other tenant leaders felt their own power threatened: lacking the connections to city agencies, foundations, and other potential sources of monetary support, the Council turned increas- ingly to the Saints in order to buy goods, to plan collective activities, and to get manpower at public events. In other words, though Council mem- bers acted on the basis of perceived circumstances, their response was not simply a product of macrolevel forces but was instead mediated by their perceptions, by specific historical factors, and by emergent political dy- namics at the social organizational level.

In autumn 1992, a more profound and historically unprecedented rela- tionship between gangs and residents formed: residents used current and ex-gang members to establish social order in Blackstone. This gang-community dynamic, more than any other, brought to the surface the spec- trum of resident opinions regarding "how much we've changed since the gangs took over the power." As a result of the cooperative relationships forming between the Council and street gangs, some tenants publicly questioned whether the Council had compromised its own vision for the community's future. The most extreme statements were skeptical of the Council's ability to serve as a representative body.

The New Law and Order

Gangs have long been a means by which "interstitial" urban communities fulfilled their need for protection, safety in intercourse, and defense

The exact date at which these exchanges began is a matter of debate. Most residents argue that street gangs began giving money to resident organizations in the early 1980s but that this became systematized in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

against perceived threats (Stark 1981). "Vigilante peer groups" (Suttles 1968) provided white ethnic and minority urban communities with a range of regulative services that include enforcement, policing, escort (Jankowski 1991, p. 185), protection against social predators, and punish- ment. In Blackstone, self-policing existed in varying forms since the mid- 1960s. The earliest documented cases are social networks composed pre- dominantly of women that watched over children and monitored the be- havior of strangers in and around their building. Subsequent examples include tenant patrols, community watches, and militias of men who were assembled by Council officers and influential residents to chase down thieves, burglars, and perpetrators of domestic abuse. While these prac- tices were systematic and also developed in the context of ineffective mainstream law enforcement, they could not match in breadth or intent the system of "law" that select residents were attempting to institutionalize in autumn 1992 in order to regulate gang activity. An extended account of self-policing and "indigenous" law in Blackstone is beyond the scope of this essay; therefore, I will address aspects of this process that are most relevant for the gang-community dynamism and the corporatization of the Saints street gang.

In mid-summer 1992, Council officers felt that they could no longer obtain adequate police enforcement. They needed to locate alternate methods of resolving the "gang wars" between the Roaches and Saints street gangs. Led by Carol Collins, the Council officers approached Joe Jackson, the director of the Grace Center, a local social service agency. Jackson was sympathetic to their predicament. He had been working closely with JT-the highest ranking Saints leader in Blackstone-as well as citywide, higher-ranking gang leaders to forge a peace treaty among Roaches and Saints sets based in Blackstone. His reaction was positive, and he explained his willingness to assist the Council:

Two heads are always better than one, you know. See, what we had going for us was two things. JT wanted peace and he was, you know, he was alright. I don't mean he is a priest or nothing but, he always gave us what we needed to help families 'round here, so, and he didn't want to piss off the head honchos! You know, he had to keep the money flowing in, so I figured Ms. Collins and the rest of 'em, well, talking with the Saints could only help 'em, 'cause they wasn't getting along that great. (Joe Jackson, Grace Center Director)

As Jackson makes clear in the quote above, he realized that his efforts to offer social services to the gangs could marry well with the Council lead- ers' interests in violence reduction and conflict resolution. Under his initia- tive, the Grace Center sponsored several meetings to introduce Council officers to Peace Now, an organization specializing in gang peace treaties. Peace Now was directed by an ex-gang member who had influential ties

to the senior, predominantly imprisoned, leaders of the Saints and

Roaches street gang families. Peace Now offered to mediate the disputes

among Roaches and Saints until the fighting had been eradicated and a

treaty could be formed.

Council officers wanted more, explains Carol Collins: "Peace ain't shit, if they ain't respecting us every day, you know what I'm sayin. Stop beat- ing up women, stop dealing drugs up inside the buildings, don't go shoot- ing one another up and down Crabtree Lane-that's what we want." Peace Now agreed to add to disputes between warring gangs the many grievances issued by residents against street gangs. In doing so, their con- flict resolution expanded to include mediation of gang-resident disputes. For example, residents could report incidents of domestic abuse or sexual harassment by street gang members; Peace Now officers would adjudicate these transgressions. Similarly, residents who were performing tasks for the street gangs (e.g., storing cash or drugs in their apartment) could report violations of verbal contracts; at these hearings, the party at fault would be determined, and fines and punishment would be meted out.

By November 1992, Peace Now staffers, Joe Jackson, Carol Collins, and ex-gang leaders were meeting actively with members of the Saints and Roaches to discuss complaints. At first, Blackstone's gang leaders refused to allow this delegation to intervene in incidents that involved gang-community interactions. Once Peace Now produced evidence that the higher-ranking, imprisoned street gang leaders approved of this fo- rum, the local Saints and Roaches members had no choice but to acquiesce to the issued rulings and sentencing. The following summer, JT reflected on these initial interactions and acknowledged their merit:

"I don't know why I was against all that. It reminded me of, you know,

court or something, and any time you get these niggers [referring to gang

members] in the justice system, they gonna close up and not say shit. So,

why we want to have something like that again?"

"But, you think it was good, in the long run?"

"Yeah, now, 'cause all the violence is Roaches shooting at us. We don't

beat up nobody, all [our] 'shorties' [adolescent members] learning to treat

people with respect, we take care of our community more now, you know."

JT's resistance to the self-enforcement mechanisms, based on his distrust of the judicial system, is similar to the other street gang leaders with whom I spoke. As another Saints leader stated, "It was like going up before the judge again, and [gang members] don't like that kinda shit, you know."

During that period, resistance to the self-enforcement mechanisms came not only from the street gangs themselves but also from residents. In one of the most impassioned speeches to the Council officers, James Marcus, a 40-year-old father whose son had been shot in summer 1992 by a stray bullet (allegedly from a gang member's weapon), stated: "You all can tell

[the gangs] that what goes down in that room: they gotta listen to it. But,

this ain't gonna do nothing as far as getting us better police protection.

You know what, the police is laughing at us: they sitting there watching

us kill each other, and then, we making their jobs easier 'cause now, they

don't even gotta clean up the mess we made. They laughing at you and

me and all of us in this room. How you figure this is gonna help us live

safer 'round here?"

Others voiced appreciation for the greater level of personal safety that they felt to be a result of the conflict resolution procedures, but like James Marcus, they also expressed concern over the use of gang members to control gang activity. The most active dissension occurred in private and in informal conversations, both of which spread in the form of rumor and hearsay. By contrast, in public venues such as town hall gatherings, Council-sponsored bimonthly building meetings, and Grace Center com- munity focus groups, resident opinion was mixed. By December 1992, no consensus existed among residents regarding the adjudicative procedure that had been introduced into the community. This lack of unanimity did not provide strong grassroots support for its continuation nor did it pro- vide Council officers with unmitigated appeals to abandon the procedure and delimit the scope of Peace Now governance solely to breaches of con- duct between gangs.

Several factors produced this ambivalence on the part of residents. First, as Grace Center director Joe Jackson liked to say, "Since you and I don't live here everyday, you can't predict what people will do to get them some safety and peace of mindn-that is, the willingness of an ap- pointed body to intervene and respond to gang-related concerns had an immediate impact on a tenant body that did not have another individual or organization to help resolve street gang disputes. The impact could be measured to some degree by the high proportion of votes that tenants subsequently cast in favor of a Peace Now officer running for political office in the congressional district that included Blackstone. Whereas I heard residents frequently complain to their Council officers that the quasi-court was "turning over the community to the gangs," I watched the very same persons stand in front of the delegation and voice their complaints. One resident, whom I confronted directly regarding this con- tradiction, replied, "Until something better comes along, well, fuck it. I'm gonna tell them to stop them niggers from selling drugs 'round my baby. If police want to stop them, OK. But, right now, they ain't doing nothing."

The underlying material generosity of the street gangs also helped dis- suade residents from actively voicing their dissent, and in this case, their bought silence proved to be a vote in favor of the Peace Now-sponsored forum. During the autumn 1992 period, the Saints' gang leaders actively lobbied to garner residential support for the "indigenous policing" proce-

dures that were being implemented. The number of people whom JT and

other Saints leaders contacted and offered money or favors "[wasn't] that

many, but it was enough to get 'em to not say shit" (Ottie, another Saints

gang leader). JT and Ottie also planned barbecues and basketball tourna-

ments during the autumn 1992 months in order to demonstrate that they

were interested in the affairs of the community. They replaced aging play-

ground equipment and basketball rims, and they exercised greater disci-

pline over the younger Saints gang members, forcing them to minimize

their truant behavior. However, in general, their benevolence was di-

rected at Council officers because they understood that most residents

were inactive in community affairs. When I asked JT why he was direct-

ing much of his lobbying at Council officers and was not waging an out-

right populist campaign, he replied: "It's only the Council really that we

gotta worry about, 'cause they the only ones who give a fuck, so we just

take care of them."

Similar to the analysis above, it would be inaccurate, or only partially helpful, to argue that residents of Blackstone "adapted" to the system of "law and order" that was being instituted in 1992. Residents' grudging acceptance of street gang authority and their use of indigenous adjudica- tive schemes in protest suggest a degree of self-awareness, agency, and conscious assessment that belies the blind determinism of adaptation. Their conscious decision to patronize (or not) the services of Peace Now- much like their decisions to accept other gang resources-is contingent on their own social organizational status as well as their ideologies regard- ing the legitimacy of street gang authority and the responsibility of main- stream law enforcement agencies. Reflecting Hobsbawm (1959, p. 32), who analyzes 19th-century Sicilian residents' preference for the Mafia's law enforcement provisions to that of formal state mechanisms, in places "without effective public order" such as Blackstone, residents' decisions to utilize one or another procedure for redress and enforcement is partially contingent on their own ideologies regarding "the authorities as wholly or partially hostile or as unappreciative of the things which really matter . . . or as a combination of both."

The metaphor of adaptation also belies the complexity of the events described above because it pretends that the social context being adapted to was formed independently of those who performed the adaptations. By contrast, residents actively helped to develop a mechanism that could po- lice their own community. More than simply "adopt[ing] a variety of tac- tics in order to survive" (Stack 1974, p. 29), "the poor" residents of Black- stone attempted to put into place procedures that would enable them to reproduce a lifestyle in accordance with their own visions of morality, right, justice, and social order. In other words, their practices helped cre- ate the larger contextual structures that (in turn) shaped their experiences.

Where they could, they expressed their criticism, although, as I indicated, for many the short-term need to resolve conflicts prevailed over their dis- dain for non-state-sponsored juridical forums. Though the quasi-court created by Peace Now officers was eventually discarded some months later-when law enforcement agencies accelerated their crackdown on Saints street gang members throughout the city-its success or failure should not erase residents' conscious struggle to realize their goals. Per- haps residents of Blackstone are best understood in terms of Kaplan and Kelly's (1994, p. 2 1) definition of the "responsible agent": namely, one who is neither fully compliant nor fully alienated but who is an agent "who challengers] existing and permeable structures of domination, with vary- ing scope of intention and facing varying modes of danger and levels of risk."

Space and Social Reproduction

I have so far described some of the unprecedented material exchanges

that characterized the corporatization of the Saints street gang, the novelty

of which is not simply the material disbursement from street gangs to

non-gang-affiliated constituencies. This practice had existed in Blackstone

long before the corporatization and correlative philanthropy of the Saints

began. By contrast, these 1990s exchanges assumed their unique character

due to the role of the street gang as a provider of goods and services on par (or, at the very least, in competition) with the state, the Council, and legitimate labor markets. Stated differently, by "taking [the gangs'] dirty money," as one tenant leader often says, there is an implicit admission by residents that mainstream sources (e.g., income maintenance programs, part-time jobs, philanthropy) are unable to meet the community's needs. James Marcus made this point in a conversation with the director of the Grace Center and me in summer 1993: "The day when the Council-and you can blame me too, cause I took their money-the day when they started taking the gangs' money and giving it out to everybody, that's when everything changed, you dig? No way we could turn back, no way we could say no to all that cash being thrown around, man we needed that, families needed that help." Others assessed the situation in much the same manner as Marcus, reflecting on the totality of the shifts that were occurring. During a 6:00 A.M. surprise police search of apartments, several tenants-sitting in the hallway and discussing with me their decisions to withhold information in police investigations-talked openly with me as police, other residents, and housing authority representatives walked past. They remarked on their resignation to the authority of the local street gangs:

It used to be our community, we used to say what went on 'round here, but it's they community now.

We have to listen to [the Saints gang], 'cause when the police leave, [Saints gang members] are the ones who'll let you know if shootings gonna start up again, you know, they'll tell you if it's safe to go outside at night, or if you can go up north [to Roaches territory] or if you should just stay in the building.

Yeah, right, [Saints] make our lives miserable, but if we piss them off, police ain't gonna come 'round here and help us out. And, shit, I gotta tell you, that most of the time it's nice, 'cause they make sure I don't get robbed up in here, they walk through the buildings like . . . police never did that! It's when the wars start that I don't really feel safe, you know? Most of the time, it's OK.

In these observations, residents acknowledge the gang's control over the ebb and flow of daily movements and cycles.

There is by no means a uniform acknowledgment or acceptance of the benevolence of the Saints street gang. There is tremendous variation in residents' willingness to bestow upon the Saints a legitimate community status. Those with personal historic connections to street gangs may cham- pion a vigorous identification, referring to their own gang affiliation in an earlier time. Yet, others may actively decry the subordination of tenant interests to those of local gangs, expressing disdain for the corporatization that has launched street gangs to positions of dominance in community social organization. Similarly, whereas the Council may reluctantly em- brace the gang's services, other social groups will resist the Saints' ad- vances and prefer "to live or die on our own, without [the Saints] meddling in our affairs." And, though some take advantage of a local street gang presence for protection and enforcement, others will patronize both the gangs as well as mainstream enforcement agencies, hoping that the latter will eventually improve. More important, irrespective of their apprecia- tive inclinations, all of Blackstone's residents are affected to some degree by the rhythms of street gang activity because they must engage with an environment saturated with the symbolism of street gangs. This is perhaps the strongest indication of the street gang's impressive stature in commu- nity social organization, namely, regardless of an individual's opinion of and relation with local gangs, the latter serve as a primary reference point to which resident action and decision making are oriented.

This local omnipresence of the gang is best evidenced, not in the juridi- cal and material offerings that I have described above, but instead in the more generic development whereby the social space formed through the territorial practices of the street gang have challenged earlier identifica- tions of residents with their local environment. The gang's marking of "turf," its spatialization of ally and enemy relations, and its assignment

of areas for exchange and consumption are articulated with, and in some cases superseded by, previously formed cultural "enunciations" that en- abled residents to negotiate or make do with their physical surroundings (de Certeau 1984). This is readily apparent in the reorientation of Black- stone's non-gang-affiliated residents to the city. The manner by which they can move about in Blackstone and surrounding spaces-both where they can visit and how they get there-is effectively altered once they are forced to acknowledge and incorporate street gang inscriptions. For example, consider those residents who arrived in Blackstone before the 1980s and who often fondly recall the era when the "gangs was controlled by the community, not the other way around." Until the mid-1980s, street gang attributes were secondary for their movements in Blackstone. In- stead, the building in which a person lived, the reigning Council officers, and the relative proximity to local transportation networks were some of the important indexes of social space that affected their daily intercourse.15 As the gang's entrepreneurialism and largesse became entrenched and as their "law and order" services became more pronounced, their geographic markings exerted a greater symbolic force. Gang-based distinctions im- pressed upon a social space where gang symbolism previously held mini- mal sway. Corey Wilson, a 40-year-old resident in a Saints-controlled building, makes this point forcefully by arguing for the relative impor- tance of "the gang who controls the building you live in," as opposed to other symbolic attributions that determine safety, personal identity, and ease of local travel:

It's like, now I think about myself living in Saints territory. That's the most important thing, 'cause they the ones who do stuff around here, they clean up, give money to people who need food, you know, they the ones who really, you know, affect how you live. So, I tell my friends I live 'over there with the 3rd St. Saints' where before I might say 'yeah I live in this or that building, come and see me.' Now people want to know what gang controls where you living, 'cause that's more important than how far away you are from them, or if you can take the bus there, you know?

The emergent gang-laden social space has forced Blackstone residents to reconstitute their "street wisdom" in line with the new dictates imposed

'' These spatial markers were also determinative of personal identity, differentiating Blackstone's residents from one another in meaningful ways: "Back [in the seventies], we used to paint our buildings with signs and drawings, 'cause the building you lived in was important for who you was, and like I was telling you, they was all ugly so we needed to show our building was better"; "[The] 331 [building] is the most violent of all"; "330 has the most unity." This mode of physical spatial demarcation was also important for quality of life: e.g., "our floor has always been able to work with gangs"; "we get the part-time jobs first, 'cause our floor captain's brother works for the city."

by street gang geography. Like the inhabitants of Village-Northton in Eli- jah Anderson's (1990, p. 231) Streetwise, those in Blackstone also have "found some system for categorizing the denizens of the street and other public spaces. . . . The streetwise individual thus becomes interested in a host of signs, emblems, and symbols that others exhibit in everyday life." The general navigation of the "local and larger community" (Jankowski 1991) by Blackstone residents demonstrates their adherence to the con- tours of "gangland." For example, an individual visiting a friend living outside Blackstone may minimize travel through those areas controlled by gangs that are at war with the one in his or her own neighborhood. Within Blackstone, residents living in buildings controlled by the Saints gang will limit their visits to buildings controlled by the Roaches, calling upon friends and family only during daytime hours or when peace treaties are known to be in place between the two street gang families. "Cookie," a young adult who does not belong to a gang but who lives in a Saints- controlled building, continually expresses frustration at the constraints imposed by this "outlaw" social space. On one occasion, he was not al- lowed to enter a building in Blackstone by members of the Roaches who were standing guard at the building's entrance. I met him as he returned to his own apartment:

"What's wrong, Cookie, you upset at something?" I asked.

"Cookie can't go and see his old lady! Ain't that right, nigger," said Billy,

a friend of Cookie's who was sharing a stoop with me.

"These niggers won't even let me see my girlfriend. Bitch gonna have a

baby and the father can't even come in the apartment. Shit, these outlaws

taking over this place . . . and I ain't even in the damn organization."

"No," interrupted Billy, "They done took over the place!"

Cookie's inability to visit his girlfriend has become a routine occurrence for residents of Blackstone. To visit his girlfriend, Cookie lobbied Ms. Jackson, the Council president in his building. She called the respective Council officer in Cookie's girlfriend's building, who in turn convinced the local Roaches gang leader that Cookie was a "neutron," that is, that he was not a gang member, had no allegiance to the Saints (or to the Roaches for that matter), and posed no threat. Cookie's successful use of weak ties to obtain visitation rights with his expectant girlfriend is exem- plary of the streetwise efforts that are needed not only to move about freely but, in the case of youth, to sustain personal identities that are not dominated by street gang affiliations.

Similar to Cookie, other non-gang-affiliated young adults are forced to reconstitute their personal identities in reference to the gang-based social space that they inhabit. For these neutrons, gang identity has revalorized extant geographically based stigmatizations. For example, many youths feel that an address in Blackstone limits their opportunities to succeed in social institutions such as school and the mainstream labor market.

When I go out and try to get a job, I tell 'em my address and they think you know, that I'm running with a gang. It's like I can't convince them that I ain't a part of all that, you know? And, if they believe me, then they ask about all that warring going down, so like, I'm fucked if I tell 'em anything I know, 'cause then they'll ask, "How is it you know if you ain't in a gang?"

It was bad enough, before, you know, 'cause I got outta high school and I had to tell folks that I was from Blackstone but I didn't want to stay on welfare my whole life. Now, they ask me if I'm in a gang! So, I gotta work on that and tell them that we ain't all alike, not all of us are into that.

As their lamentations make clear, the stigma of their address in a public housing development has become coupled with the popular conception of Blackstone as a breeder of street gangs, thus compounding their dimin- ished social status.

The restrictions on general motility that arise from local street gang markings also affect the relations that Blackstone's residents can engender with other social actors in the community. Some residents do not patronize social service providers in nearby neighborhoods because these spaces are inhabited by rival street gangs. Similarly, they may not travel to a medical clinic or grocery store for fear of intimidation or physical harassment. Thus, they must forgo the use of certain resources and services. Con- versely, organizations in Blackstone will keep residents who live in Saints' and Roaches' territories apart during events and programs in order to deter antagonistic interactions (or, in the case of the Grace Center, the staff may at times "sit them all together so that they can start talking to each other again" [Joe Jackson]). State agencies are also aware of the gang- laden social space and use it to their own advantage-although, they also seek to delegitimize street gangs' symbolic investitures of the municipality through "mob action" and "antiloitering" ordinances that allow them to remove gang members who occupy public spaces (Kainec 1993; Trosch 1993). Housing authority management, sensing increased cooperation among residents and street gangs in a particular building, will intervene by eliminating physical maintenance or by increasing enforcement of cur- fews and lease regulations in the building.16 To offer another example, law enforcement officers routinely acquire cooperation from youths and older residents, regardless of their gang affiliation, by threatening to "drop them off" in territories controlled by gangs at war with those in Black-

'' These examples were offered by tenant leaders in Blackstone but were substantiated by several housing authority managers to whom I spoke informally.

stone. An undercover officer working in the city's "gang crimes" unit made

no attempt to hide law enforcement's attempt to co-opt the gang's local

stature for their own objectives: "[Police officers in Blackstone] aren't stu-

pid. Yeah, you put that in your book! We know that people are scared

of gangs, and that they get things from them. We know they're working

together. But, until we can stop that, we have to use what we know to

our advantage, you see. We have crimes to stop and this is a tool like any


In sum, due to this comprehensive presence-spatial, material, ideolog- ical-I argue that the early 1990s signaled the arrival of the street gang as an important element in the social organization of the Blackstone com- munity. This does not mean that, after the events in December 1992, resi- dents were held hostage by street gangs, nor that the street gangs exerted an absolute dominance over social life in Blackstone. Instead, the street gangs' modus operandi and symbolism simply became incorporated into what Bourdieu (1992) calls the "rules of the game" that defined the possi- bilities of social interaction, identity, and experience for residents of Black- stone. In their daily intercourse and decision making, Blackstone residents took into account the street gang, whereas in the past the gang did not have such a determinative influence.

By embedding themselves in community social organization the street gangs imposed their own expressive patterns, boundaries and territories, and symbols and markers of identity onto those already in existence. The social space that had formed decades ago based on the Council system and building-centered differentiations was challenged and partially over- ridden in 1992 by the territoriality of the street gang. The gang, in this sense, became more than a delinquent actor and, to the degree that it committed socially transgressive acts, it was not simply a "social bandit" with no other ties to the community other than periodic outbursts of dis- ruptive behavior (cf. Hobsbawm 1959, p. 6). It became a recognized, albeit internally contradictory, community institution, performing a range of "positive functions" (Klein 1995) while simultaneously engaging in behav- iors that disrupted community social life.


In this study, I have focused on a specific historical moment in the devel- opment of an urban street gang, namely, its turn toward systematic involvement in drug economies. In the scholarship on street gangs, this process of corporatization has been a primary variable by which research- ers differentiate entrepreneurially oriented gangs from their counterparts that are more interested in defending turf or that are motivated by sym- bolic factors. However, I argued in this essay that corporatization is a multifacted social process that cannot be reduced to its economic dimen- sions. In the Blackstone community, developing relations with tenant leaders, building empathy from residents, and participating in nondelin- quent social activities were as important in the Saints' maintenance of (informal) economic superiority as the direct control over drug distribution itself. The overly economistic understanding of corporatization has missed the ways in which symbolic issues and gang-community dynamics can affect the accumulation of revenue by street gangs. Moreover, a street gang's interest in monetary gain is not always at the expense of other motivations, which is also implied in research on street gang entrepreneur- ialism.

In Blackstone, the Saints street gang was not simply attempting to earn increased revenue, but in the words of its leader, "We wanted to be a part of the community, help our community, 'cause we're here to stay" (JT). That is, the Saints did not discard noneconomic motivations when they experienced greater success in drug economies. Instead, their economic gains prompted a reconsideration of their marginalized social status. Through monetary donations and the provision of law and order services, the gang tried to become a more legitimate social actor in the community. It is important to note that the redistribution of revenue by the Saints to the broader population was not their only means of winning the allegiance and support of residents. Though at its apex the Saints earned several thousand dollars per month (according to gang leaders), only a small per- centage was funneled to tenant leaders, resident organizations, and other individuals who were paid off for their silence or cooperation. As impor- tant were the in-kind services that the gang provided-ranging from secu- rity escorts to recreational programming-as well as their willingness to assist households in times of need through grocery purchases, free trans- portation, and manpower. As I have argued, their capacity to do so was deeply linked to their successes in drug distribution. This is made clear by the demise of the Saints street gang family in the mid-1990s due to the imprisonment of their leaders from different parts of the city. As one might expect, their drug-based revenue declined precipitously at this point as did their largesse in Blackstone. To maintain a legitimate local presence, JT and other leaders used their own personal cash reserves to pay off community members, while attempting to reclaim their informal eco- nomic stature.

Little is known about such relations among gangs, community resi- dents, and local organizations. Nor do we understand fully the ways in which patterns of association and interaction among these actors can shift over time in accordance with other social transformations. By paying at- tention to the varying ideological makeup and patterns of association among different actors in Blackstone, I tried to explicate the range of inter-

actions that occur between a street gang and the broader community. The

focus on social organization in this article allowed me to describe the vary-

ing functions, positive and negative, that street gangs can fulfill and the

ways in which residents can hold ambivalent attitudes toward this social

actor. Specifically, in the context of economic destitution and the lack of

mainstream services, Blackstone's street gangs have become a resource

as well as a harbinger of insecurity and social instability for residents.

By paying direct attention to the actual interactions among different actors in Blackstone, I have sought to provide a more nuanced analysis of gang activity than typically offered in community and field studies. To bridge the chasm between macrosocial constraints and locally situated behaviors, I did not rely solely on the trope of "adaptation." Instead, I incorporated a dialectical perspective regarding space and social behavior, arguing that not only do social beings respond to ecological constraints but their actions also shape such contexts. Moreover, since their actions are mediated by conflict and contradiction, historical change and ideologi- cal forces, their responses to social constraints retain a measure of contin- gency and indeterminacy.

Much of the gang-community dynamics that I have addressed are spe- cific to the contours of the Blackstone housing development, such as its demographic makeup and the particular history of its associations among residents, gangs, and administrative agencies. Other empirical studies have affirmed the increasing importance of underground economies and street gang-based resources for residents of economically impoverished communities (Sullivan 1989; Padilla 1992; Jankowski 1991). Further re- search is needed on the social organizational status of street gangs in order to determine whether these processes are in fact endemic to urban poor communities in which street gangs are socially prominent. Along with greater empirical data, this article has argued for a more concerted at- tempt to theorize the gang in the context of its relations with other actors in its local and larger community.


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