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Posted on Sun. Nov. 10, 2013 - 12:01 am EDT

NY’s seamier side needlessly overdramatized

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“Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York’s Underground Economy” by Sudhir Venkatesh

Penguin Press

287 pages, $27.95

A finishing school for young minority hookers. A Harlem drug dealer determined to crack the rich white downtown market. A socialite turned madam. A tortured academic struggling to navigate vicious subcultures.

All in all, this might have made a pretty good novel. Instead it’s “Floating City,” the latest nonfiction look at the urban underbelly by self-described “rogue sociologist” Sudhir Venkatesh.

Coming after his acclaimed “Gang Leader for a Day,” a rich portrait of a Chicago housing project seen from inside a powerful street gang, “Floating City” stirs expectations that Venkatesh has produced something similar for New York.

Yet while the book has sexy components, it’s capsized by authorial self-dramatization.

Venkatesh has moved to New York, where he’s now a professor at Columbia University. Dramatic tension, such as it is, for a while comes from the question of whether he’ll get tenure, though readers may be excused for not biting their nails.

While it’s intermittently interesting to accompany Venkatesh to strip clubs and the like, “Floating City” has little especially new or interesting to tell us.

Much of what the author finds out about the seamy underside of urban life has already been discovered by predecessors as varied as Emile Zola, Nathan Heard and Tom Wolfe (to say nothing of the producers of “The Wire”).

Here’s an example: “Global cities offered new social connections that could be monetized, aboveground and below in the black market. However, the capacity to make unfamiliar connections could also turn life into a series of ruthless commodified relationships,” Venkatesh tells us, as if Karl Marx, Edward Hopper and Willy Loman had never existed.

Or consider this news, delivered far more engagingly a century ago by Henry Higgins in “Pygmalion”: “In the new world, culture rules. How you act, how you dress, and how you think are part of your tool kit for success.”

Unfortunately for readers, Venkatesh delivers these ho-hum insights and bemoans his collapsing marriage instead of tackling the truly interesting ethical and policy questions raised by his work.

Would prostitution be so dangerous, for example, if it were legal? Would drugs be as harmful if they were regulated like alcohol? Would there even be much of a criminal underworld concerned with immigrant smuggling and vice if we had rational government policies to deal with these matters?

Meanwhile, is it really fair to suggest, as Venkatesh does, that some poor people have no choice but to sell sex? Surely this will be news to the millions of hard-working, law-abiding low-income Americans who get by in conventional jobs.

Here and there we get a glimmer of the Chicago Venkatesh, as when he observes that “gang leaders never think of themselves as running a ruthless criminal enterprise. They think of themselves as race heroes in a polarized America, but it’s a vision of the country that seems, to me, antiquated – like something out of the 1950s or ’60s.”

It’s also interesting to observe the extent to which his unfortunate protagonists, in their focus on race, overlook social class.

They too could stand to re-read “Pygmalion” – or stream a copy of “My Fair Lady.”


Daniel Akst reviewed this book for Bloomberg News.


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