After his insider’s study of Chicago crack gangs electrified the academy, Columbia University sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh spent a decade immersed in New York’s underbelly, observing the call girls, drug dealers, prostitutes and other strivers that make up this booming underground economy.
Amidst the trust-funder cocktail parties, midtown strip clubs, and immigrant-run sex shops, he discovers a surprisingly fluid and dynamic social world – one that can be found in global cities everywhere – as traditional boundaries between class, race and neighbourhood dissolve. In Floating City, Venkatesh explores New York from high to low, tracing the invisible threads that bind a handful of ambitious urban hustlers, from a Harvard-educated socialite running a high-end escort service to a Harlem crack dealer adapting to changing demands by selling cocaine to hedge fund managers and downtown artists. In the process, and as he questions his own reasons for going deeper into this subterranean world, Venkatesh finds something truly unexpected – community.
Floating City is Venkatesh’s journey through the “vast invisible continent” of New York's underground economy – a thriving yet largely unseen world that exists in parallel to our own, at the heart of every city.
I first came across Sudhir Venkatesh’s name in Freakonomics – as, I’m sure, did many non-sociologists. In Levitt’s book, Venkatesh contributed a small selection of his work with the crack gangs in Chicago. This study would go on to form much of Gang Leader For A Day, the author’s previous book. Venkatesh is a rare academic: he can write in such an engaging, riveting style, that his books read almost like novels. In Floating City, the ethnographer turns his gaze on New York City and its underground economy. This is, while flawed in minor ways, easily one of the best non-fiction works I’ve read in a number of years.