Illicit core of Big Apple
Floating City: Hustlers, Strivers, Dealers, Call Girls and Other Lives in Illicit New York
Allen Lane, Hardback, €28.99
One of the most likeable characters in this tale of New York's underworld is a sex worker from the Dominican Republic called Angela. Thirty-four, and possessed of a "warm, motherly smile", she is, at least temporarily, the glue that holds a small community together in Hell's Kitchen, even as she sells sex to various men in the local area. She's also struggling to keep things together herself, an actual mother to several children who live with her in the Lower East Side. By the book's end she has left New York.
Her story is indicative of the contradictions inherent in Floating City, an exploration of New York's underground economies by the sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh. Venkatesh, whose research on the Chicago gang scene formed the basis of a chapter in "Freakonomics", immerses himself in an illicit world: of sex workers and porn shops, crack and cocaine dealers, and of a Harvard-educated crew who are as obnoxious as they are carefree and rich.
His argument is provocative: that sex, drugs and various forms of illegal exchange lie at the heart of the connections in New York. But though all of his characters have dreams and ambitions, not everyone floats in this huge global city. Despite his hypothesis that sex might connect people, it proves just as likely to keep them apart. Writing of elite sex workers who hold Ivy League degrees, Venkatesh observes: "Relative wealth and the accompanying sense of privilege gave these woman something cultural that was important for succeeding in this world – simple nonchalance, a sense of entitlement that nothing could threaten."
Venkatesh's narrative contains some gem-like descriptions of New York, which changed so dramatically between the late 1990s when he began his research and the late 2000s when it ended. He looks on as the Nineties pass and "neighbourhoods like Chelsea and the Lower East Side went through their spectacular rebirth as hip destinations for the young and artsy". As the city transformed into a glittering hub of tourism and business, a chasm opened up between rich and poor.
After September 2001, a shift occurred again, and the lives of the immigrants whom he studied – like Manjun, a South Asian man who works in a porn shop – became substantially harder. Deportations rose by 30 per cent, he writes, and communities were displaced.
"The undocumented moved from neighbourhood to neighbourhood and borough to borough, seeking off-the-books work while keeping a low profile. Some ran into visa troubles, lost their jobs, and had to return home."
Drug dealers feature but it is the sex workers who take up most space in Floating City. It's perhaps inevitable that a male writer studying prostitution should leave himself open to accusations of prurience. Venkatesh is aware of this risk and tries valiantly to avoid it, reassuring a madam (and the reader) when she offers to find him a female companion that he has never slept with a prostitute. He highlights his own unease again during a conversation with a group of johns, eager to share their stories. "I had no interest in studying them. I started to get anxious. I wanted to get out of the world of johns." (The johns had other ideas, however. "Ask me anything," one said. "I have no shame.")
Despite his self-consciousness, Venkatesh's tone in describing the women he studies can veer towards icky. Carla, an 18-year-old sex worker, has a wild attitude that entertains her clients and provides Venkatesh with material. Her fate takes a dark turn. Venkatesh writes: "She was the gift that kept on giving, alas."
And his portrayal of sex workers has angered some of those in the trade in New York. The Sex Workers' Outreach Project's blog recently argued his book is both salacious and inaccurate: "Venkatesh is simply an extreme example of an older form of sensationalist, inaccurate 'research' which is becoming less and less relevant in the world today."
A thread running through Floating City is the state of Venkatesh's own life. He juxtaposes his personal turmoil with the problems of people he encounters and suggests that his life mirrors theirs in its rootlessness and uncertainty. It's a clever narrative strategy that doesn't quite work. Although his problems are very real – it's difficult to get tenure in academia and divorce is no fun – to compare them with the hardships of the people he follows is jarring. Angela's attempts to get by, without a bank account, credit history or a secure income, and vulnerable to violence at the hands of clients, are simply much more serious than anything that Venkatesh goes through.
"Maybe the world was trying to tell me something," Venkatesh writes as he struggles to define his subject. "Maybe sex was the ideal means of crossing the boundaries that defined and connected New York City." Instead, though, the sex trade seems as full of barriers to social mobility as any other. Angela's poor English prevents her from acquiring the clientele she would like – the rich men who work on Wall Street.
Far from being fluid, this society's boundaries only appear so. Over the course of the book, Venkatesh's research disproves the theory with which he began. The lives of New Yorkers on different sides of the poverty line remain mostly distinct, not interwoven. Selling sex – or drugs – can get you only so far. This truth is revealed by the trajectories of Venkatesh's poorer subjects. One dies, another disappears without trace. Angela, the glue of her community, returns to the Dominican Republic.
Venkatesh has brought together some colourful strands but no strong narrative emerges. Floating City offers depressing evidence of the relentless pressures of poverty and inequality. It is a beautifully written, thought-provoking and compelling account; but the reader may feel as worried about voyeurism as Venkatesh himself.