renegade dreams

Laurence Ralph’s Renegade Dreams centers on the community of Eastwood and the intersection of gang life, postmodern urban development, and media portrayals of this West Side Chicago neighborhood. Ralph focuses on individual perspectives to move away from essentialized versions of the “urban ghetto” in America and instead understand how these individuals navigate and negotiate their precarious existence precipitated by failed institutions and paternalistic policies. Ralph approaches the past “as an ambiguous space” that is “somewhere between history-as-registered and history-as-lived.” Through his ethnographic research, Ralph soon discovered that to many Eastwoodians history is emergent; in other words, their interpretation of what happened in the past, what they’re doing about it in the present, and what will happen in the future is heterogeneous, contested, and open ended. By understanding history in ambiguous terms, Eastwood residents frame tragedy, bodily harm, and urban isolation as sites of inspiration and potential for change.

Throughout the book Ralph introduces each chapter with a field note vignette drawn directly from his notebooks, setting the tone for each chapter by describing his feelings, doubts, and concerns while still in the field. Part one of the book contextualizes the theory of isolation as experienced in Eastwood. Chapter one provides a historical context of Eastwood vis-à-vis redevelopment efforts spearheaded by a well-intentioned but ideologically problematic church organization and the activist group protesting their proposal. Gangs play a salient role in the redevelopment since the “urban blight” gang members embody is an easy target for Chicago’s establishment to rally against. Further, the values the Chicago establishment espouse are reflected in the Eastwood Community Church’s (ECC) “rehabilitative” redevelopment plan. The Neighborhood Coalition provides a counternarrative to the rehabilitation narrative, pointing out the political and economic imperatives to redevelopment before the neighborhood ends up as “rubble and ash” and pragmatically engaging Divine Knight gang members to intimidate policymakers into hearing the coalition’s concerns. Though the coalition’s effort ultimately fails, the chapter complicates the roles of the ECC, the Neighborhood Coalition, and the Divine Knights in negotiating the future of Eastwood.

The next two chapters explore the narratives gang members from several generations tell themselves about the Divine Knights and how the performances expected and often required of gang members keep them stuck in the organization. Nostalgia serves frames emergent histories told from the perspectives of an old timer, a current gang leader, and a gang member still in high school and discusses the social capital that various types of shoes represent in the present. Ralph contextualizes the disdain both the old timer and older gang leader show current renegades in terms of their respective historical contexts, noting that even seemingly superficial concerns renegades discuss are reflections of these emergent narratives. Ralph uses Blizzard’s story in the next chapter to illustrate the self-fulfilling prophecies ploys for authenticity result in. Attempts at legitimacy, often fueled by popular culture tropes expressed in hip hop, lead men like Blizzard to make poor decisions, ultimately landing him in prison. Tosh, similarly imprisoned by gang life in his own body, uses his “failed” narrative to build a different sort of legitimacy, this time as a storyteller.

Part two of Ralph’s book explores the resilience of dreams through the Crippled Footprint Collective (CFC) and HIV education efforts in Eastwood. The CFC is a loose collective made up of wheelchair-bound former gang members and their efforts to reclaim their “damaged” bodies as tools for violence prevention. Ralph focuses on Justin’s efforts to share his testimony with current gang members at the House of Worship and outlines the considerable effort Justin goes into to make sure this meeting happens. Justin’s testimony is incredibly moving to the young gang members with its relatability. Ralph ends the chapter by highlighting how Justin transformed tragedy into a pathway for peacekeeping in the Divine Knights. Similarly in the next chapter, the multifaceted efforts to rehabilitate HIV positive residents remove stigma from their illness and serve as narratives of transformation for the community at large to follow.

Ralph’s conclusion is the best example of engaged social science in Renegade Dreams. Ralph spends considerable time discussing the issue of framing when studying Eastwood using the case study of a viral video portraying community violence. Ralph argues that the dominant narratives in America made it easy to frame this video as just another example of urban gang violence. However, in light of the previous chapters, the reader is provided with a more nuanced and plausible explanation for the violent death Derrion Albert through the lives of numerous Eastwoodians: the intersection of neoliberal policy reforms, isolation, and institutionalized racism in urban America.

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Ralph, Laurence. 2014. Renegade Dreams: Living through Injury in Gangland Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

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