and he was not documented and when that activity started
to increase, he had a very difficult decision to make.
He could have quit the store, but that was his only job and
as someone without papers, he had to be out of work. He is
actually a trained engineer. He pays a heavy price for his
decision. That is the kind of story — that so many people
emigrating from South Asian states here are of the professional class.
In what way do the immigrants in the underground today
differ from similarly placed immigrants from Italy or Spain
100 years ago?
Unfortunately, they (the newer immigrants) don’t have a
natural community around them like the Irish, the Italians,
the Germans created a hundred years ago. Although you
can go to places like the Devon Avenue (Chicago) or
Jackson Heights (in Queens, NY) to buy Indian goods and
services, you won’t necessarily find the kind of social life
that you might have found a hundred years ago where
immigrants who were down on their luck would nevertheless be taken care of (by their community) and they wouldn’t necessarily have to spend as much time in the underground economy.
So, one reason I wanted to write the story of immigrants
in this book is to try to raise some awareness of people,
including myself, to think about the ways that we might
understand those who have similar backgrounds but are
The story of Santosh is quite different from Manjun in the
sense Santosh escaped the dangerous situation.
What will always remain true about the underground
economy is that it will reward the entrepreneur and
Santosh is the entrepreneur who starts the illegal world of
business, saves money, then opens a restaurant and moves
into the legitimate world of business. However, he is like so
many people who cannot forget where they came from and
he continues to help undocumented workers from India
and Bangladesh settle into the US by providing them fake
visas, by providing them jobs, by helping them to work illegally.
On the one hand that is helpful by giving people a better
life; on the other hand, he feels he’s just helping them into
the criminal world of America, not really helping them to
settle here legally in full daylight as it were. So these (traits)
speak to the side of the human spirit. Santosh is a very
philanthropic and charitable person, but also someone who
is taking advantage of others for his own gain.
When you were doing research for this book, what were
some of the things that really surprised you and raised your
understanding of the economy and what it was doing to peo-
I had come to an understanding of the underground
economy from studying the world of Chicago and the illegal activities in Chicago, having lived in a shanty town for
many days and known the dangers and challenges people
faced there in building a community.
I was surprised to find in New York that people were
working in the underground economy not simply out of a
need for base survival, but… to realize, to pursue aspira-
tions just as the most successful, mainstream legitimate
business persons; in many ways, the people in the
underground (economy) in New York, were the most
emblematic of New Yorkers seeking to be ambitious,
successful, to overcome certain standards, to move
beyond their social position, and to reach a kind of
individual achievement. That thirst we normally asso-
ciate with people who are in the highest echelons of
society: Finance, real estate, etc. But I found it in the
alleyways; I found it in the world hidden from us.
Nevertheless, you could find the same thirst to be a
full independent autonomous human being.
New York has always attracted people who have that
outlook and somewhat self-centered view of the
world. So it has always rewarded greed in that way. I
discovered that same kind of pursuit in the underground as above ground.
Tell us little more about the title.
The title Floating City refers to a learning process. I
hadn’t seen New York differently from Chicago.
In Chicago, which is representative of many
American cities, people generally stay within their
own neighborhood, district, area, and their life tends
to be very local. I was told by the people I was studying that I had to act differently in New York. To really
understand the personality of New York, what makes
New York a global city, I had to follow people, hence,
the title ‘floating;’ it required me to float about the city
and look for people.
You have spoken about hypocrisy in addressing the
underground economy, especially when it came to sex.
Yes, I think there’s a certain hypocrisy there. That
hypocrisy has to do with the way we police our pursuit
of basic desires. On the one hand, we allow prostitution, gambling, some forms of drugs to occur without
much policing. We simply tolerate it. On the other
hand, we like to pretend that we don’t tolerate it.
Unlike other countries in which their response is to
regulate it to make it safe rather than to criminalize it
— in Scandinavian countries, in Germany, in the
Netherlands — the cost of that kind of hypocrisy is
greater here than the cost of prosecuting every one of
these crimes vigilantly.
Ignoring something, pretending it doesn’t exist, is
not really a good policy response. If it’s going to exist,
we need to be absolutely mindful and have a social
response to these kinds of activities so that they don’t
jeopardize the rest of society. That, I don’t think we’re
What else bothers you about the underground economy?
I think it’s difficult to acknowledge it. I emphasize
because I don’t think we have a ready-made system in place
here; because, if we were to acknowledge it, we would then
know what to do about it. We might feel very frustrated, if
we start to acknowledge it; we might feel as though it’s an
issue that’s overwhelming us. So at the current moment, it
is easier to just simply pretend that it doesn’t exist.
On the one hand, yes, we do need to acknowledge it, we
do need to recognize it; on the other hand, we also need to
be able to answer the question of what we want to do with
this kind of activities, what we want to do with this population who are having trouble. Because, if we do not have
the good set of responses, acknowledgement by itself will
just generate frustration and what people call compassion.
It will make us feel so bad about our society that we will
ignore the future.
What is your next project?
I am very interested in what happens to people who gain
wealth in this country. I believe that we have lost the social
contract. We do not rely on the Federal government any
more to take care of the poor and the needy.
But that raises a question: How are we going to deal with
situations such as the recession or situations where people
lose jobs or they have health issues.
At the moment we do not have a strong culture of philanthropy.
My next book will be on people who are at the other end
of the income spectrum, the very wealthy — how they work
to build a good society or not.
An archival photograph of an immigrant rally in Jackson Heights, New York City. Sudhir Venkatesh says that though new immigrants can go to places
like this or Devon Avenue in Chicago to buy Indian goods and services, they won’t necessarily find the kind of social life of yore where down-on-their
luck immigrants would be taken care of by their community and wouldn’t necessarily have to spend as much time in the underground economy.
‘We have a very rigid stereotype
of the underground economy’
KATHLEEN VOEGE/GE TT Y IMAGES