The History of Street Gangs in the United States: Their Origins and Transformations

The History of Street Gangs in the United States: Their Origins and Transformations

Author: James C. Howell
Publisher: Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015. 178p.
Reviewer: James A. Densley | January 2016

It has been 90 years since Frederic Thrasher’s (1927) The Gang first established the American street gang as an empirical object of study. Back then, gangs were “playgroups” found only in the urban slums of cities like Chicago. Today, street gangs are found in about 3,300 jurisdictions across the country and are responsible for a disproportionate share of crime and violence (Egley & Howell 2013). Unsurprisingly then, gangs attract a lot of attention. In 90 years, “anthropologists, criminologists, economists, epidemiologists, mathematicians, psychologists, and sociologists” have produced over 5,000 scholarly publications on gangs (Pyrooz & Mitchell, 2015). There have been numerous reviews of this body of literature, presented in full-length textbooks, edited volumes, articles, book chapters, and journal special issues, but surprisingly few gang “histories.” Histories that do exist, moreover, are often local or regional in focus (e.g., Adamson, 2000; Alonso, 2002). It is fine time, therefore, to look back at the full history of street gangs in the United States, their origins and transformations—which just so happens to be the title of a new text, published by Lexington Books.

With all this background, it takes courage to title one’s book, THE history of street gangs in the United States. Thankfully, James C. Howell has the credentials to get away with it. A student of the late, great, anthropologist Walter B. Miller (the Walter B. Miller of Boston’s Roxbury Gang Delinquency Research Project and “Lower Class Subculture as a Generating Milieu of Gang Delinquency,” one of the most frequently cited papers in criminology), “Buddy” Howell has been studying gangs for over 30 years. Fifty or more of the extant 5,000 works on gangs bear his name, including the popular textbook, Gangs in America’s Communities (Sage, 2012). For 20 years, Howell has worked for the National Gang Center in Tallahassee, Florida, coordinating, among other things, the National Youth Gang Survey (NYGS) of law enforcement agencies — an invaluable resource for students of the gang. Before that he worked at the U.S. Department of Justice as director of research and program development in the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Suffice it to say, Howell knows gangs!

Further, Howell knows how to write a book. He has authored seven previously, including introductory texts, which makes him adept at conveying complex ideas in simple terms. His style is straightforward, but the content is rich. This is especially true of Chapter 3 here, which presents a historical analysis of gang etiology and evolution that is essentially its own integrated theory, incorporating macro-level structural control and structural adaptation perspectives on gangs with micro-level attributes and contexts that result in gang membership. This chapter ties together different, distant, strands of gang research and enables Howell to better define what makes a gang a gang in the first place—a common point of contention among gang scholars. At a time when Straight Outta Compton, a biopic film about the seminal gangster rap group N.W.A. is near the top of the U.S. box office, and the streaming of Dr. Dre’s accompanying soundtrack is breaking the Internet, Howell’s insight on the relationship between gangster rap and gangs is timely, even if the list of “top artists” on page 84 is not.

If Chapter 3 showcases Howell’s strong theoretical skills, Chapter 4 highlights Howell’s equally impressive empirical talents, with a fascinating statistical analysis of gang growth and expansion. Using NYGS data, Howell traces the trajectory of gang violence and gang homicide over time, informing us that despite the great crime drop in recent years, in some large cities, a staggering 40 percent or more of all homicides are gang related. This sobering reality begs the question, what to do about gangs? Ever the public policy professional, Howell provides some answers in his epilogue to the book.

Howell is a leading voice on the need for effective programs and more rigorous program evaluations, which makes his focus on violence reduction a fitting end to this project. He goes a little easy on some of the initiatives discussed, not least the controversial Cure Violence public health model (see Papachristos, 2011), and with a more general audience in mind, shirks the nuances of statistical evaluation to focus instead on implementation. At the same time, however, one wishes prevention, intervention, and suppression weren’t relegated to a few pages at the back of the book. Howell might say he has covered these important issues in detail elsewhere, but this only highlights problems the book might face going forward.

The target market for History is unclear. The book would make a great textbook for undergraduate students, for instance, but Howell’s own Gangs in America’s Communities, now in its second edition (Howell & Griffiths, 2015),is better and more suitable for a semester-long study of gangs. At 178 pages, History is short, and thus could be a supplemental textbook, but at $80 for the hardback edition (and no paperback or e-book yet available), it may be difficult to convince readers to take the plunge. Another challenge is that most of the material in the book has already been published in some form or another, not least in Gangs in America’s Communities. Recycling is common in this publish or perish academic world we live in, and Howell is open about his iterative writing process in the book’s Introduction. But the fact remains, the excellent first chapter, which breaks down the expansion of gangs by region (Northeast, Midwest, West, and South) while zooming in on key cityscapes (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles), is essentially a reprint of Howell’s 2010 collaboration with John Moore, published in the National Gang Center Bulletin, which is available online for free.

Howell’s History faces other challenges beyond finding its intended audience. Chapters get exponentially shorter as it goes on. The first chapter (“the emergence and development of gang activity”) runs some 48 pages, in part because 200 years is a lot of ground to cover, but also because Howell clearly knows the material inside and out. The last chapter (“transnational gangs”), by contrast, runs only nine pages—only one shorter than the epilogue. This leaves the book feeling slightly uneven. Earlier chapters, particularly those based on previously published material, have matured like a fine wine. They feel polished. Complete. Later chapters feel rushed, as if Howell was pressured to make his contribution suitably book length. The second chapter on prison gangs also misses a trick by failing to engage with the most recent and important contribution to the subject—David Skarbek’s (2014) The Social Order of the Underworld. Howell cites Skarbek once (on page 72, unfortunately misspelling his name “Sharbek”), but completely overlooks his “governance” thesis, arguing on page 52, “just one theory of prison gang development has been proposed to date”—a point which Skarbek might contest.

Despite the above, Howell’s History is an important endeavor. Philosopher George Santayana once argued: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” As gangs and gang responses continue to evolve (Densley, 2014), we would be remiss not to look back and learn. And Howell is an able teacher—at its best, History reads like an apprenticeship from a wise master. For this reason, History is a credible addition to an ever-expanding library of gang research, even if it never quite reaches the heights of Howell’s earlier work.

James A. Densley, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Metropolitan State University


Adamson, C. (2000). Defensive localism in white and black: A comparative history of European-American and African-American youth gangs. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 23, 272–298.
Alonso, A. (2004). Racialized identities and the formation of Black gangs in Los Angeles. Urban Geography, 25, 658–674.
Densley, J. (2014). It’s gang life, but not as we know it: The evolution of gang business. Crime & Delinquency, 60, 517-546.
Egley, A. Jr., & Howell, J. C. (2013). Highlights of the 2011 National Youth Gang Survey. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Howell, J. C. & Griffiths, E. (2015). Gangs in America’s communities. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Howell, J.C. (2012). Gangs in America’s communities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Papachristos, A. (2011). Too big to fail: The science and politics of violence prevention. Criminology & Public Policy, 10, 1053–61.
Pyrooz, D.C. & Mitchell, M. (2015). Little gang research, big gang research. In S. H. Decker & D. C. Pyrooz (Eds.), The Handbook of Gangs (pp. 28–58). New York: Wiley.
Skarbek, D. (2014). The social order of the underworld: How prison gangs govern the American penal system. New York: Oxford University Press.
Thrasher, F. (1927) The gang: A study of 1,313 gangs in Chicago. Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press.

Start typing and press Enter to search