Bostons Villa Victoria shows that civic participation is hard to sustain in the best of circumstances

For poor rural Latin Americans with little education and almost no marketable skills, immigration to an American city with a dwindling manufacturing sector is rarely a recipe for success. Even less is to be expected when the immigrants speak no English, when the city has a reputation for antagonism against outsiders, and when the neighborhood to which they are migrating is known as a Skid Row. Yet success came to 2,000 Puerto Ricans living in the late 1960s in Parcel 19 of Boston’s South End.

Their success was the creation, against all odds, of a self-managed, aesthetically pleasing, architecturally sophisticated housing complex in the heart of what is now one of the most exclusive sections of Boston. They created a neighborhood and, along with it, the security of a guaranteed home for the rest of their lives and the comfort of a community of compatriots in a foreign land. The neighborhood, Villa Victoria, is now a small treasure among New England Puerto Ricans, a testament to the power of grass-roots mobilization.

Villa Victoria is a community development success story, one worth telling for that reason alone. But while it’s important to know how to create such a community, it is also important to know how – and whether – that kind of community can be sustained over time. The experience of 30 years of Villa Victoria suggests that, even under the best of conditions, community participation is unlikely to maintain itself on its own. It requires a stable and functional community organization, maintenance of the landscape, and the continuous nurturing of new cohorts of leaders.

From slum to neighborhood

The creation of “the Villa,” as residents call it, is a textbook case of grass-roots political activism with greater-than-textbook results. The 2,000 people who would one day live in Villa Victoria were at the time housed in dilapidated brownstones and townhouses. The South End in general, and their portion of land in particular, “Parcel 19,” was then known to many as Skid Row. The residents lived among rats and junkyards, in structurally unsound cold-water flats whose Victorian charm had vanished as rust ate through iron gates and as walls crumbled and rotted. Outsiders rarely ventured into the South End; even the elevated train that rumbled through the neighborhood stopped only at its two borders.

In 1965, the South End, including the 20-acre Parcel 19, was designated an urban renewal area by the Boston Redevelopment Authority. For Parcel 19 residents, this designation meant displacement and relocation to other parts of the city, breaking up a tight ethnic community. That’s just what had happened eight years before, in Boston’s West End, as chronicled in Herbert Gans’s classic book, Urban Villagers. Just as the West End was transformed into Charles River Park, the South End would be demolished and rebuilt with luxury apartments or condominiums.

In response, the Puerto Rican residents of Parcel 19 began to assemble a resistance movement with the support of activists, priests and seminarians, architects, and a few professionals, both Latino and of other ethnic backgrounds. Funds from local ministries and ecumenical organizations were funneled to the group, now called the Emergency Tenants’ Council, which had as its goal not only resisting displacement but also redeveloping the parcel on its own terms.

Boston’s Villa Victoria was a success against all odds.

It took several years for this resistance movement to succeed. Activists argued with officials, wrote letters, and picketed City Hall until late at night. With the help of young Boston architects, they designed an alternative redevelopment plan that called for low- and middle-income housing, and for allowing original residents to return to the neighborhood after the new units were built. They appealed to local political groups and won the support of other South End organizations.

Meanwhile, pressure had been mounting on the city to be more sensitive in its urban renewal efforts. The clearance of the West End – leaving a shockingly empty 48 acres where a dense Italian-American community once stood – had raised concerns that the city simply wanted to remove all of its poor residents. What had been relatively uncomplicated for the city in the 1950s was, by the late 1960s, politically dangerous. In 1969, ETC was granted the right to develop the parcel and manage the resulting housing complex. Although ETC still had major fundraising to do, the creation of Villa Victoria had effectively begun.

By 1976 the neighborhood had been constructed. What ETC built was a stunning, architectural award-winning complex of three-story houses with pitched roofs and high stoops, community gardens, small parks, and a central plaza surrounded by a cobblestone-layered paseo. The neighborhood was designed, both structurally and socially, to build community. The parks and gathering areas are the most obvious example. But it was also significant that houses were built with large living room windows so residents could easily look out, contributing to the “eyes on the street” that sociologists have argued keep crime down and community interaction up. Several units were built with three or four bedrooms to accommodate large households, keeping families intact and reinforcing the ties that accompany kin-driven immigration.

It was not just the new physical environment that fostered engagement in Villa Victoria. The institutions of Villa Victoria contributed to community participation as well. ETC became a management agency to administer the complex. A separate agency, Inquilinos Boricuas en Accion (Puerto Rican Tenants in Action, or IBA), was created to foster community participation among residents. Both organizations were (and continue to be) funded from a combination of private and public sources.

By effort and by design, the Villa came to epitomize what researchers have called, among other terms, community social capital. There were music festivals, community gardening, tutoring, dances, and other activities. In the early 1980s, IBA launched a closed-circuit television station for the Villa, staffed by one full-time worker and 20 volunteers. With the help of outside funders, young residents created a tile mural on a large wall facing the plaza; two more murals were later commissioned. More than 20 volunteer residents, including one from each of eight “districts” in the Villa, sat on the IBA board of directors, for which elections were held annually.

IBA’s archives consist of more than 100 boxes filled with records, meeting minutes, certificates of appreciation, newspaper clippings, newsletters, requests for funds, fliers, brochures, and announcements, attesting to the level of participation between the mid-1970s and the mid-1980s. Just as vivid, if less tangible, are residents’ recollections of countless activities and festivals, workshops on everything from gardening and cooking to baton twirling, after-school tutoring and summer field trips, and celebrations of every major holiday of both the US mainland and Puerto Rico. Villa Victoria became a model community.

Losing the magic

If any neighborhood seemed destined to attain lasting success in fostering community participation, Villa Victoria was the one. It was an ethnically homogeneous community with a shared history located in an environment distinguished by a pleasant, community-friendly design. This was not an ethnically heterogeneous community with internal conflicts brewing beneath the surface, nor did it resemble the impersonal high rises of Chicago housing projects with non-working elevators, few places to gather, and a built-in sense of alienation. Villa Victoria was designed the way it was “supposed” to be.

Nevertheless, much of Villa Victoria’s magic did not last, despite concerted efforts. The yearly cultural festival continued. But by the mid-1990s, the IBA board had shrunk to 14 members, the district system had been disbanded, and elections were held sporadically, rather than yearly. The dance classes, the music instruction, the community gardening, and the mural-making ceased. Channel 6 was no longer in operation, its thousands of recorded tapes and video equipment collecting dust in a storage closet.

New residents saw little point in participation.

Certainly, we must ask why. But a better question is whether it could have lasted – or, what would have been necessary for it to last? Some social phenomena are self-regenerating: Without outside intervention, they reproduce themselves or multiply over time, like a sexually transmitted disease among a group of peers, or political rumors on the Internet. Others are self-perpetuating but not self-regenerating: Without external intervention, or in the absence of major crises, they neither rise nor fall over time, continuing by inertia. But other phenomena are degenerative: Without external intervention, they are likely to decline over time.

We tend to treat community engagement as though it were naturally self-perpetuating or self-regenerating; neighborhoods are vibrant and participatory, until something happens that makes them otherwise. I suggest it is a degenerative phenomenon. I do not believe community participation cannot be sustained; only that it is unlikely to sustain itself on its own. In this sense, the decline of engagement in Villa Victoria is less a surprise – or a sign of failure – than a process to be understood. If we understand why identification and participation declined in a place as conducive to community as Villa Victoria, perhaps we can understand how to reverse that decline, in the Villa and elsewhere.

The process that has taken place at Villa Victoria is easy enough to grasp: As one cohort of residents was replaced by another, the way residents framed the neighborhood in their minds changed. Their image of Villa Victoria shifted from a place where identification and participation seemed meaningful, justified, and worthwhile to a place where such personal investment did not. As the initial cohort of Villa Victoria residents moved out, grew old, or died, fewer residents framed the neighborhood in a way that made being a resident of Villa Victoria something worth a personal investment.

Framing the picture

Sociologists suggest that we never perceive the world “as it is”; rather, our perceptions are always filtered through categories that highlight some attributes of reality and not others. Suppose all individuals required prescription glasses to see. Without glasses, no one would see anything, only a blurry image. Suppose everyone wore glasses that were tinted – blue, yellow, violet, gray, pink, peach. To each bespectacled person, the world would appear different. This is what some have called “framing.” Furthermore, scholars of social movements have found that framing is a pre-condition for action. With a given lens, I might see a light as green and therefore drive my car through it; someone with a different lens might see it as red and stop.

The framing perspective has implications for community participation in low-income neighborhoods like Villa Victoria. Many people suppose that all residents of a low-income neighborhood perceive the neighborhood the same way – as ugly, deteriorated, crime-ridden, etc. But residents of Villa Victoria framed the neighborhood through at least two very different lenses. Particularly, the way Villa Victoria was viewed – or framed – varied dramatically between cohorts.

Though often thought of as a generation, a cohort is a cohesive group that moves through life together, in some important way. In the case of Villa Victoria, a cohort is simply a collection of residents who, although they are of different ages, entered Villa Victoria at roughly the same time or under similar circumstances. The first cohort of residents of Villa Victoria was composed of many of the people who witnessed or participated in the transformation of a rundown, dilapidated neighborhood into a modern housing complex in the early 1970s. Members of this cohort tend to frame the neighborhood as a beautiful, historically important place. As Ernesto (not his real name), an elderly resident, said to me in an interview (in Spanish):

“They used to call this around here ‘the trap.’ Look – behind [my apartment] there used to be a huge ditch. The little houses used to lean over the water. When it rained hard, a spurt of water ran along [behind here], and the houses – and their balconies – were almost falling over. And people lived in these places! Holy Mary! The houses were falling apart. And I find myself dumbfounded at how beautiful this got afterward!”

This resident believes he is fortunate to live here, in a place transformed from slum to community. Like many members of the first cohort of Villa residents, his perception of the neighborhood is filtered through the experience of the deteriorated brownstones that once occupied that section of the South End. For these residents, participation in the community is more than justified. The concerted effort that gave them Villa Victoria is, to them, something that should not be taken in vain.

Over time this cohort was replaced by a new group of residents with a different set of experiences in the neighborhood. This new cohort – the children of the first cohort plus the new immigrants who inhabited the neighborhood in the late 1980s and 1990s – did not witness the old Skid Row existence of Parcel 19, or the triumph over it.

Moreover, they perceived a radically different neighborhood in its environs. The once-beautiful new townhouses and parks had decayed structurally over their 15 to 20 years of existence. Bushes had grown, paint had peeled, mold had accumulated, iron fences had bent out of shape, and rodents had rediscovered the streets and sidewalks. When compared to the surrounding South End, now one of the city’s upper-middle-class neighborhoods – a quaint assortment of brownstones meticulously restored by a new population of young professionals – the Villa hardly resembled the symbol of hope it was in the 1970s. That stark contrast has dominated perceptions of the neighborhood among the new cohort. Melissa, a resident in her 20s, told me about the time when her job in the Back Bay led her to walk through the South End into the Villa: “I’d walk in from Back Bay, and I’d get here and right away I’d know – yep, there’s the graffiti, and the men going ‘Oye, mami,’ and I’d hate it.”

Many members of this new cohort see the same neighborhood but, filtered through their own experiences, essentially see a ghetto. Tellingly, residents of this cohort frequently use the word “project” to describe their community. A resident in his 30s who had a nephew with a good pitching arm said to me, “Just wait! This kid’s gonna get us out of the projects!” – a phrase indicative not only of his conception of the neighborhood but also of the idea that it is something to escape. (I never heard anyone in the first cohort of residents use that term to describe Villa Victoria; in fact, I heard a few residents take offense at it.) Struggle, so critical to the first cohort’s perception of the neighborhood, plays no role in the new cohort’s. For this group, the neighborhood was not something to invest themselves in, but something to leave.

an anything be done? In Villa Victoria, some elements of participation, like the yearly cultural festival, have persevered. They have done so in part because of the continued presence of IBA, which provides support for residents interested in community participation. However, as IBA’s institutional viability has suffered, so has its ability to sustain community participation. Similarly, any efforts to sustain participation over the long run must include the continued maintenance of the neighborhood’s landscape. Deteriorated places are easier to leave than to get involved in. (Promisingly, a massive renovation campaign was begun in the Villa two years ago.) Finally, community leaders must actively engage newer cohorts’ perceptions of their neighborhood. Some of the Villa’s original Puerto Rican residents have worked to make their memories of a vital, fighting community last, often mobilizing their own children to participate in a community they would hate to see die. For these stalwarts to succeed, they will have to find ways to change the way the newer cohorts frame the neighborhood. Otherwise, they will face more young residents like Tommy, who, when I asked him why he did not get involved in neighborhood activities, responded the way many of his cohort members might: “What for?”

Meet the Author
The lessons of Villa Victoria, then, depend in part on understanding more clearly what to expect from community participation. Created by ethnic struggle, designed to promote community, and organized in a participatory fashion, a place like Villa Victoria has the foundation it needs for ongoing growth and involvement. In this sense, it is exceptional. But that foundation is, by itself, no guarantee that the community will flourish over the long haul. The place, its institutions, and its continuously refreshing cohorts of residents must each be sustained actively in its own ways.

Mario Luis Small is an assistant professor of sociology at Princeton University and author of Villa Victoria: The Transformation of Social Capital in a Boston Barrio. This article is adapted from a policy brief, “Can Social Capital Last?,” published by the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.