Looking Through a Historical Lens: One Scholar’s Perspective on IBA
As part of April’s focus on IBA’s history, we will hold a historical forum next week featuring prominent individuals who have contributed to the foundation of IBA. We interviewed Mario Small, who will be on of our esteemed guests. With a Ph.D. from Harvard University, he has published books and numerous articles on urban poverty, personal networks, and the relationship between qualitative and quantitative social science methods.
You’ve written an entire book on the community here. What initially sparked your interest in Villa Victoria?
I was working on a dissertation in sociology. I was a volunteer once or twice at one of the after school programs at the Blackstone school and saw the neighborhood then. I was intrigued by its architecture, its Latino population, and its location–an affordable housing community right in the middle of the South End. The neighborhood seemed special to me and I wanted to learn more.
How does social capital manifest itself in Villa Victoria? What is different about Villa residents compared to residents in other affordable housing communities?
The answer to this question has evolved over the years. There have been times in its history where social capital has been extremely high and times when it has been low. One form of social capital that has remained relatively constant is the participation in cultural activities such as the Betances Festival, which is a signature event for not only the city but also Puerto Ricans and other Latinos in the greater Boston area. Cultural events of this kind and magnitude are relatively uncommon in affordable housing communities.
You mention an incongruity between your expectations of Villa Victoria and your final observations. What was the incongruity and what caused you to rethink your initial perception of the community?
By the time I started studying the neighborhood I had read a lot of the social science on low income communities. I was led to expect social isolation, low social capital, and a lack of resources in a community. What I found instead was a community that, though it had its problems, was not isolated in the least, and had experienced very high levels of social capital.
How does negative representation in media work against affordable housing communities? Do you think that this representation prevents more affordable housing communities from being built?
I think media–and sometimes social science–representations of housing communities tend to paint one-dimensional and unfair pictures. I have seen this from both liberal and conservative perspectives, wherein housing communities are painted as uniformly violent, unsafe, isolated, drug-ridden, and so on. The main difference is that liberals blame the system and conservatives blame values. Both perspectives fail to recognize that housing communities differ a lot from city to city and, within a city, from neighborhood to neighborhood. There are as many safe, vibrant, community-oriented, hard-working housing communities as there are places that conform to the stereotypes.
How do you think Villa Victoria’s beginnings shaped what it has become today?
You can see it in the title: “Victory Village.” Without the political action of the early members of the Emergency Tenants’ Council, this neighborhood would not be here. I think over the years the organizers were wise enough to set up institutions, especially IBA, to help support community-oriented programs and development. Those institutions have been essential to the survival and success of the community.
How does Villa Victoria’s removal from its wealthier counterparts across the street affect the residents’ ability to socialize with middle classes? How do you think implementing an organization like IBA helps integrate people from different classes with Villa Victoria residents?
IBA has done well by developing community-oriented events that are open to everyone and that make clear the doors of the community are open to outsiders. Through the arts, it has been possible to build valuable bridges.
What experience impacted you the most during your time studying Villa Victoria?
There were many, large and small. One small but significant experience I remember was teaching a computer class at El Batey technology center, where I helped elderly folks from the neighborhood learn how to connect to the internet.
IBA is celebrating 50 years this year. What do you envision for Villa Victoria and Boston’s affordable housing landscape in the next 50 years?
I am hoping IBA represents a model for other communities, and proof to the mayors of our major cities, and the national politicians who claim to care about housing, that investing in affordability at the local level can help sustain diverse, vibrant communities.
Want to discover more about Mario Small and IBA’s history? Come to Stories of Villa Victoria on April 11 at 6pm. The event is free and refreshments will be served!