Generational gap colors housing attitudes

By Evelyn Wiese

The streets of the Villa Victoria housing complex are scrawled with graffiti, strewn with litter, and home to more than the complex’s fair share of rats, its younger Puerto Rican residents profess. But their older counterparts describe the neighborhood as beautiful and take offense when others refer to the low-income housing development as a “project.”

In a Thursday afternoon talk hosted by the University’s chapter of Habitat for Humanity, sociology professor Mario Luis Small addressed about a dozen students in a talk on the connection between people’s perception of their community and their level of community involvement. The talk, entitled “A Historic Puerto Rican Housing Complex in Boston: Promise and Peril in Community Participation,” explored the decline in civic participation in Villa Victoria.

Small first spoke about the creation of the housing complex, which he described as “a really innovative and important historic experiment in housing.”

A predominantly Puerto Rican low-income housing development in the South End of Boston, Villa Victoria was created through the efforts of community activists in the late 1960s, Small said. As the neighborhoods surrounding what would become Villa Victoria were razed to build luxury condominiums, community members and local activists united to pressure officials to create affordable housing.

“After the shock of the leveling of the neighborhoods, there was a huge outcry,” Small said.

These efforts resulted in the development of Villa Victoria, which was designed, organized, and run primarily by its residents.

“It was a remarkable achievement,” Small said, citing the uniqueness of the community’s model. “Thirty years ago, most people had a completely different idea of what a housing project is.”

Small said that Villa Victoria embodied a distinctly new model of community participation. Residents organized community-organized events that included ESL lessons, Big Brother and Big Sister Programs, community gardening, and an annual “Festival Betances”—which commemorated Puerto Rican nationalist and activist Ramón Emeterio Betances.

However, Small added that in recent years, residents’ views of the neighborhood have begun to differ drastically.

“They all saw the rats and the grime,” he said of the younger residents. “It was almost as if they were describing totally different places.”

Along with a more negative view of their surroundings, Small noted a sharp decline in community involvement, as younger residents of the housing project opt not to take on the community roles held by older generations of residents. Small attributed this decline in community involvement to dwindling awareness of Villa Victoria’s genesis.

“Talking to [newer and younger residents] about Villa Victoria, the role of history had no place, and the idea of struggle was equally absent,” he said.