Small(‘s) Neighborhood

photo by pierre lascot : borrowed from creative commons

photo by pierre lascot : borrowed from creative commons

A recent assignment for a qualitative methods course involved reading an ethnographic study and preparing a 500-word review. We had to pick between 2 books: Off the Books by Sudhir Venkatesh or Villa Victoria by Mario Luis Small. I chose Small’s study of a Puerto Rican neighborhood in Boston. Here’s my take in exactly 500 words.  [The numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers in the paperback edition]

Mario Luis Small’s study of social capital and neighborhood poverty in Villa Victoria, a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood located in Boston’s South End, is a thoroughly engaging and illuminating account that advances the theoretical and methodological bases of urban studies focused on understanding neighborhood change. As described in the Preface, his main objective is to open the “black box” of neighborhood effects; in other words, by examining several dimensions of neighborhood change throughout the period spanning from the late 1960s until the turn of the Twentieth Century, Small intends to address a key issue for urban sociology: how concentrated poverty affects social capital. 

            Relying mostly on ethnographic observations and archival research, the author is able to identify neighborhood-level and individual-level factors that condition the relationship between neighborhood poverty and social capital. Neighborhood-level factors that play an important role include: “the availability of resources in the neighborhood, the quality of boundaries (fixed or loose) between the neighborhoods and surrounding nonpoor ones, the ethnic and class composition of the neighborhood and its adjacent neighborhood, and the characteristics of cohorts and residents” (176). Amongst the individual-level factors, Small highlights the following: “age, immigration status, employment status, affect towards the neighborhood, and the narrative frames through which a resident perceives her or his neighborhood” (176). Each of these conditional factors is dealt with in a clear and systematic manner.

            What most impressed me about Small’s text is the way he is able to weave individual-level and neighborhood-level data into coherent and complex arguments that explain how structural and cultural factors explain neighborhood participation and change. This approach is evident in Chapter 4, where he analyzes the different participation rates of Villa residents of different age cohorts and explains the variation through an eloquent description of the differences in neighborhood narrative frames. Instead of choosing to side with either structural or cultural explanations, Small demonstrates that both structural and cultural (framing) factors play important roles. In a similar fashion, he does not discount the impact that space, race and class have on the relative isolation of the Villa’s residents. Interestingly, by looking closely at one neighborhood—and by not attempting to make broad generalizations from his examination—he is able to bring together distinct theoretical traditions that are commonly perceived to be at odds. In doing so, he is able to assert that, contrary to the analytical approaches advanced by William Julius Wilson and Loic Wacquant, poor urban neighborhoods are not single, homogeneous institutions.

            I found his primary findings to be convincing. Yet, his assertion that “the belief that one’s life chances would not realistically be improved by living elsewhere” (179) is what fuels the narratives of the proud and engaged residents is puzzling. My current research with migrant organizations that are involved in community-based development ventures in their home sites does not support this view. Although far removed from their hometowns—while searching for better economic opportunities—many transnational migrants exhibit strong feelings of pride, engagement and solidarity with their communities that translate into opportunities for positive development. 
If you want to see a bit of what the Villa is like, here is a video, produced by a youth collaborative, on the cultural institutions of Villa Victoria and Boston’s Chinatown. 


2 responses to “Small(‘s) Neighborhood

  1. Very interesting. On your puzzle:
    Are the economic outcomes for the two groups (your study group vs Small’s) very different? Could that be a reason for what shaped the latter group’s apparent ‘distrust’ of finding a better life elsewhere?
    Also, both groups suffered a loss of identity when they left their hometowns, but the migrant organizations that you are looking at have apparently offset that by doing pro-development work back in their hometowns. Are they only able to do so because they have done well in the States? If Small’s study group wasn’t able to maintain such a strong connection with their hometowns, then it is understandable that they would want to avoid a further loss in identity by moving elsewhere (like going to the midwest where, for instance, they may find cheaper housing than Boston but fewer of their own people).

  2. Scheri, very good points. Thank you for helping me think through some of these issues. Small does not talk much about the economic outcomes of many of these residents (in terms of improvements in wealth and income) but highlights that most of those living in Villa Victoria are poor (according to the Census definition). I think that what supports his assertion is the transformation that the neighborhood experienced in a specific period thanks to the mobilization and organization of the residents, and the hard fought battles that made Villa Victoria possible. Furthermore, I think you’re quite right. One could argue that two important factors (amongst others) explain the differences in the types of relationships to the hometown: economic outcomes in the US and the ability to establish transnational ties.

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