The Old Neighborhood

The Urban Villagers.
by Herbert J. Gans.
Free Press. 367 pp. $7.00.

In these times of suburban growth and urban planing, it is worth being reminded that cities, besides being centers of commerce and culture, axe places where people like to live. And in this day of mass society it is refreshing to think of cities as places that still harbor real neighborhoods where individuals know each other, have face-to-face relations, and feel a comfortable attachment to their surroundings. In his The Urban Villagers, Herbert Gans—a city planner as well as a sociologist—presents us with one such neighborhood, the West End of Boston, or more precisely, the Italian-American community of that area. This book, pursuing Mr. Gans’s two special interests, is both a study of an ethnic community and a critique of the West End urban renewal program. In fact, the “West End” no longer exists, having been demolished to make way for a high-rent housing development. How the community lived and how it met its death are the objects of the author’s investigation.

The Urban Villagers, in subject matter and method, invites comparison with William F. Whyte’s Street Corner Society, an earlier work on the second-generation Italians of Boston’s North End. Like Whyte, Mr. Gans lived in the area for a long time and immersed himself in the complexities and daily concerns of its community. As a result, he has been able, with a judicious use of direct quotations and personal impressions, to give us something of the real human flavor of West End life. But unlike Whyte, Mr. Gans has not been content with merely describing what he saw and heard: he has also integrated and structured his vast collection of data into a well-ordered and useful community study.

Mr. Gans’s discussion of the West-finder’s life is a departure from the standard literature on American ethnic experience. From Oscar Handlin on down, it has been customary to stress the extraordinary and bewildering transformation that peoples undergo in migrating from the old world to the new. Mr. Gans suggests that the great sea-change was not as drastic as it has come to seem. Moving from rural towns in the old country to “urban villages” in the new, the immigrants were in fact able to retain much of their former social system—because the position they occupied in the American social structure was so very similar to the one they had occupied in Italian society. In both countries, the available work was unskilled and poorly paid; the authorities served, or were seen as serving, interests other than those of the people; education, by keeping children from work, was a financial burden rather than an avenue of opportunity; and the extended family had to function as the matrix of social life. To be sure, the second-generation West-Ender is interested in American cars, dress, and sports, and the popular mass media, and displays little concern for Italian culture other than its cuisine; that is to say, he appears at first glance to be acculturated to the American world. Nevertheless, his traditional family and peer-group structure, and the concomitant attitudes toward them, still persist in somewhat modified form.



Mr. Gans’s picture of second-generation Italian-American working-class life centers on what contemporary sociologists call the “peer group,” in which the bonds of friendship and identification are shared throughout most of life by people of the same age and sex. At an early age, the West-End child begins to transfer his time from his family to his group of friends on the street and at school. By the time he reaches adolescence, his street-corner clique—segregated by sex—is fully formed and remains intact until it is time for marriage. After perhaps a brief interlude, married people re-enter peer-group life, relatives now playing a more important role. One’s “gang” in marriage will now likely consist of siblings, in-laws, cousins, and a number of close friends of the same age and sex.

“Acculturation” in this case does not mean the same thing as “assimilation.” If anything, the second generation West-Ender remains as distrustful as his parents of much of the outside world, cynical about the motives of community leaders—including those who emerge from his own ranks—and resistant toward such representatives of the middle class as social workers, city officials, librarians, and teachers, who try to regulate his behavior in accordance with their own standards. His peer-group society reinforces the West-Ender’s defenses, and further, staunchly opposes any deviations from its own values. Thus the youngster who adopts the behavior patterns demanded of him by settlement house workers runs the risk of losing his gang’s support; or the man who shows a preference for serious television dramas over prize fights will incur the ridicule of his friends and be obliged to abide by their tastes.

Work in the West End is a necessary evil, not a deeply satisfying life experience. Nor is marriage considered a source of companionship. For the West-Ender it is in the life of friendship that his energies and feelings seem to find their most important expression. The goal of his life, according to Mr. Gans, is the routinized gatherings of the group itself. Here, over refreshments, he can enjoy accounts of his friends’ activities, discuss special events like weddings and holidays, reminisce about the good old days, hear reports and make judgments of other people’s behavior. To be left without close and constant companions is the dread scourge of the West-Ender’s life, the author tells us; without his group he is often but half a person. Teen-agers, for instance, who are outgoing and aggressive when they are together, are found to be quiet and almost docile when confronted individually.

Generally the West-Ender has little predilection for long-range planning and achievement. A man who puts money aside for some future personal use at the expense of properly entertaining his friends is looked upon with disapproval. Career, wealth, prestige, individual development—such as planning for the careers of one’s children—and extended contacts with the outside world can be pursued only if one is prepared to break totally with his immediate society. The price of membership in the group is, according to Mr. Gans, a conformity more thoroughgoing than any found in suburbia.

Frequently, as Mr. Gans observes with insight and sympathy, the West-Ender’s defensiveness against the encroachments of the outside world has its good cause. Too often he is accused by those representatives of the middle class with whom he comes in contact of being apathetic or obstinate when in fact he is only displaying his preference for, and deep dependence on, peer-group life. Other times he is accused of “lacking initiative” when all he really suffers from is a perfectly realistic awareness of his severely limited economic opportunities. And on occasion he is charged with “hostility” when he is merely expressing natural resentment against being patronized. In this book the “muted lower level” of society is given the chance to talk back, allowing us to see how far our own perceptions of working-class life are clouded by preconceived stereotypes, middle-class presumptions, and ordinary ignorance.



In a sense, the West-Ender’s defensiveness was confirmed by what happened to his neighborhood. For when the West End was declared a slum and razed, a whole social system was destroyed and scattered to the winds—a community which had been “by and large, a good place to live.” Mr. Gans argues, most persuasively, that the West End was not a slum. The area had little crime, drug addiction, or dereliction, although outsiders and newspapers were convinced that it did. The buildings were old but most of them were in good condition, and the homes were clean and well-kept. And the West End, by providing a stabilized community for newcomers from different parts of the world and for people with low incomes, fulfilled “an important but unrecognized function in the city.” Indeed, as the author points out, the very criteria for determining a “slum” that are to be found in federal law, often express superfluous and quite inappropriate middle-class notions.

No one involved in the redevelopment program seems to have given much thought to its human cost; decisions were based on the developer’s anticipations of profit rather than on what the tenant might need. Nor did the belated shock, anger, and dismay of the West-Enders do much to alter the situation. (Ironically, there is some question as to whether the redeveloper’s shortsighted anticipations will ever materialize. No one as yet knows whether there will be enough tenants for 2400 luxury units, whether commercial interests will gain or lose business, or whether the city actually will enjoy increased tax revenues.)

Both laymen and social scientists engaged in pinpointing peculiar ethnic qualities of one minority group or another, would do well to give serious attention to Mr. Gans’s assertion that most of what is considered “ethnic” can better be ascribed to “class.” He supports this view with studies of various other working-class groups, which demonstrate how many of the West-End Italian’s life patterns can be found in working-class sub-cultures that cut across ethnic lines. On the other hand, I think, Mr. Gans pushes the discussion of his point much too far into “either-or” terms, i.e., peer-group society is either an ethnic or a class phenomenon. The West-Ender’s feelings of distrust, inferiority, and defensive pride may be as much attributable to his being an Italian, a member of a lower status nationality group, as to his being a member of the lower economic class. Minority group sensibilities and working-class resentments need not be mutually exclusive; rather they are tensions that reinforce each other.

One can also question some of Mr. Gans’s more speculative observations, especially those in the realm of social psychology. For instance, the suggestion that the West-Ender is particularly lacking in a self-image to which he might relate, or that this deficiency explains his fear of being alone, “for confrontations of the self are perplexing in the absence of a self-image,” is supported by evidence which is, at best, highly inferential. And certain ambiguities—as when Mr. Gans tells us that West-Enders are not “troubled by fears about the breakdown of self-control” and then, later on, observes that they are “preoccupied with self-control”—could have been avoided by more carefully qualified definitions. However, given the intractable nature of his subject matter—a whole community of people impelled by a wide variety of psychological, cultural, and social forces—it is to the author’s very great credit that such weaknesses are few.



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