Outsider presents the inside story at Villa Victoria
’Somos Villa Victoria’ showcases the Villa’s activist history
In conducting research on the history of an area, one might read all the books available at the library or tirelessly search databases for past newspaper clippings in attempt to tighten his or her grasp on that topic. Yet, this outside point of view will likely circumvent the layered core that truly tells the story because the long-running biography of a single community could be told from many, varying personal perspectives.
Anne Weber, a photographer and documentarian from a small town in Illinois chronicling the past, present, and future of the South End’s Villa Victoria neighborhood, sees the need to dig deeper as she has immersed herself in the community, developing a rapport with its incumbents through personal interviews. Though she is far from finished, this past Thursday, April 29, an exhibition of her work called "Somos Villa Victoria: PORTRAITS FROM PARCEL 19" was shown in La Galería at Villa Victoria Center for the Arts, serving as a preview of what’s to come.
"It was a great time. A lot of people from the neighborhood came to look at the pictures, but there was also live music and some people even started dancing," said Barbara Collins, one of the many people portrayed in Weber’s documentary, who manages a computer center for Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción (IBA).
After completing her undergraduate work in Studio Art at Yale University, Weber spent the next six years in numerous fellowships and residencies, reaching as far away as Japan. Most recently she landed in Boston after an acceptance into the Lewis Hine Fellowship, an exclusive program of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University that combines the abilities of gifted, activism-motivated documentarians with both nonprofits supporting low-income areas and the resources to use their skills to make a difference.
Weber explained she had some autonomy in the choice of which nonprofit to work with, and IBA’s history jumped off the page.
"I found IBA and was moved by its story, how much they’ve provided for the community, from a bilingual preschool all the way to its elder services," she said.
IBA was created in 1968 as a response to the pervasive gentrification of certain areas in Boston. Forty-two years ago, the forefathers of today’s budding leaders and activists stood face-to-face with the bulldozer that intended to displace them and would not budge. Proving victorious against the machine, IBA, which has expanded to much more today, has been an exemplar in the history of public housing projects in the U.S. with its Villa Victoria neighborhood housing more than 1,100 individuals in 435 units.
"Many of the ideals of the residents and the architects have come through the national model for new urbanism, a combination of affordable housing with supportive education and services programs. That was one of the major goals of the founders that’s still in existence today," said Dave Kay, director of development at IBA.
According to Collins, there has been a need for someone to take initiative on this project.
"I think it’s great and it’s something we’ve always talked about," she said. "You know how people talk about things and never put them into action, for [Weber] to come here and really do it is amazing."
Weber’s finalized project, a collaborative multi-media documentary, will encompass all her research from her 10-month stint in Boston. Aside from the initial information she obtained at Northeastern University’s library, the documentary will be primarily comprised of portrait photos she has taken, accompanied by the personal stories of those portrayed. She plans to explain the story of Villa Victoria through an "oral history" from both people who have lived there for their whole life and those who only recently took up residence.
"I have been a very visible presence, which has made people become supportive and I’m slowly earning the trust of the community," she said, adding, "I ask a lot of questions, people were here when it was dangerous and also when it cleaned up; it’s not just about the happy memories, but all the changes the community has gone through."
Ultimately, the documentary will remain accessible to the community in some form, possibly in a book or website. However, with plans to have the project completed and displayed by the fall of 2011, there are still many people to meet and interviews to conduct.
Weber may be far from where she grew up in the Midwest, but she notes a surprising air of resemblance.
"I’m from a small farm town where everyone knows everyone’s names and what’s going on and essentially Villa Victoria is like that," she said. "I’ve come to see how quickly you can become less of a stranger walking around with a camera to starting to know people."