Faculty Publications

Cid G. Martinez

The Neighborhood Has Its Own Rules


The area that I utilized for my study not only has the largest concentration of poor in Los
Angeles, it also has the largest number of public housing facilities in the city. The South LA area
has a total of four separate housing projects, two of which are considered among the largest in
Los Angles, and these are less than one mile from one another. Each public housing unit is a
world within a world. I spent many months getting to know people in public housing, initially
from my involvement in the Los Angeles City Neighborhood Councils. I learned from talking to
residents in public housing how neighborhood life is shaped by informal rules that run counter to
those of mainstream society. The comments from an African-American male in his early 20s
from the Downing Housing project illustrate how informal norms operate in daily neighborhood

Cid: What happens in the neighborhood when a person is murdered?
LBM: If there is murder, people will not say anything. Eyes wide shut, you know. In
general, in public housing, a jacket is put on him, paperwork is sent in the
community. What’s supposed to happen, though – a snitch is supposed to get a
deal in an orderly fashion. Meaning, if you are dealing in the world of organized
crime, people hustle – a cat supposed to get killed.

Cid: Who handles the justice in public housing? How do people handle disagreements?
LBM: Usually, throughout the 80s and 90s and to now, random acts of violence,
drive-bys [referring to how people have dealt with problems]. Even if it’s in that
particular community – two individuals got beef, something happened, someone
got killed, it’s handled in-house, yeah. Those who have the means of handling the
situation in their grasp, they handle it.

Cid. It seems like there is street justice and legal justice. One is the law and one is
LBM: Yeah, there are definitely two types of laws. The street law: More of a “just us,”
unstated, and one just knows. Are there two types of law that operate here?
it’s street just us in comparison to the judicial system. You know, it’s just us so
we can do it with just us. No way a police officer is going to be able to relate to
what’s truly going on and have a full spectrum of what’s going on. So we got to
implement it. They do it and conceal it as much as possible.

The comments from the interview illustrate the existence of an alternative form of justice
that operates outside the scope of formal legal law, real and widely understood by residents of
public housing and the wider community of South LA. How is it that both formal and informal
laws emerge in modern, urban America? How do these informal rules shape daily life for both
African Americans and Latinos?

The anecdotes highlighted here sketch out a social world where Latinos and African
Americans increasingly go underground to an alternative world where religious institutions and
street life provide competing forms of social order. These responses are important for examining
how the urban poor respond to violence. Understanding these alternative worlds are key for
answering the central question addressed in this work: how do poor, urban institutions respond to


Cid G. Martínez is an Assistant Professor at the University of San Diego, joining the Department of Sociology in Fall 2013.

Martínez received his BA, MA, and PhD from the University of California at Berkeley.

Martínez's research focuses on criminology, urban politics, religion, immigration, social theory, and interracial relations, with an emphasis on Latinos and African Americans. He is currently conducting a comparative study of northern and southern California that examines the relationship between local police, clergy, and community institutions in addressing youth violence. The study aims to further theoretical understandings of how perceived legitimacy conditions law enforcement's ability to address youth violence. His book manuscript, Managed Violence: Community Institutions and the Peace of the Inner City, is currently under contract with New York University Press. The book focuses on how Latinos and African Americans manage violence in South Los Angeles.

Martínez teaches courses in Criminology, Juvenile Delinquency, Deviance, Social Theory, and Urban Sociology.


"This book confronts head on the issues of violence and social disorganization among the poor. Cid Martinez has provided new insights into the workings of various local institutions in establishing social order. This is an excellent example of ethnography at its best and an important contribution to the field."

—Martín Sánchez-Jankowski, author of Cracks in the Pavement: Social Change and Resilience in Poor Neighborhoods

“In this compelling ethnography, Cid Martinez crosses institutional settings to understand how violence is managed by residents of the inner city. He meticulously describes how informal institutions create a rule of law when the state fails to penetrate the social order. Martinez’s assessment of alternative governance in the inner city is a brilliant work of urban sociology providing a perfect balance between thick description and theory development. This ground-breaking book makes a timely and crucial contribution to the study of urban poverty, policing, violence and race relations.”

—Victor Rios, author of Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys

Contact Information

Melissa Olesen, (619) 260-4659 x4