LAWRENCE, Mass. — First in an occasional series called “Project Lawrence“
The city of Lawrence is essentially a Boston suburb. Just 26 miles north of the big city, it is certainly part of the Greater Boston family.
But it’s also the problem child.
By many measures, Lawrence is the poorest community in the state. It suffers from a long list of woes: high crime, double-digit unemployment and a school system in receivership.
Over the next year, WBUR will explore efforts to turn the city around.
Rivera inherited countless difficulties from his troubled predecessor, William Lantigua, and so, as Rivera begins his term, he’s weighing his priorities, trying to figure out where he should start when there are so many simultaneous problems on his plate.
Threads From The Past
Around the turn of the 20th century, Lawrence was a booming mill town. Jobs were easy to come by.
The old textile factories still dot the landscape, but these days they’re a relic from a bygone era.
For Mayor Rivera, though, the textile mills are still part of the city’s fabric, a reminder of city’s illustrious past.
“When you talk about the future of the city, I really harken [back] to the days when we had the biggest dam in the world, when we had the biggest factories in the world,” he says. “We have to go back to that time when we have had some of the best and biggest in the world.”
He knows what he’s saying might sound foolish to outsiders, given the seedy reputation Lawrence has carried in recent years. “It’s gonna take time,” he says, “but [it’s] aspirational.”
Rivera is an optimist, which he says is essential for his new role.
“This is not a pessimist’s job,” he explains. “If you are a pessimist you do not want to have this job.”
Every day, when Rivera walks into Lawrence City Hall, he passes an emblem on the wall. It’s the city’s official seal. And in the middle is a bee, which Rivera says is the “coolest” detail for him “’cause it’s like a worker bee,” he explains. “Even though it’s clearly a seal that was done a long time ago, today our future really is based — can we get jobs for the number of people we have in our community?”
A To-Do List And Picking Priorities
As of November, the city’s unemployment rate was 13.9 percent, the highest in the state.
Some 77,000 people live in Lawrence. About three-quarters are Latino, mostly Dominican and Puerto Rican.
The mayor himself is the son of a single mother who emigrated from the Dominican Republic. He was raised in housing projects and attended Lawrence public schools. He then served in the U.S. Army, graduated with a MBA, and sat on the City Council.
But the 43-year-old Rivera doesn’t talk much about himself. He’s more focused on what he wants to get done.
In his office, Rivera has a big white board with a running to-do list. At the top of his agenda is English as a second language for adults.
“We’re going to put together a working group with the Department of Workforce Development so we can grow the number of seats in English language classes that we have for adults,” he says. “That’s a big driver for our economic development plan.”
The city’s historic artery is Essex Street. There are convenience stores, restaurants and even a new a cafe/bookshop that caters to a more elite clientele. But there are also empty storefronts with “for sale” signs.
Rivera wants to get rid of those signs.
He’s only been on the job for a few weeks, but he’s already chosen his key priorities — economic development and public safety.
The two are intertwined, he says, and he cannot grow jobs without first making the streets safe, which in and of itself is not an easy task.
The weekend after he was sworn in, the city had seven armed robberies.
For Rivera, that’s unacceptable. And he wants to prove that the city will hold people accountable for crime. He’s working with the police chief to ensure the city is going after those seven robberies in a systemic way.
“So that it’s not just, ‘Oh, just another seven robberies in Lawrence.’ It’s like, ‘There’s seven robberies and we know what’s going on with them, and we’re going to go after them hard.’ ”
Rivera inherited a police department with 118 officers; he wants to grow that number to 155. The force suffered drastic cuts under the previous administration and crime ran rampant.
“You created an environment where people thought it was OK to have lawlessness,” Rivera says. “You know, it’s the broken window syndrome. If you don’t fix the window, people think it’s OK to break all the windows. So you have to create an environment where people feel like really, really, the city cares about public safety.”
And part of that, he says, is boosting morale for police officers. The police station is in a state of disrepair, with ’70s-colored sea-green walls and a heating system with no temperature control.
Rivera says he would love to get the officers a new headquarters, but for now his priority is getting more officers on the streets because without that, he can’t tackle his other big goal.
“I don’t think we can grow jobs unless we do the public safety thing right,” Rivera says. TWEET “But we have to go get jobs anyway, so we’re selling the virtues of Lawrence every day.”
Those virtues, he says, are cheap raw materials and a young, trainable workforce.
‘If We Can Get To Some Of Those Small Gains…’
Rivera is a celebrity in town. On almost every block, the new mayor is stopped and congratulated, even by people who say they didn’t vote for him.
One woman gives him a list of motherly suggestions, in Spanish: “Keep moving forward, son; learn first before you say something … and behave yourself.” After she offers her opinions, she leans over, gives him a kiss on the cheek, and says with a laugh, “I’ll give you a bit of advice: You need a lose a little weight!”
The mayor is indeed a husky man, and he knows that — he even jokes about his weight. But as he stops by a cafe, he orders a not-so-healthy lunch — a steak and cheese torta.
Rivera strikes up a conversation with the young lady taking his order. She mentions that she dropped out of college, even though she had a scholarship.
Rivera is dumbfounded. “You gotta go back,” he tells her point blank. He says he’ll do what he can to help.
Rivera is a man who loves to engage with residents, but balancing individual constituent needs with the big picture is tough, he admits.
“Every time you stop someplace something can get you off task,” he says. “So, that’s been a little bit of a challenge, because we got to make sure we stay on task without people feel[ing] like you’re getting disconnected. But think about if we dealt with every problem that came up every day, but we never got a chance to fix the problem of jobs. So you’d be more engaged, and you’d be talking to so many people about these little problems, but at the end of the day you’ve never moved the needle on something very important like public safety or jobs.”
Even if it takes time to solve those huge problems, Rivera says progress can be measured incrementally.
“If we can get to some of those small gains, changing the culture of, ‘Yeah, we can do something,’ versus, ‘Nah, nothing will ever change in Lawrence;’ if you get some more police on the street, start attacking the crime problem more strategically; and we make small gains on the economic development infrastructure; I think that’ll be a good first 100 days,” he says.
One hundred days is generally the yardstick of progress, but in Lawrence, a city that suffers from so many complex problems, that yardstick might be a little longer, which is why we’ll be following Lawrence over the course of the next year.