An historical perspective on Lawrence

I have some experience with Lawrence. In the early 90’s, I helped create and run the annual Bread and Roses Festival, which celebrates Lawrence’s labor history. A few years ago, I taught in Lawrence for a year.

Several points.

Lawrence is an immigrant and mill city with a tough history. Historically, its low-wage mill jobs attracted the poor and the non-English-speaking. Those jobs have been mostly gone for a long time (the explosion at Aaron Fuerstein’s polartec mill several years ago was only the latest blow). During the 90’s, a major influx of Hispanics changed the ethnic composition of the city, replacing much of an older, white, European ethnic (Irish, French-Canadian), Catholic population, a process that at times resulted in ethnic riots. Lawrence is now overwhelmingly (80-90%) Hispanic. As always, most people have been poor, and more recently, its limited middle-class population has shrunk.

There is a lack of human capital and good education. Over the last 10 or 20 years, the graduation rate at Lawrence High been only 40%, one of the lowest in the state, and the dropout rate has been high. Several years ago, the state of Mass. paid most of the cost for Lawrence’s new, $100 million high school, which replaced its century-old, decrepit building. There has been marginal improvement in its graduation rate; it has a long way to go. Other communities across the state, also desperate for new school buildings and other forms of state aid, can legitimately argue that Lawrence has already received more than its fair share.

Re the proposal to provide Lawrence with $20M: Lawrence is facing exactly the same structural problems every town in Mass. faces, in particular, high labor, health insurance and pension costs that continue to increase at rates faster than their population’s income growth. In addition, it has a much more difficult past history, and a more significant corruption problem. Several months ago, its school superintendent, who himself has made headlines over the years, was placed on leave, following accusations that he allowed the school system’s printing facilities to be used to print signs for a city council candidate that he favored.

Lawrence’s problems have a long history and are not, repeat not, amenable to quick solutions. The election of Lantigua, a Hispanic, as mayor is the start of a generational change, as the newest immigrant group starts to gain political power. Although the resignation of Mayor Lantigua from his legislative position is a necessary condition for any state help, it is not sufficient. I don’t think even Lantigua can solve the city’s problems.  I think that the draconian cuts that an outside control board would make will not solve Lawrence’s problems, any more than they did in Springfield. I have trouble imagining Lawrence repaying *any* significant sum of money.

I think the perspective of someone who was involved in the state takeover of Springfield, another poor, urban, city, would help identify what to do. I think the prognosis for Lawrence is poor. However, to provide money because the alternative, for Lawrence to go into default, is unthinkable, is like bailing out banks because they’re too big to fail.
A cash infusion *can* prevent Lawrence’s bankruptcy or default. However, it is insufficient to otherwise “save” the city.

One reply on “An historical perspective on Lawrence”

  1. Thanks, Aram. Useful history.

    Just two thoughts:

    • Key to emphasize: Our bill neither gives nor loans Lawrence any new money.
    • And see my second post regarding the financial condition — Lawrence really should be able to operate on the money it has; it’s the last 8 years of mismanagement that have put it in the hole, not poverty per se.

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