Lawrence on the mat

Under its first Latino mayor, the Merrimack Valley city is struggling to get back on its feet. Between a bad economy, political infighting, and a long history of civic malaise it won't be easy.

lawrence, with an anemic tax base and the state’s highest poverty rate, is no stranger to the usual litany of urban woes facing struggling cities. But Lawrence’s problems suddenly became the state’s problems last year when city found itself teetering on the fiscal brink. With Lawrence sinking under the weight of a $24.5 million budget deficit, Beacon Hill leaders quickly crafted a rescue package that included up to $35 million in loans to keep the city afloat. See more photos from Lawrence here.Last year’s budget crisis wasn’t the first time Lawrence landed on the radar of state leaders. For years, the city government barely did its job. A state oversight board parachuted in to clean up the books in the 1990s, managing to keep order for about eight years. After the board disbanded, state officials loosened the reins, and Lawrence city officials slipped back into their old bad habits. Departments overspent their appropriations. Top directors came and went. And poorly trained municipal employees struggled to keep City Hall running.

Municipal mismanagement is hardly the only thing Lawrence must contend with. The city is hamstrung by low-performing public schools, high unemployment and poverty, and a transient population, heavy with immigrants who often lack the education skills needed to make it in today’s knowledge-based economy. State aid accounts for more than 66 percent of the city’s revenues, making it more dependent on Beacon Hill than any community in the state.

Once a magnet for European immigrants looking for work in the city’s mills, Lawrence today draws immigrants from Latin Ameri­ca and the Carib­bean, with smaller numbers from South­east Asia. About 70 percent of the city’s 76,000 residents are Latino. In 2009, those numbers propelled William Lan­tigua, a former state representative, into City Hall as the first elected Latino mayor in Massachu­setts.

The Dominican-born Lantigua wears his commitment to “the great city of Law­rence” (a phrase he uses often) on his sleeve. He combines a back-to-basics outlook for the city with a well-known willingness to butt heads. And butting heads is one thing everyone agrees Lawrence’s political leaders have a history of doing well. Lantigua’s devotion to the city is obvious; his economic development plans for it less so. Whether Lawrence’s heavy hitters can drop the gloves long enough to agree on a direction to confront its problems is a big question mark.

Finding common ground has never been easy in a city seen as a temporary stopover on the way to a better someplace else. But if Lawrence is ever to snap out of its persistent funk, the Immigrant City will have to come up with a workable vision for the future.

Smoke-stacked deck

Lawrence wasn’t established as a high-minded haven for people seeking religious or political freedoms. It was set up to make money. In 1845, a group of Boston businessmen, the venture capitalists of the 19th century, marked this spot along the Merrimack River as the place to build their textile mills.

The tiny homestead of 100 or so people ballooned to a city of nearly 10,000 in three years. The Irish, French Canadians, Italians, and others came to work in the mills and live in densely-built boarding houses and tenements. Disputes over hours and wages led to the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike, the seminal event in the city’s history, and a major milestone in the American labor union movement.

The wealthy men who made their fortunes in Lawrence did not invest in the city by founding museums or universities, or even by building mansions in exclusive pre­cincts like the elites did in Boston’s Back Bay or even in nearby Lowell’s Belvidere neighborhood. Immigrants un­wittingly followed this pattern. Since Lawrence, a city of about seven square miles, did not have many areas with the spacious homes and yards that newly successful workers wanted, those that made it moved to Andover, North Andover, Methuen, or elsewhere.

The absentee titans of industry, combined with a mobile middle class, has meant there is no glue to hold the civic infrastructure together. A city like Springfield, by contrast, despite its own set of fiscal woes, retained long-time civic players like MassMutual, the financial services company, and firearms maker Smith & Wesson, and is still viewed as the economic engine of the Pioneer Valley. Lawrence plays no such role in the Merrimack Valley.

Fresh off of working with city leaders in Lowell, Bill Traynor, a Lawrence native and the former executive director of Lawrence CommunityWorks, a nonprofit community development organization, went looking for the people “in charge” when he moved back to Lawrence in the late 1990s. The bankers told the community organizer that they had not been involved for years. City officials were just happy for whatever help Traynor could offer.

Residents were also disengaged. “The white folks, their perspective was they had lost their city,” Traynor says. “The Latinos were really busy trying to make life work.” The upshot? “Who is thinking about the future, the best positive vision for Lawrence in a global economy?” he says. “There wasn’t anybody thinking about that.”

Latino rising

That job now falls to William Lantigua.  Known around town as “Willy,” the mayor enters the anteroom of his City Hall office one February morning, greeting everyone with a firm “¡Saludos!” In a nod to the warm winter day, the trim, bald 56-year-old sports a light tan suit with a spring green shirt and diamond-patterned tie.

Born in the Dominican Republic, Lantigua came to the US in 1974 as a young man. A former community activist who worked on Latino voting rights and political empowerment, Lantigua ousted incumbent Democratic incumbent state Rep. Jose Santiago in 2002. (Lantigua had once been Santiago’s campaign manager.) Lantigua ran as an independent in order to challenge Santiago in the higher-turnout November election, but later switched his affiliation to Democrat. He landed a seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, and used the perch well. Lantigua brought home tens of thousands of dollars for local projects and organizations, according to his former Beacon Hill colleague, Rep. David Torrisi, a North Andover Demo­crat who also represents about one-third of Lawrence.

Latingua’s election as mayor two years ago represents a coming-of-age for Dominican political power in Law­rence. Despite their numbers, Latinos in general existed on the periphery of the city’s power structure. Domin­i­cans, in particular, tended to be more involved in politics back in the Dominican Republic than they were in Law­rence. Dominicans had to gain US citizenship to vote, unlike Puerto Ricans, the city’s other major Latino group, who were already citizens.

Prior to Lantigua’s victory over opponent David Abdoo in the 2009 mayoral race, Latinos could not unify around a single candidate. In the previous mayoral election, Lantigua himself threw his support to the mayor, Michael Sullivan, rather than Sullivan’s Latino opponent, Marcos Devers.

Lantigua’s immigrant roots notwithstanding, he is an “old-school” Ameri­can politician who knows that politics is “retail, everything is local,” says City Councilor Dan Rivera. “He has been able to mobilize people when he needs to,” Rivera says. “People think that’s more Dominican than not, but I think that’s community organizing in the United States more than anything else.”

As canny as Lantigua is, he is also his own worst enemy. Before last year’s debate in the Legislature on the $35 million financial rescue plan for Lawrence, Lantigua, who had only weeks earlier been sworn in as mayor, stunned Beacon Hill by announcing that he intended to keep his new job and his House seat. His colleagues howled. Gov. Deval Patrick asked him to choose one or the other. At an unusual joint hearing of the House and Senate Ways and Means Com­mittees convened to examine the Lawrence crisis, he failed to show up to testify (as mayor) or to hear other testimony (as a member of the committee). Lantigua defied his colleagues until they presented an offer he couldn’t refuse: Give up one of the seats or Lawrence would not get the money. Lantigua relented and resigned from the Legis­la­ture. (Devers now holds the 16th Essex House of Repre­senta­tives seat once held by Lantigua, and the two have had a long-standing, tumultuous relationship.)

“I am more of a community activist than a politician,” Lantigua told the Eagle-Tribune, the regional newspaper, last year after the debacle. Lantigua continues to make Eagle-Tribune headlines in unorthodox ways more in keeping with his community activist past than his mayoral present. The mayor led a large group of supporters waving signs into a City Council meeting to protest accusations that Lantigua was handing out city jobs to political supporters. The City Council, in response, is now considering a ban on signs and placards at its meetings.

Going into the second year of his four-year term, Lan­tigua gets mixed reviews. Some praised this winter’s snow clean-up in recent interviews about the mayor’s first year with Siglo 21, a Spanish-language paper; others faulted his handling of crime and the schools. But Torrisi says he remains popular and would be reelected if the election were held today.   

Making Lawrence work

Whether winning another term at the helm of Lawrence city government is more of a curse or a blessing is another matter. A responsive, well-run city government is a prerequisite for any credible vision for economic revitalization in the city. And Lawrence has been so badly mismanaged for so long that city officials have to prove that they can set a “baseline of competence,” as Traynor calls it.  

As far as Lantigua is concerned, that means you first have to talk trash—and snow plowing. Lantigua garnered some good press this winter by catching a contractor illegally dumping snow into the Merrimack, a new twist in Lawrence’s ongoing crusade against illegal dumping. Dealing with municipal nuts-and-bolts like trash and snow plays to Lantigua’s strengths. According to Lantigua, economic development has many tiers, but how the city looks is at the foundation.

The mayor believes dirty streets breed unease, a version of the “broken windows” theory that neighborhood blight increases crime. “If you feel insecure, you are not going to invest your money, you are not going to relocate your workforce, you are not going to open a plant and recruit people,” says Lantigua. He doesn’t hesitate to point fingers, either. “If we are 70 percent Latino, 70 percent of the trash out there is our trash,” he says, “so I have asked the community to come out as whole and help out.”

As important as it may be to get the streets clean, cleaning up operations in city government is what’s needed to give Lawrence a boost that will matter over the long term. A 2008 state review of the city’s financial management called for a “change in the culture at city hall and a shift from a loose work environment to one where clarity of purpose and accountability exists.”

Under state guidance, the mayor produced a balanced budget this year for the first time in recent memory. A review of progress reports submitted to the Executive Office of Administration and Finance and the chairmen of the House and Senate Ways and Means Committees over the past year shows that Law­rence moved to collect back payments for overdue water and sewer bills, levy local options taxes on meals and rooms, create a parking meter plan (the city has never had metered parking), and control other municipal expenditures.

Of the $35 million the state authorized Lawrence to borrow to date, the city has borrowed $24 million to close the books on fiscal years 2008 through 2010 and used another $3.3 million to balance the 2011 budget. How­ever, under the legislation that allows Lawrence to borrow funds, the city cannot borrow to balance the 2012 budget.

If the outlook for most cities and towns in Massa­chusetts is tough, the prospects for a city with a very weak tax base are worse. To balance Lawrence’s fiscal 2012 budget, the city will have to rely on “a combination of fee in­creases, new revenue initiatives, and budget reductions,” according to the state fiscal overseer, Robert Nunes, a deputy commissioner in the Department of Revenue. Then there is the long road ahead to repay the borrowed funds. Nunes can call for a control board if the city fails to balance its budget, and some degree of state oversight will remain in place regardless as long as the bonds are outstanding, approximately 20 more years.

Lantigua gets good marks for coming to grips with the financial challenges. The “mayor has demonstrated sound budget practices and addressed past irresponsible budgeting practices by prior administrations that helped lead the city to its current crisis,” Nunes wrote in a June report.  

When it comes to basic city services, businesses are particularly concerned about fire protection, especially in a city that became synonymous with arson in the 1990s. The layoff of 23 firefighters last July did little to calm those fears. As if to dramatize what was at stake, the city saw a rash of fires last summer that required neighboring fire departments to help out. US Sen. John Kerry and US Rep. Niki Tsongas secured a two-year $6.6 million Homeland Security grant that addressed the problem, at least temporarily, allowing the city to rehire or recruit 38 firefighters; whether the grant program survives the current Washington budget climate is difficult to know.

A city chasing a mix of federal, state, and private dollars to keep afloat requires professional management. Beginning in 2000, however, Lawrence went through five finance directors and four comptrollers in seven years. As of mid March, the city had vacancies for a treasurer/tax collector and another budget and finance director.

Lantigua is limited in his ability to bring wholesale change to city government by the city charter, which gives the City Council a role in all top-level hiring and firing decisions. Although some key City Hall employees were let go when he took office, Lantigua says he did not have the “luxury of saying, ‘everybody’s out.’”

Some people think a change in the city charter is needed, not to strengthen the mayor’s hand, but to put a city manager in the role of the top administrator. “Politicians get elected based on many things, but not on their ability to run the human resources, contracting, budgeting, and general management of a multi-million dollar organization,” says former senator Susan Tucker, a North Andover Democrat whose district included Lawrence. “I came to the conclusion that Lawrence needed a professional city manager many years before Mayor Lantigua was elected, so this is not a commentary on his administration.”

Lawrence city government will remain weak unless the city makes reforms starting with the city charter so that new hires can be held accountable, according to Ramón Borges-Mendéz, a Clark University professor of community development and planning who has studied the city for nearly 30 years. “You can switch the administration from a white Anglo administration, dominated by Italians, Irish, and French Canadians, and put in the Latinos. Nothing much is going to happen,” he says.

Getting down to business

In spite of the downturn, there is a modest amount of development underway. To bring jobs to the city, Lantigua has personally recruited new businesses like J.S.B. Indust­ries, a baked goods producer, to open facilities or encouraged others to stay. Last year, Northern Essex Community College opened a new campus facility in the Riverwalk complex, owned and operated by local commercial real estate developer Sal Lupoli, and the school plans to open a $27 million allied health and technology center in a vacant mall downtown.

The $75 million Union Crossing project, a partnership of Lawrence CommunityWorks and a private development team, aims to create a new working family-oriented neighborhood in the mill district. The first phase of construction is scheduled for completion later this year. Law­rence is also sprucing up parks and recreational facilities through state-funded Gateway City initiatives like a parks program that funneled $2.6 million to the city for riverfront pathways.

Long ignored by city officials, the outlook for small businesses like the bodegas and beauty salons, whose owners constitute part of a tiny and slowly growing Latino middle class, is less clear. City officials would like to revive a dormant small business loan program. A small business center that aides local entrepreneurs would go a long way to integrating those businesses into the city’s economy, according to Nelson Butten, of Lawrence Community­Works.

“Bill Gates is not going to come in and say, ‘We are going to put a Microsoft here,’” says Borges-Mendéz, the Clark University professor. He argues that cities like Lawrence, Holyoke, and New Bedford require multiple strategies, such as small business training, new job creation incentives, and more effective state workforce development programs that go beyond getting workers any old type of job.

Lantigua and his chief economic development director, Patrick Blanchette, are vague on how all these pieces sync up. Bringing together key players in the business com­munity to talk about future challenges is “something we’ve been thinking about,” says Lantigua. But he shows little interest in a more sweeping approach that would try to get Lawrence’s business leaders all on the same page. “I believe that the one-on-one approach, going [to the business] and sitting down, and having that face-to-face conversation is much more productive than an open forum,” he says.

Feud fights 

Ask about politics in Lawrence and words like “contentious” and “vicious” tumble out. That’s not surprising in a community where immigrants have always competed for limited resources. “Many of us come from places where you could not express your opinions about the political process,” says Lantigua. “We raise our voices a little bit higher because at one time we were not allowed to do that.” The political climate is bitter even by the Bay State’s rough and tumble standards. Rivera says Lawrence’s “cantankerous political situation” is one of the reasons why city leaders have a difficult time recruiting and retaining professional government officials.

Nearly a year and a half after Lantigua’s election, tensions linger between some Latinos and some white residents who are not fully accepting of the new political order. Majorities of voters in the two south Lawrence districts where many white voters live went for Lantigua’s white opponent. “Lantigua needs to bridge some divides with some of the Anglo community,” says Torrisi, the local state rep. “This is the first Latino mayor and some people are having a tough time with that.” 

Lantigua is “personable, but he’s a proud guy, sometimes too proud,” says Rivera. “Like every first-generation ethnic leader, he’s very sensitive to what people do and say about the community he comes from.”

City Councilor Marc Laplante, a frequent Lantigua adversary, says Lawrence is held back by the political in­fighting that goes on. “We need to get past the petty politics that divides our city and really find out what it is that brings us together,” says Laplante. “If we can’t even accomplish that…how do we expect to accomplish anything else?”

If conflicts between the administration and city councilors are par for the course in many cities, a mayor taking on his city’s own police force is not. But that was the focus of one of Lantigua’s most recent dust-ups.

Lawrence ranks among the top 10 cities in the state for violent crime. Its image as a dangerous urban wasteland, though, is a misconception, say some residents. “It’s not like criminals are just walking among us, just destroying the city,” says Ana Luna, ex­ecutive director of Arlington Neigh­bor­hood Trabajando, a nonprofit community development group.  

However, the city has been forced to lay off more than 50 police officers since 2009 and eliminate the auto theft and fraud unit that went a long way toward curbing those crimes. On the heels of those cuts, coupled with the economic recession, it may not be altogether surprising that from last July to January felonies like auto theft or aggravated assault were up sharply compared to same period in 2009. But to Lantigua, the big jump in crime was due to lax policing. In March, he went on Spanish-language television to blast the police force over the increase in auto thefts. “A lot” of officers, he said, “intimidate the city and don’t do their jobs.” Police Chief John Romero quickly took exception, telling the Eagle-Tribune that the mayor’s comments were “incorrect and inaccurate.”

Lantigua’s feuding extends into the media world, where he is barely speaking to reporters from the Eagle-Tribune. “One of the big issues here is that our mayor has been at war with the paper from before the beginning of time,” says Traynor, the Lawrence CommunityWorks founder. “It’s a real tragedy.”

Lantigua admits he does not “speak to the paper much,” citing issues that many politicians complain about: inaccurate quotes, insufficient background details on policy stories, and unfair reporting. “We know that the people we represent could care less about what’s printed now,” he says.

At least what’s printed in the establishment English-language press. Ethnic media in Lawrence now carry a lot of clout. “The reality the mainstream media needs to face is they don’t influence this mayor,” says Torrisi. “What influences this mayor is the local Latino media, the radio, and some of the local Latino newspapers.”

Torrisi argues that some of the criticism of Lantigua “is not based in reality,” but he adds that the mayor “doesn’t do himself any favors, either, when he doesn’t talk to the Eagle-Tribune.”

Meanwhile, relations between the city and the business community it desperately needs to woo are similarly in need of a jump-start. The commercial developers and others have long gone their own ways without waiting for signals of interest from city leaders.

Lawrence was originally designed to extract labor out of its inhabitants without doing much more than giving them a roof over their heads. That legacy seems to still be in the air, and it exasperates potential coalition-builders. “I’d like to go to the table of the people that run the city of Lawrence and become a partner and work with them,” says David Hartleb, the Northern Essex Community College president, who is stepping down in June. “But there’s no table. It never has existed. People attack each other over issues rather than sit down to discuss them and rather than reason about them.”

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

There’s a desperate urgency to fill the city’s leadership void. What Law­rence needs most is a convener, someone or some group with the standing or the clout to get the major players to the table for a series of adult conversations on the many challenges facing the city.

Rebranding Lawrence hinges not only on clean streets and balanced budgets, but also on improving public safety, its public schools, and promoting cultural assets, including its significant labor history. For Lawrence to thrive, the city will have to knit a coherent economic vision to a stronger civic fabric. Plenty of people don’t care much about what happens in Lawrence, but Hartleb insists that they should. “Merrimack Valley is going to rise or fall on Lawrence, because it’s the poorest and most challenged city,” he says. “It’s going to drag us all down if we don’t work together to bring it up.”