Lawrence no longer a ‘city of the damned’

Last 10 years have seen tremendous progress

TEN YEARS AGO,  the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston released “Lessons from Resurgent Cities,” in which they set out to discover the “secret sauce” that enabled some mid-sized industrial cities in New England to bounce back and thrive while others shriveled and died.

In their report, the Fed found a few expected ingredients—higher levels of education among residents, hospitals and universities as “anchor institutions,” transportation hubs such as shipping ports or train stations—and one crucial element that turned out to be most important of all: civic leadership and collaboration.

As the Boston Fed’s president and CEO, Eric Rosengren, explained to a business roundtable in 2012, “Resurgent cities have developed a vision for progress that has the shared support of the entire community and a variety of leaders.”

In other words, when it comes to leading positive change for struggling cities, there is no “i” in “team.”

It’s a lesson that leaders in the city of Lawrence, once one of the Commonwealth’s most troubled Gateway Cities, and now one of its most improved, have taken to heart.

Just after the Fed released its report, back in February 2011, a tabloid-style sensationalist headline in Boston magazine famously labeled Lawrence the “City of the Damned” for the financial, social, and political challenges it faced.

Rather than cowering in a corner and licking its wounds, though, the city, led by dozens of elected officials, business, and community leaders, stepped up to take on the formidable task of turning Lawrence into one of those “resurgent cities” the Fed was discovering.

And what tremendous progress our city has made in 10 years.

Today, in 2021, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, and other national publications are holding Lawrence up as a model of civic engagement, educational reform, transportation innovation, and more.

Here are just a few of the ways the city of Lawrence is remarkably different today than it was a decade ago:

City finances: In 2010, Lawrence was facing a $27 million operating deficit. The state had to step in with special legislation authorizing the city to float $35 million in bonds, and appointing a fiscal overseer to put the budget back in order.

By October 2019, after a decade of state control, Lawrence was consistently producing on-time budgets and annual surpluses; earned three credit rating increases; and had built its cash reserves to nearly $19 million—a cushion that has enabled the city to invest more in much-needed services for its residents.

The state-appointed overseer is gone, and Lawrence is once again in charge of its own finances. 

Economic development: Between 2011 and mid-March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of the state, median family income in Lawrence, while still lagging behind, had climbed from 63 percent to 71 percent of the national average, according to the US Census Bureau’s American Communities Survey.

At the same time, long-vacant mill buildings were rapidly filling with commercial and residential developments; home values had taken off, nearly doubling just between 2012-18; and the unemployment rate, typically twice or more the rest of the state, had fallen to barely 4 percent.

Oh, and the very first Starbucks in Lawrence opened its doors on Route 114 at the site of the former Showcase Cinema in March of 2019.

Education: The Lawrence Public Schools, which were performing so poorly in 2011 that they were the first district in Massachusetts history to be placed in state receivership, have become a national model for turning around struggling urban school districts.

Student MCAS scores have soared, the dropout rate has been cut in half, and the graduation rate has improved by nearly 20 percent. The district is emerging from receivership and moving back toward local control, led by Cynthia Paris, the first Latina superintendent in the city’s history.

In higher education, Northern Essex Community College committed to developing a comprehensive downtown campus in Lawrence, taking down the dilapidated In Town Mall and Registry of Deeds buildings, opening a new $27 million Health and Technology Center, renovating and rededicating the Dimitry Building, and partnering with Regis College and Cambridge College to expand options for four-year degrees in the city. Enrollment at NECC recently climbed close to 3,000 students, with hundreds more now attending bachelor’s degree completion programs with the college’s “Communiversity” partners.

Transportation: In the Commonwealth, especially outside of Boston, getting from place to place without an automobile can be one of the biggest barriers to education, employment, health care, and daily living for low-income residents of Gateway Cities like Lawrence.

So last year, Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, who recently left office to become the next president and CEO of MassDevelopment, tapped into a modest amount of funding in the city’s cash reserves and created a citywide “Fare-Free Transit Bus Program.”

The normal cost of a Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority bus pass is only $30 a month, which may not seem like a lot, but a survey of bus riders who ended up using the free service showed that nearly 90 percent earned less than $20,000 a year.

As the Christian Science Monitor reported last March, Rivera’s move was already being imitated by Kansas City, Missouri, and Olympia, Washington, with other cities eyeing similar ways to aid residents, while reducing traffic congestion and pollution at the same time. 

Public safety: During the worst days of Lawrence’s budget crisis, back in 2011, the police department was forced to lay off 41 officers, reducing the total number in the city to 115. The consequences were immediate and severe. Major crimes like murder, aggravated assault, and robberies surged by nearly 50 percent.

After several years in a row of restoring positions, there are now 151 sworn officers on the force. Just as importantly, the Lawrence Police Department has tripled the number of female officers and significantly diversified its ranks: more than half of the city’s officers are now people of color, and the department recently appointed the first Latino captain and the first Latina detective.

The impact on crime has been equally significant: Overall crime is at a 20-year low, and has been reduced by 46 percent just in the last two years.

The Lawrence Police Department has an active leadership role in the Merrimack Valley Police Academy at Northern Essex Community College, and soon the city’s outdated and deteriorating police station will be replaced by a modern building through a jointly funded project with the state.

Civic leadership and collaboration: One of the most visible signs of collaborative civic leadership has been the Lawrence Partnership, a group of several dozen business and community leaders—bank presidents, mill owners, education and health care CEOs, non-profit executive directors, and more—that formed in 2014 in order to “stimulate economic development and improve the quality of life” in Lawrence.

In the years since, working closely with local and state elected officials, the Partnership has launched a $2.5 million venture loan fund for small businesses, attracted new financial institutions to the city, opened the Revolving Test Kitchen for aspiring restaurant entrepreneurs, worked closely with the Essex County Community Foundation to manage millions of dollars in funds for the Columbia Gas explosion recovery effort, launched the Lawrence LEADS Program with the Harvard Business School, and much, much more.

This month, the Partnership’s board of directors, which is filled with that “variety of leaders” the Fed considers so important for resurgent cities, will transition from its outgoing chairperson, Everett Mill owner and longtime Lawrence champion Marianne Paley Nadel, to greet its newest and first Latino chair and vice chair — Lawrence attorneys Wendy Estrella and Socrates De La Cruz.

The work of the Partnership, and all of this magnificent progress the city has made, caught the attention of the New York Times, which last March published “One City’s Road to Recovery Offers Lessons, Hope,” and noted that, “Incomplete and tentative, Lawrence’s progress suggests that concerted efforts to reinvigorate depressed local economies — long considered a waste of time by most economists — might offer some promise.”

Indeed.

Without doubt, the immigrant-rich city we all love so much still has its challenges. Only about 11 percent of adults here have a college degree (compared with about half of Massachusetts residents). Partly as a result of that education gap, the unemployment rate remains stubbornly higher than surrounding communities, and many residents leave the city each day for lower skilled, lower paying jobs, while others commute into Lawrence for solidly middle-class wages.

There is work still ahead. But the wind is in our sails and we are moving resolutely in the right direction, with a long and growing roster of outstanding leaders devoted to this magnificent Immigrant City and its historic journey.

Dr. Lane A. Glenn is the president of Northern Essex Community College, the founding board chair of the Lawrence Partnership, and a member of the MassINC board of directors.