Lawrence: A River Runs Through It

By Phillip Martin

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Nov. 16, 2011




LAWRENCE — Nick Laboy leads a tour of a former textile factory that is soon to become home to dozens of families in this hardscrabble town. “It’s 20 per floor. 60 families will move in,” he said.

A pastel mosaic frames the elevator. He goes up to the model unit, which is set up with furniture.
 
Laboy is the proud building supervisor for this new low-cost rental apartment development called Union Crossing that sits on the banks of the Merrimack River. A father of two, Laboy came to Lawrence from Puerto Rico in the 1980s. He glanced out the window toward the rushing river below.
 
“I remember the ‘80s here. It wasn’t fun. A lot of violence,” he said. “A lot of boarded-up homes, burned-down houses. You know, besides from ourselves, there’s a lot of other organizations that made it a point to get in Lawrence and clean it up. But Lawrence is a different place now.”

 

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Some see the river that flows through the city as the perfect metaphor for some of the changes that are taking place here.
 
Heather McMann has spent most of her life on the Merrimack. She heads up Groundwork Lawrence, a nonprofit that works with Lawrence residents to grow community gardens and to clean up parks, vacant lots and waterways that were once literal dumping grounds for industrial waste.
 
“We’ve got mills that are being redeveloped. Vacant lots that are community gardens. Bridges that have amazing lights. We have people that are walking their dogs, there’s fishing here. There’s fox. There’s heron,” said McMann. “But I want it to be beautiful so that that is not incidental… I want to be able to see the flowers and the trees and I want this to be something that I enjoy as opposed to something I think needs to be improved.”
 
And that takes hard work, said McMann’s co-worker Rosa Pena. Pena is from Venezuela. She recently led dozens of neighborhood volunteers to a vacant lot in east Lawrence.
 
They found “a lot of tires. We had a lot of trash. Glass. We had an area that was full of dirty diapers. Somebody just used it as a dump place,” she said. Sometimes what they found was even more dangerous: “When we find firearms, we call the police non-emergency number. They will come pick it up.”

Pena arrived in Lawrence in 1987. Now she is finally starting to see her American Dream come true: the cleanup and transformation of this old mill town and nature’s reclamation of the Merrimack.
 
We see sometimes ducklings going around, and it is beautiful just to sit down and look at them,” she said.

Groundwork Lawrence envisions the Spicket River Greenway as a three-mile "Emerald Bracelet" of walking paths connecting parks and open space through multiple neighborhoods.

The Merrimack River is what brought tens of thousands of immigrants from Italy, Germany, Poland and Lithuania to this city. The fast-flowing waterway provided power to dozens of job-rich textile mills that were constructed in the 19th and 20th centuries on the riverbanks.
 
In the 1960s, Lawrence experienced immigrant waves from the Dominican Republic and citizens from Puerto Rico. Today, Hispanics comprise more than 74 percent of Lawrence’s nearly 76,000 residents. More than one-third live below the official poverty line, and the median income is a little more than $29,000 per year. See more data about Lawrence.
 
But hardships have not prevented people from imagining a better life.

“I just submit my paper to become a citizen. So I am in that process. So right now that’s my American dream,” said Arleen Zorilla from the Dominican Republic.

She is an employee of Lawrence Community Works. If it takes a village to get things done, the hub of that village is here. Every day 200 to 300 people pass through these doors seeking help on immigration status, financial literacy, housing and a host of other issues that might move them closer to achieving their dreams.
 
Juan Bonilla used to volunteer here. The Bowdoin College graduate now leads a small-dollar loan campaign to counter local loan sharks and confidence men.

"We try to listen to the residents and what they do and what they need." — Juan Bonilla

“This is our attempt to spread the gospel of good financial management to the community,” said Bonilla. “One of the issues we’re finding is that a lot of families — out of not trusting the banks, out of the lack of convenience — will find check-cashing places and so forth and they end up paying significant fees for those services. Well, the small-dollar loan program is meant to issue short-term loans that will take care of those immediate needs but at a reasonable cost and reasonable interest rate. It’s all about working together.”

When Susan Acepalo moved back, she realized Lawrence wasn't so bad after all.

Immigrant Susan Acepalo from Peru agreed.
 
“The first time I came here, I was quite afraid and the people that I knew give me bad idea of the city,” she said. “And I moved away, and when I came back and I looked around and I realize that it’s not that bad. There are things that we could improve, of course, but at the same time I came to realize that getting involved with the neighborhood helps you. You get to know people, and they are real people too.”

Acepalo’s family was able to purchase a home in Lawrence right before the recession, and to hold on to it with the help of her community. Home ownership remains the centerpiece of the American Dream, said Tamar Kotelchuck, director of policy and neighborhood planning at Lawrence Community Works:
 
“We want it to be true that people who work full-time — more than full-time quite often — are able to afford a decent place to live [and] are able to save money so their kids can go to college, and we support that through helping people buy homes, to helping people save money,” she said. “Fundamentally, it’s about helping working poor people make a way for themselves. “

 

Tamar Kotelchuck talks about her organization's goals.

And, if you can’t own, you rent. It’s moving day for Carolina Hidalgo, a professional hairdresser and mother or two. She’s the proud occupant of one of the new three-bedroom apartments at Union Crossing — a dream made possible with help from Lawrence Community Works.
 
“This is the first time I see a place like this that’s affordable, and it’s heat-included,” she said excitedly. “And they have the original floors in some of the rooms, and I love it!”
 
Folks here are quick to point out that what we call the American Dream is affirmed by communityas much as the result of any individual effort: from expertise in purchasing or renting a home to neighborhood cleanups of empty lots and the rivers and canal that flow through this city.
 
The high ceiling windows of Hidalgo’s new modern three-bedroom apartment provide a view of the Merrimack that she had never seen in her 17 years in Lawrence.
 
“When I look out that window and I see those buildings and the river, it looks like I’m in a different place,” she said.
 
For her, and perhaps for all the residents of Lawrence, this could be considered a picture of progress.
 

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