On Boston Magazine’s take on The City of Lawrence

By: Jamison Tomasek – March, 2012

The entire region was buzzing recently as Boston Magazine published an article titled “Lawrence: City of the Damned.” The online version of the magazine added a response from City Councilor Dan Rivera. The Eagle Tribune followed with an editorial which tried to put some positive spins on Lawrence, but basically said the city was “cheated.” All of this latest interest represents nothing more that a passing glance at Lawrence and no one really wants to say what needs to be said.

Lawrence is on historic and common downward trend. When a nineteenth century city loses its industrial base, it is impossible to replace. Industrial buildings needed height so that the engines could drive pulleys and they needed proximity to housing so people could walk or take public transit to work. The advantages of flat open land with large metal buildings and ample parking are too great, not to mention places with cheaper labor and utility costs. Large cities like Boston once had manufacturing as well, but that was replaced with financial services, entertainment, education and health care. These attracted upscale residents and supported those down the food chain. Smaller cities like Lawrence don’t have this. No reason for it to exist, no job creation, no tax base, existing on state handouts. Lawrence had the odds stacked against it, but accelerating its decline was government policy.

Lawrence was the victim of urban renewal, the downtown was destroyed and vacant lots multiplied. Lawrence suffers as do all blue state cities from an expensive urban government. High pay for city workers, restrictive work rules and a less than “can do” environment make it impossible to get things done. The problems of the schools, parents who don’t care, students moving in and out, and not having English as a primary language, various socio-economic factors, all present hurdles for the schools to be successful. Every school issue has its roots in larger government policies (we’re talking welfare, disability, food stamps, immigration, etc). Why is the population of Lawrence going up while many cities having declining populations? I think we can all guess at the reasons.

The state needs to fully take over the city and the legislature needs to work hand in glove with the state administration to pass radical laws to fix this city. Bold, decisive, trailblazing. Just hiring a new superstar superintendent will not be able to address those problems. This is what needs to happen. The population of Lawrence needs to stabilize or better yet be reduced. Stop subsidizing more housing; enforce building codes (illegal apartments) with the state providing the inspectors. The whole social services infrastructure that attracts and supports continued people arriving for more benefits needs to be examined and probably reduced. Fight crime hard. This is not about not helping people that need it. This is about stopping people coming from other places to Lawrence putting more pressure on an overloaded system.

Of course there are some great people in Lawrence and some impressive efforts are being made here and there. No one is diminishing those efforts. We are looking at the big picture here. Maybe only more money can fix Lawrence. Maybe we as a state want to help those less fortunate; including those recently arrived, and do it in small cities like Lawrence. Fine, then let’s actually take an approach that at least tries to fix the problem. Charter schools, privatizations, suspension of costly regulations. Whatever it takes. Stop just doing the same thing we’ve always done.