In November 2011, the Lawrence Public School District was placed in state receivership, a status never before bestowed on any district in the commonwealth. The citywide unemployment rate was a stunning 14 percent. After a generation of disinvestment from Lawrence, Boston magazine cemented the city’s reputation for corruption and crime with a March 2012 article condemning it as the City of the Damned.
Today, Lawrence boasts an unemployment rate that’s less than half of the 2012 rate, the lowest it has been since 2005. The school district has increased its graduation rate from its pre-receivership level of 52.8 percent in 2011 up to 71.8 percent in 2015, and its dropout rate has declined from 23.8 percent to 10.8 percent. In the last two years, the city has averaged more than $70 million in development spending annually, a far cry from the $19 million worth of projects in 2012.
So what happened?
In the spring of 2013, a large coalition of community stakeholders joined forces to respond to a grant opportunity from the Federal Reserve Bank (FRB) called the Working Cities Challenge. The grant program was based on research done by the FRB that identified collaborative leadership as the single most relevant factor — more important than demographics, proximity to a metropolitan city like Boston, or having a mixed industrial economy — in determining the resilience of midsize post-industrial cities such as Lawrence.
Later that year, Lawrence scored a major victory, winning state support for the creation of a Family Resource Center, a hub to connect family members of students in the district to vital social and economic resources. At the same time, Dan Rivera won a hard-fought mayoral election by fewer than 100 votes, paving the way for a new administration and a new approach to governing. In the midst of these positive changes, leaders in the business community began looking for a way to work together to support the city’s economic revitalization.
In 2013, the city saw the birth of the Lawrence Partnership, a public and private endeavor that brings together presidents, CEOs and executive directors of banks, mills, businesses, schools and community organizations in Lawrence to work collaboratively with elected officials on pressing issues of economic development.
What happens next for Lawrence is an untold story.
A city to which countless Merrimack Valley families are rooted, Lawrence offers unique opportunities as demographic, cultural and lifestyle trends continue to make urban living more desirable for widening and diverse populations. As Boston approaches a breaking point of affordability, Lawrence is poised to serve as a regional hub. A robust, inclusive Lawrence economy represents an uncommon asset for the entire Valley, but it will require vision, determination and investment to realize its potential.
While we should not be under the impression that Lawrence has arrived, there are some very real indications that it is moving in that direction.
You have and will continue to read stories on this website about the efforts to rebuild, and perhaps even be inspired to see the improvements for yourself. You might visit El Taller for coffee and poetry, or walk through the growing Northern Essex Community College campus on Common Street. Step inside some of the new market-rate housing inside the old mills, or visit the Riverwalk for dinner at Salvatore’s or lunch at Coffee Cann Cafe. Take a class at the Essex Art Center, or be one of the first to eat at the brand new Revolving Test Kitchen, a food-based incubator in downtown Lawrence. There you will see a city in evolution and will be a participant in the process.
Top of page: Opened in 2014, Northern Essex Community College’s Dr. Ibrahim El-Hefni Allied Health & Technology Center is a vital part of the city’s revitalization effort. Courtesy photo.