As one of the last planned mill cities in the Northeast, Lawrence, Mass., was engineered specifically to maximize the water energy potential flowing on the Merrimack River. Between the 1840s and the 1960s, the city’s textile industry generated a constant flow of financial capital, luring other businesses and workers and contributing to a healthy, vibrant community.
But in the aftermath of World War II and a steady decline in domestic manufacturing, the city lost its economic engine and suffered the flight of its middle-class white population to the suburbs. What was a manufacturing powerhouse 40 miles north of Boston is now New England’s most heavily populated Latino City, home to multiple generations of mostly Caribbean immigrants who came as low-wage labor but have stayed to make the city their own.
Since the decline of manufacturing, the city has struggled to stay afloat amid volatile economic and development trends. The recession and resulting public budget crisis have encumbered it even further.
There is hope on the horizon, however: Lawrence possesses a dynamic civil community of nonprofit groups, residents, local property owners and small businesspeople who are charting a new course. Collectively, these groups are spearheading a movement to pump life back into the economy by leveraging Lawrence’s historic resources in a new way.
The textile boom left the city’s rivers and canals lined with 12 million square feet of mill buildings. “Some of these buildings are the same size as skyscrapers lying down,” said Andre Leroux, who has lived and worked in the city and is now the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance (MSGA). “At the time that they were in operation, they were the biggest buildings in the world.”