City of the Damned: A Lawrence City Councilor Responds

In our March issue, Jay Atkinson writes in “City of the Damned” that Lawrence is “the most godforsaken place in Massachusetts” and details the reasons why: widespread crime, failing schools, crippled government, a controversial mayor, and more. There’s been robust debate on Facebook, Twitter, and in the comments section of Atkinson’s piece. Because of the passionate response we’ve received from our readers — especially those hailing from eastern Massachusettswe invited Lawrence City Councilor Daniel Rivera to respond to the story. Here, Rivera shares his reasons why Lawrence doesn’t deserve the title of “damned.”

Lawrence MAThe mills in Lawrence. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons.)

If Lawrence is a city of the damned — as you state in “City of the Damned” from the March issue of Boston magazine, piling on with many other media outlets to paint the City of Lawrence as a horrible place — it is the damned hardworking, the damned hopeful and the damned resilient. While your piece makes us out to be damned of our own doing, the real news is that we are standing at all.

Our crime is up because we have watched over $11 million dollars in State aid evaporate while many of the poverty programs that concentrate poor people in places like Lawrence have not. We have also watched federal community policing dollars diverted to fight two wars. The fact that the city was bankrupt two years ago is never mentioned. Nor that there were unaffordable labor contracts signed and that we had to borrow $24 million dollars just to make it through the last two years. Also not mentioned is that we have balanced our budget two years in a row and begun the long road to financial health by making austerity cuts; as is evident in Europe and our own national debt debate, that’s hard to do. We have done what many communities would not, cut critical services. Oh, and this article will not help us in getting up that unemployment rate you mentioned, since private industry is in no rush to have a corporate headquarters or manufacturing operations in a city labeled as damned.

Our schools are failing, yes, because of the actions of our former superintendent and neglect from our current and former mayor and former school board, but also because of the effect of the education reform law, that poured millions of dollars in to Lawrence while centralizing power in the superintendent. Now everyone is shocked that absolute power corrupted absolutely. Meanwhile Lawrence gets all the blame but, the State has been a full partner for the past decade in the system’s inertia. Our schools are a reflection of all the national dilemmas facing America’s public schools. Since you will make some money off this story, let me know if you want to help make it better. I can direct your publication to a few organizations in Lawrence helping kids learn.

In the article’s drive to continue to make our mayor into a demon, you succeed in only cheapening your editorial integrity and hurting the community you claim to want to help. The downside of free and open elections is that we do not get to undo an election when the candidate elected does not live up to our expectations.

Finally, when I think about the many meanings of the word “damned,” I will tell you many of us that call Lawrence home do not feel “condemned or doomed,” especially to “eternal punishment” for living here; and I hope that your publication was not saying that Lawrence and its people are “detestable or loathsome.” But I will say that as a City Councilor and taxpayer here in Lawrence, we are in “complete and absolute” focus to make our City better. We will add your publication to the many local media outlets that portray our City’s story as unique and the worst City by far. I say that your piece is no more than another negative link in our Google search — another blow to our image, but not to our resolve. Many of us will continue to work to make Lawrence better — and damn anyone that thinks they can stop us.


UPDATE: Jay Atkinson responds to this letter in a blog post.

  • Gail

    sounds like excuses

  • jgodsey

    seems like the FAIR AND BALANCED thing to do is publish a feature that covers the POSITIVE works being done by the doggedly determined folks inside the city. Simply slagging away and letting it drop is another cheap and easy way to make money off the city.

  • Missy

    Thank you Danny for telling the story from the side of an actual resident. For 6 years I have been a Lawrence homeowner and worker in this city (I work down the street from my home as a physical therapist, walk there, and feel perfectly safe doing so for the last 5 years). I love this city so much I also purchased a foreclosed commercial property, renovated it, and opened a business on Essex St. All this was done without bankers, journalists, and government funding. It was done, however over the span of 4 years with the support of community members like me that are willing to put their love, sweat, tears, souls, paychecks, and time into a city we LOVE. WE are Lawrence, and we would appreciate a true story about US.

  • Mea

    City of the Damned was a great piece. I think that if Jay was stating the facts about the city, there is nothing wrong with it. Yes, people are hard working there. However, there are corrupt people there also. It’s unfortunate what Laurence is going through and I couldn’t imagine living that life style and give credit to people who can tolerate it.

    • Amelia898

      Please dont forget to mention that people from other towns come to Lawrence to make trouble. Is ashamed that you had to name your article the City of The Damned to get some attention. Everyone loves to focus on the negative things of Lawrence when there is decent and hardworking people who are trying to get this city on the right track. Lawrence doesn’t need anymore negative opinions from someone who probably never been to Lawrence.

    • Liz

      Mea, please also keep in mind that there are corrupt people everywhere; the issue is not exclusive to Lawrence. Also, you probably can’t imagine living the lifestyle discussed in the article, but neither can a lot of Lawrence residents. There might be crime here, but that doesn’t mean the city is filled with criminals. The only shooting that has taken place in my neighborhood was committed by and inflicted on people who were not even from Lawrence. This is yet another challenge Lawrence has faced for years.

  • Stephanie

    Well said Danny! I also am a resident and home owner in Lawrence and am so proud to call it my home. The other side of the story is that families in Lawrence are struggling every day to make a future for their children. People are coming together to improve this city, not with a blind eye to it’s faults, but with eyes wide open to the power and beauty of its people to overcome adversity.

    I wish we could say that the negative press is irrelevant, but it affects people’s perception of our city and willingness to invest in it.

    Please, take the time to show the whole picture, and for you reader’s out there, come to Lawrence, eat at our restaurants, come to a festival and learn more about the Dammed good people of Lawrence.

    • Juana

      Stephanie, are you one of Councilor Rivera’s neighbors in Mt. Vernon?

  • Michelle Melancon

    Dan is sugar coating the reality. Yes, the Lawrence community is not giving up but the crime is directly related to mayor Lantigua’s decision to balance the budget by slashing the Police dept (among other things) The crime rate was accurately predicted by Our Chief of Police John Romero.
    “I can tell you that we cannot hold crime down and maintain a high quality of life in the city with this reduction in officers,’’ he told city officials at a budget meeting. “This is a recipe for increased crime and violence.’’

    This is not the first time Dan Rivera has attempted to gloss over what is happening here.

    • george

      sorry Dan, but are you speaking out now because Lantigua didn’t support you in the election? I’ve been here since 71, and this city I call home is a disgrace..
      You and almost all the other councilors do not keep the rules and processes of Lawrence in check. shame, shame!

  • Michelle Melancon

    I have to add that the perception of this city is what it is and it is somewhat deserved. Has anyone taken a ride down Lawrence Street lately? It is literally a sh*thole. Uniting Lawrence is starting a project to help with cleaning up these trashy areas, at the very least for the kids that are playing and walking to school in it. What exactly is the Administration doing to change the perception?

  • sandra

    We all know that consajes has the tools to make changes in a city but want to be part of the problem in most of the time that is the problem, it is very easy to say that one is to blame, but where is their responsibility to verlar by the city, for these were elected.

  • Liz

    I’m a hard-working, college educated Lawrence resident who is sad to see the media continuing to perpetuate and glorify the obstacles we are trying to overcome. This article was not an accurate or well-rounded picture of what it’s like to live here. I live downtown and walk to the park on common street regularly; I can say that I have never been afraid of my community or surroundings. It’s a slanted article intended to exploit some of the true challenges the city faces in an attempt to persuade readers to fear Lawrence rather than to provide people with information to then draw their own opinions. The article talks about misuse of power, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say that journalists who mislead their readers are also abusing their power and responsibility to provide accurate news.

    Thank you City Counselor for providing a perspective from an actual resident as opposed to someone who, up until writing this article, probably had no relationship with and little knowledge of the city.

  • sandra

    I want to say : consajes = councils
    verla=to ensure

  • lawtown50

    Hard to stay positive when you see daily the human tragedy s perpetrated by the residence of this city. Out numbered and some times out gunned by drug dealers, only to be blasted by city government that we make to much money, not to mention we are the lowest paid PD in the valley with the heaviest wo

    • lawtown50

      Rk load. Dealing with a culture of disorder and a public attitude the rules dont apply to me. If any one thinks this is how a normal city function s, then some have clearly lost their moral compass. I live in this city and wont go to the corner bodeaga for milk with out my service weapon. Thats my reality, I however have a stake in this city as I have family and own a home hear, thats why I continue to wrk here and have a glimmer of hope it will change. God Bless.

  • tony s

    i live here as well.. the city is a hell hole…south union st has become disgusting beyond compare. please keep in mind a lot of mt vernon people are sheltered from lawrence. they dont even have to drive thru it as he highways are right there, its a different world 6 blocks away. the problem is that it is always to sugar coated. no one in this state want to talk about all the problems. then the populace crys racisim and it gets out of control. thats my thought as to why no one does anything… to afraid of the 84 riots again.. lawrence is also a hub of democratic votes so the powers that be will do nothing. if you say you feel safe i cant agree. it has gotten as bad as the early 90’s and i dont think it has hit bottom yet. stop living in denial and address the issues please. the mayor is a seventh grade drop out.. hes litterally stupid for god sakes.. and hes in charge… gloss it up all you want dan.. lipstick on a pig my friend

  • Beckie

    Thank you for this fine response from Councilor Rivera. His is a nuanced observation of the city; he notes the negative effects of the current mayor upon education while taking media to task for demonizing him. Dan is right, the simplistic negativity of various Lawrence stories does not help anyone in the long run (except for those making money from them).
    While it may be true that violence, potholes, inept public servants, corrupt politicians, and broken-down forclosed properties are a reality, it is definitely not the whole DAMN reality. Let me tell you that I feel neither damned not fearful living here. I am a middle-aged Anglo woman, a home-owner in a small (one block street) neighborhood which is predominantly Dominican. Neither does my octogenarian aunt, who lives around the corner. The city does have problems (and thank God for Chief Romero), but the people I’ve met here are committed to bettering things to the best of their abilities. Individuals building businesses and groups transforming things, such as Lawrence Community Works various projects where they have taken an old or abandoned building and made it into a community center or living or commercial space. Why not an article about this? I’m sure it would be DAMNED good!

  • Beyazmin

    I am so happy to finally read something that has some depth. Lawrencians have gone through enough during last summer’s events to continue hearing more negative press even when it is trying to improve.

    Let’s change the way we think, and let’s work together to make Lawrence better!! We have the resources we need at our fingertips, we need to believe that we can!!

  • Maggie

    Thanks, Dan, for a great rebuttal. I have lived and worked in Lawrence for ten years and I am raising my kids here. I am a homeowner and taxpayer. There is no doubt that the City has deep and serious challenges- I would venture to say most of us understand those challenges more fully than Mr. Atkinson, since we live it every day- but it is also an amazing place. I have experienced more kindness from strangers in Lawrence than any place I’ve ever lived, including in and around Boston. My neighbors are wonderful people and quick to help each other out (in case you’re wondering, I don’t live in Mt. Vernon). I have seen many, many entrepreneurial businesses that are willing to look past the negative headlines and set up shop in Lawrence, and they are thriving. I have watched some of the most beautiful industrial buildings in America come back to life thanks to private investors who believe in the city and are willing to put millions of dollars on the line. None of us who live here would deny there are problems, but we’re working every day to solve them. So thanks, Boston Magazine, for publishing an article so outrageously one-sided that you’ve motivated a whole lot of people to take back the story of our city.

  • Michael A

    I’ve been a Lawrencian for 43 years and I’ve seen the good and the bad. Gossiping & bickering in negative circles will get us no where fast. Let’s continue to concentrate on solutions with those who care to make a difference. I live off of 110/Lawrence and run a business downtown/Essex St.

  • Reality Check

    All those commenting that this article was somehow unfair to Lawrence and THE EXACT REASON LAWRENCE IS WHAT IT IS… Yes, those are all caps for a reason because I want to scream this out. The refusal to talk about the problems and deal with them without fear of being called a racist or anti- Latino is why this City will never change. It is the worst city in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts by a wide margin and had been for DECADES. It is an embarassment. You have 3 communities directly borderingLawrence that are not only surviving in these times bu flourishing, Andover, Methuen, and North Andover. Why is that?? What is so radically different about Lawrence from these other towns?? Answer these questions honestly, and maybe then, you’ll begin to crawl out of the gutters. But, this continued bury your head int he sand attitude and refusal to call a spade a spade is DESTROYING your City. How many trash filled bodegas with a sign in the door that says “EBT and WIC Accepted” do you have to see before you begin to recognize the problem???

    BTW… all of these posts here and on the comments section of the main article condeming the piece and speaking about “All the good of Lawrence” are BS. Trace the IP’s and I would gaurentee that almost all are coming from Lawrence City Hall and the Office if the Mayo.

  • Sha

    I live In Lawrence and my home was broken into a couple years ago and a few things got stolen including a phone that had gps tracking I tracked all my stolen goods to an exact address and gave this information to the Lawrence police and they did absolutely nothing about either out of incompitance or laziness. At that moment I knew the police force in Lawrence was useless. I should have takeb things into my own hands then maybe I would have got my stuff back. I don’t care if there was cuts or not the Lawrence PD is a joke.

  • Marguerite Sweeden

    I was born and raised in Lawrence, and went to Lawrence high. My parants and my grandparants worked in the Mills, Arlington and Wood among others.

    We moved to California in 1952, due to the mills moving south, where labor was cheap and unionism was not a factor. When I lived there, the population was 90K.

    The reason Lawrence is in such bad shape today is due in large measure to the collusion between the mill owners, the city fathers and specifically the catholic church, (I am Catholic, by the way) preventing other industries from locating in the town. Because the industry was cyclical, layoffs were a common occurance, and to ensure that the mills would have a steady workforce of trained textile workers available at all times, no other industries were allowed, though they tried. For instance, I remember Western Electric was anxious to establish a foothold in the city, but they were rebuffed so laid off workers would always remain available “for the good times”.

    Once the mills moved south, it was all over, and the town never recovered. I remember stores boarded up on Essex Street, and people scraping for food. There were no jobs, and no other industries interested any longer in establishing themselves in such a godforsaken city.

    You have to look back to that time in order to understand the reason Lawrence is such a tortured city now.

  • Mike

    Well all the residents of Lawrence who are defending their city, why on God’s earth did you elect that crook Lantigua for mayor? Better still, will you be foolish enough to re-elect him? Lawrence is a s-hole, stop taking money away from the state and get your act together.

  • Street

    For every one who thinks City of the Damned is not true.
    Sell your homes and move to Lawrence.
    Find out for yourself that this story is nothing new for the people who live
    here. We read these same stories every day in the in the ET. There is more bad
    than good going on in Lawrence.
    Just another normal day in Lawrence
    thanks to our great leaders in city hall.

  • Street

    The truth hurts when stories like this are printed. So what has the Boston Magazine and ET stories changed in Lawrence?

    Not much from all the comments. The people of Lawrence are very sick of reading about all the bad things in Lawrence.

    Change has to start with the DO NOTHING CITY COUNCIL. What are you city councilors afraid of? Are these the stories what you want to read about every day. As long as Lantigua is Mayor stories like this will not end.

    THE DO NOTHING CITY CITY COUNCIL must feel proud for what has happened to Lawrence.

    • Fortune500

      I have lived in Lawrence over 50 years and if I’m guilty of anything it is of comparing Lawrence now,or from when I was a child.The residence of Lawrence back then took pride in this city, the streets were clean, houses were well kept and Essex st. was the place to being your family for shopping,eating,or just to have a nice day or night out with the family. I think the Minority of the citizens of Lawrence shouldn’t be offened by this article because as sad as it is. The majority of Lawrence is nothing to speak about in a good way.

      • Vanessa Valdez (LHS Student)

        I’m guessing that the reason you say this is because 50 years ago most citizens of lawrence were CAUCASIAN and now most of us are HISPANICS…and we DO take pride in our city at least me and my family do. Im an 18 year old dominican born citizen of lawrence and I am offended because I work very hard in school everyday to make my school be better and this Atkinson guy has nothing good to say when there is a lot of good things happening here !

  • kenneth

    I grew up in Lawrence and I got to say it was not easy there during the 90’s I literally saw the city fall apart. Going to school there was not easy.Gangs and drugs everywhere,my brother was beaten by a gang on his way home from work,on west street,so was my sister on tenney street. We were just hard working Caucasians struggling like everyone else.I always wondered why it was so bad and gotta say I spent a whole lot of time in fear and trembling.

  • Dan Rivera

    We are not unique or alone.
    A podcast that helps frame our situation and how it is Nationally.

  • Fed Up

    It’s hard to argue your point when the stats are there backing up Mr. Atkinson’s original article. Im a resident of Lawrence and seen the decline of the city. Im unable to sell my house because nobody wants to move here, even where i am in the Mount Vernon neighborhood. The school system is a mess, crimes rates are high and our mayor is an incompetent leader who’s more concern about his well being than the citizen of is community. The rebuilding of this once great city starts from the top. Unfortunately, after 2 recalls, our mayor still sits in his office everyday with no improvement in site. I’ve heard a man praising the mayor as a great leader because the street he’s lived on has been repaved. Really? what about everything else?

  • Vanessa Valdez (LHS Student)

    It’s sad how people who don’t even live in this city try to make the citizens of lawrence like a bunch of low lives on welfare..I am a citizen of lawrence, i’m 18 years old and still attend the Lawrence high school. and just like every other city in this country we have crime and a corrupted government, I find this very racist and I feel bad for this Jay Atkinson for being blinded by the bad things,because lawrence has a lot of hard working people including my parents who are immagrants, me and my fellow classmates work very hard everyday in school to try and make it a better a place for the underclassment and for the city we live in. We do a lot of great things DAILY to make our environment better and when people like this atkinson guy make this type of articles it really takes a lot of energy for me not to go off on this Ass**** who probably has never stepped foot in the city…..It is indeed a shame that noone sees the good that we have here.

  • Officer, that’s illegal!

    The week before Christmas I had an argument with my neighbor over a parking spot, a couple days later my car was towed from my private property, only to find my neighbor parked there. Turns out, my neighbor has a cousin in the Lawrence PD, whom when questioned as to why I had to pay a total of $250 in expenses on Christmas day, had nothing to say except that he “did not owe me an explination”. The following week, a picture of his cruiser is taken, parked in THE SAME place my car was towed from, as he leaves his cousins apartment. This picture was given to the department of internal affairs in Lawrence and we were told it was under investigation. I can’t sleep at night knowing that my car might get towed, by a corrupt officer who has probably not been given more than a slap on the wrist following the “investigation”. The day I can trust the PD here is the day that I say that this city isn’t damned.

  • -V-

    I’ve lived here in Lawrence my entire life and I agree it’s damned.

    • Martin

      I moved to Lawrence from Boston four years ago to take a professional leadership position. I found: a great home, cool neighbors, an outstanding mechanic who keeps my ten year old car purring and a decent life. Indeed, God has been good. While Lawrence does have it’s problems it is not damned. Boston, most recently the Southend (with it’s $800,000 homes) is in the midst of a crime spree. Despite the Boston crime problem, I would not describe Boston as damned. Lawrence, Boston and Andover (the list goes on) each have pros and cons.

      I have noticed that many Lawrence old timers pine for the good ole days, perhaps struggling with an actual or perceived loss of power. For some, new power brokers are highly scrutinized and viewed with suspicion. There exists a great deal of territoriality that created frequest friction. I hope that changes. Also, I hope Lawrence improves, quickly. Until it does, I will continue to work on it’s behalf as any good citizen should. I will not call it damned and will not throw stones from my glass house.

  • Ed warnshuis

    Bravo, Danny! Well said. My only issue is your willingness to characterize our public schools as failing. I know the state says we are, but I’ve been in our public schools almost every day for 11 years and I don’t buy it. I see bright, hard working kids graduating, going to college, then coming home to help turn our city around. Failing schools don’t produce kids like that.

  • jenny lee

    well done!

    Atkinson’s no more than a hate mongerer looking for attention.

  • Pam

    Dan you took the time to write, for the first time in years I find myself with a tiny bit of respect for you. Rather than belittle the article (we that live here all know that facts are correct) why not do something productive?

    For example, perhaps you could look into UNBLOCKING those FOIA request or UNBLOCKING the emails. Maybe you should reply to the emails WE send you. I’m still waiting.

    But more importantly, I’d like to see you loose the ties you have to the mayor. I’d like to see you stand up and stand for all the citizens here.

    As a lifelong resident, I feel you do nothing to make my quality of life better nor do you do anything to make me feel safe in my own home.

    You’re not a newbee here Dan, you know what is going on here.

    Let us know when you decide you want to be part of the solution(s)?

    I hear you’re planning a Protest in Boston because of this article. Now that’s not being part of the solution. As I see it, you are again wasting a great opportunity. Use your voice and energy for something more tangible. Like fixing Lawrence.

  • Dan Rivera

    Watch this video and join us.

    All are welcome.

  • Joedell Graciani

    I completely disagree with the title “City of the damned” although Lawrence may have many issues, just like any other city, it still dedicates itself on bringing positive influence within the community. I was born and raised in Lawrence and i still live there till this day. Ive seen my share of bad as well as my good. But it’s safe to say that Lawrence has saved my life with the programs that it has to offer, just like it has saved the many lives of thousands of other individuals. Programs such as The Boys & Girls Club, YMCA, Movement City, Valley Works, SIBS Program, YEP, MSPCC, etc, have all continued to attribute. Why on earth would anyone put this town under the table? They look at the negative but never look at the possessive. That’s the sad part. If that was the case than maybe they should be putting other cities down other than Lawrence.