Lawrence, Massachusetts, called “The City of the Damned” in a 2012 Boston Magazine feature, has seen some hard times. According to 2014 data the national median number of violent crimes per 1000 residents is 3.8 and the Massachusetts rate is 3.9. Lawrence comes in at 11.1. It is also the state’s poorest city (per capita income less than $17,000 per year), has the highest unemployment rate (over twice the state as a whole) and has been poorly led — it’s last mayor was investigated by state and federal officials for corruption (an aide was convicted and received 18 months) while a state-appointed overseer managed the city’s finances.
But it wasn’t always so. Sitting on both sides of the Merrimack River at a point where a series of natural falls of 5 feet or so were not sufficient to drive water powered equipment, the future city of Lawrence occupied a site containing enough drop, if engineered, to support a massive output of power. The wealth-producing potential of water power had been amply demonstrated a generation earlier in Massachusetts, first at Waltham by Francis Lowell and then at Lowell itself, only 11 miles upstream from this new site. The call went out for investors and in 1845 Abbot and Amos Lawrence raised a million dollars, created Boston Associates, and purchased seven square miles of land on either side of the Merrimack River.
At the site the architect/engineers Charles Storrow and Charles Bigelow designed and built a massive Great Stone Dam, rising 35 feet and impounding enough water with its 30-foot drop to provide 13,000 horsepower in the mile long North Canal. ‘Mill rights’ to this power was sold to textile mills that would produce textiles for the world. Just the Ayer Mill alone was equipped with 400 broadlooms and 44,732 spindles. Over the years the mills were operated by streams of immigrants of Italian, Polish, Lithuanian, Syrian, Irish, English, German, French-Canadian, and Portuguese origin. (It was in Lawrence that the great “Bread and Roses” strike of 1912 took place. Led by the Industrial Workers of the World and seeking a 54-hour workweek, it pitted 20,000 immigrant women machine operators against the militia. The strike lasted two months and resulted in significant wage increases after public exposure of working conditions at the mills.) Subsequent to World War Two, however, textile jobs, accompanied by the wealth they created, left the region and the country.
In 1999 a group of Lawrence business people, joined by the city administration itself and the National Park Service, initiated a feasibility study. They were anxious to improve the living conditions in Lawrence. The purpose of the study was to see if a model of community organization that had been successful in England for 30 years might work here.
The model, called Groundwork, calls for local grassroots efforts to first establish the specific needs of the community. An organizer will go into the community and find out what residents believe are its needs, what organizations are already there, which are or are not able to meet those needs, and if the Groundwork model is the right one.
The community votes on whether the model makes sense. If they vote yes, that decision goes up to the national Groundwork organization. The board will review it and if it seems like a good fit they will accept that community into the national network. Then the local community goes through a launching strategy to kick off activities, moves into incorporating and builds a non-profit 501(c)3.
Currently there are 22 local Groundwork organizations throughout the US. Many work on programs like cleaning up brownfield areas, establishing green zones or corridors in a city, or working with urban youth to raise fresh and healthy food.
Groundwork Lawrence has done most of those. I visited them in January of 2016 to find out what they were doing and what sort of success they were having getting people to raise food on municipal land.
“We started with our first community garden,” says community engagement director Lesly Medina, “which was in an alleyway that the city allowed us to develop. The Alleyway is a passageway between a number of the three-decker houses in one of the densest parts of the city. It was dirt and hadn’t been paved. It was used for access to the back of homes. We created a garden there.”
Another project they are proud of is the Greenway, a long pathway that follows the Spicket River as it flows into the city from Methuen. Some is really green with plantings, some has sidewalks connecting these green areas — the whole thing is three and a half miles connecting 6 parks with little league fields, gardens and walkways. Educational signage exists in many of the parks, and eventually they hope to have it designed for people so they can put their phone up to a spot and get linked to web pages with information appropriate videos, etc.
“Food and farming are central to our work here,” executive director Heather McMann says, “as of the end of 2015 we have 8 local community gardens, over 60,000 square feet of gardening space, and over 150 active gardeners in the network. We also have a half-acre urban farm over at Costello Park, which is a city park. The farm is used by our local Green Team of youth who plan, plant, harvest, sell and donate the produce over the summer months. We have three farmers markets, one on Wednesdays, one on Saturdays, and one in Methuen on Fridays. Of course our farm is completely no-spray and we don’t use any pesticides. We teach the use of natural processes and methods in growing.”
Five community gardens that are not part of the park system came through the city taking tax title to the land.
Besides the actual farming and growing experiences, Groundwork Lawrence teaches about food through a “pipeline” that reaches kids as young as Kindergarden.
“We have tours of the Greenway and the Urban Farm,” explains McMann, “they are digging in the soil and learning about this all the way up through high school. Then we have cooking classes and nutrition classes. We do a lot of things at the adult level as well. The pipeline means getting the kids started on this path early, understanding the importance of clean water and air, and fresh food.”
Over the summer the program involves three teams of ten young people each. One focuses on park stewardship doing such things as trail maintenance, invasive species removal, and historical site maintenance at the Saugus Ironworks Park. Another track does more community engagement and outreach, sponsoring a 5K trail through the Greenway, and another focuses on the farming.
Part of farming requires clean soil, of course, but the soil in Lawrence is all urban fill with high levels of lead. Groundwork Lawrence tests every soil they grow in and often bring in clean healthy soil to the garden sites, using it or compost or both on top of a barrier in raised beds. There are a lot of ideas of how to amend soils and how you can build them up, but for Groundwork Lawrence it is easier to bring in safe soil rather than wait ten years or longer to rebuild them.
“One of our food access programs,” says community food manager Heather Conley, “is getting the bodegas or corner stores to offer healthier food options. We partner with the city and the mayor’s task force on a program called ‘Healthy on the Block’. We target corner stores in the most densely populated areas of the city. They are called Bodegas. We help them offer healthier options – usually more around product placement so healthy food isn’t in the back with junk food in the front. They sign a memorandum of agreement to have a healthy shelf and do more product placement of healthy stuff in the front. We agree to help them with marketing and have small amounts of money to be able to purchase shelving or building credit lines or anything they need. One Bodega wanted a lead on an accountant who spoke Spanish!
“Inherent in everything we do,” she continues, “is the social justice piece. With the Green Team we focus on the inequities in the food system. All the way from wages in fast food restaurants to access to fresh and affordable food – the Bodega work and our farmers market EBT benefits, matching dollars for fresh food with money from state funding and our share program. People will use their cards and get twice as much food as is billed to their card. We pay the farmer directly the difference. We include the greening of the city by cleaning the water and the air and improving places for playing. We don’t specifically deal with GMOs, but will present that information to our Green Team members. We introduce them to those ideas without pushing them on any issue. We took them to see a militant vegan activist, then we introduced them to ideas on the other side. Right now they are reading ‘The Omnivores Dilemma’.”
The Green Team kids have to be Lawrence residents, fit the age requirements (14 to 21 years old), and go through a full process of applying, getting letters of recommendation, and being selected. At this point the entire city of Lawrence is considered low income so almost any kid fits that criterion! Seventy-six percent of the population in Lawrence is Hispanic, with large groups of Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. During the school year 10 kids are hired, and during the summer they hire an additional 20 to make 30 total. They all get paid.
“At the beginning of the school year,” says outreach and events manager Rose Gonzalez, “they are able to work out on the farm on weekends. But our farmers markets fall during the school day through October so the kids are in school and can’t help with that. But they do a lot of jobs in school. They went to the NOFA conference in Worcester last weekend. We brought 9 kids with 2 staff members. They were excited because they will be taking what they have learned and incorporating it into the farm over the summer. They are learning about soil health, composting, food access, inequities in the food system — we have many program areas.
“We are building our environmental improvement program,” she adds, “by planting trees, building parks, and planting gardens. Our education programs have grown. We are in 12 public schools with about 2000 students. We do science and nutritional education during the school day. The kids have a choice block and go to whatever program they want. Some places have a rotation for all the kids, especially for the pre-K age.”
Groundwork Lawrence takes the Green Team kids camping, skiing and exposing them to things they would never experience otherwise. As a result, the staff have a lot of exposure to team member families, who understand what the program means to their kids. The Groundwork relationship thus goes beyond the youth to their families and homes.
As a result, quite a few people who have been through both Green Team and the summer youth program have come back to be leaders. One alum is on the board of directors now. others are teachers in the school system who are teaching science and are referring students back.
Part of the support network the group has flows from relationships with other non-profits.
“When we did rapid ecological assessments,” explains Lesly, “we worked with Mass Audubon, the Appalachian Mountain Club, other city agencies and the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council – they all increase our capacity to be effective. We find the groups with the skill sets and the knowledge to make something happen. For example the WIC program – we partnered with them by organizing the farmers market. In another case we knew we had this beautiful wild area – Den Rock, a 120 acre wooded preserve – and we wanted to maintain it. We worked with the AMC, which has the expertise to do that and teach our kids.
“We are a key program with the city,” adds McMann. “We pride ourselves with our relationship building. Ever since 1998 when the feasibility study started we have worked hard to make sure we have good relationships with the mayor’s office and the 9 city councilors. Having those personal relationships helps us get to where we are today.
“We have been through 4 mayors since we started,” she concludes. “All were very supportive and enthusiastic about us because we are building capacity for the city in areas where they aren’t strong.
But where our model is extremely powerful is this: Municipalities have two-year or four-year terms. I’m talking about city councils, about mayors. They have to show results quickly. We want to show results but we have a much longer horizon. None of us is going to go out of office.”