Lawrence, Mass. — IN the four months since street riots rocked one of the poorest neighborhoods here, residents of this industrial city 26 miles north of Boston have come together as never before to discuss ways to defuse tensions that may have sparked the violence.
There is still disagreement on what caused two nights of rock-throwing and fire-bombing in the Lower Tower Hill section of the city. Some people blame the uprising on racial tension between French Canadians and Hispanics in the neighborhood. Others blame deplorable living conditions. Mayor John J. Buckley has suggested that ''a busted drug deal'' may have initiated the disturbances.
''Whatever it was,'' he says, ''something good came out of it in the form of better communication between government and the people.''
Indeed, French Canadians now serve alongside Hispanics on a neighborhood group. Both have talked with city officials. State officials, too, have met with neighborhood leaders and the mayor to improve communication at all levels.
But some Lawrence residents are beginning to feel that talk is cheap. They say the time has come for good intentions to take shape in concrete programs to help needy immigrants, primarily Hispanics, who want better housing, more English classes, and greater access to City Hall.
''Right now the people of Lawrence are watching to see what will happen,'' says Nunzio DiMarca, an activist in the Hispanic community. ''There's been a lot of talking. It remains to be seen what the outcome will be.''
Briseida Quiles, a native of Puerto Rico who has lived in Lawrence for 12 years, summed up her doubts at a public hearing conducted earlier this month by the Massachusetts Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights. She mentioned that the city government is ''all white'' in a community where almost a third of the residents are Latino. She noted that the high school , where half the students are Hispanic, has only one Hispanic guidance counselor.
But Ms. Quiles said she was particularly dissatisfied with the composition of Mayor Buckley's new, 16-member Human Relations Advisory Committee, which included just two Hispanics. Charging that the committee ''will have no power to do anything,'' she turned to Buckley and said: ''Don't just talk about communication. Go out and start communicating.''
In many ways, the Human Relations Advisory Committee has come to symbolize the frustrations Hispanics say they have experienced while talking to city officials who, Mr. DiMarca says, ''won't take their blinders off.''
A week after the August disturbances, Buckley drew praise from the Hispanic community when he announced he would form a new human relations advisory council. But praise turned to disparagement when, by the last week of September, he had not appointed its members. When he did, the committee's composition - with only two Hispanics, two women, and one black - came under fire from community leaders who charged that the committee did not represent Lawrence's population.
Although Buckley now pledges to name three more Hispanics to the committee, critics say the advisory status of the committee is inadequate. Dorothy Jones, acting chairwoman of the Massachusetts Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights, said in an interview after this month's hearing that the mayor's committee ''needs to have some kind of clout. I also felt a need for it to become a permanent fixture, to be institutionalized.''
But the mayor defends his committee, saying its members will serve as a ''fact-finding body and ombudsman that will be free to examine any municipal issue'' in their quest ''to ensure equal protection of the law . . . for all residents of Lawrence.''
The city has also funneled some of its resources into programs that are expected to benefit many Hispanics, Buckley says.
For instance, the city's Department of Community Development has pledged $250 ,000 over five years to rehabilitate houses in the Lower Tower Hill neighborhood , he says.
Lower Tower Hill is chock-full of turn-of-the-century triple-deckers. Most are in need of a paint job, some have sagging porches, and a few are condemned to the wrecker's ball. But if the Lawrence Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS) has its way, this racially diverse area will experience a revitalization like the one that swept through the nearby Arlington neighborhood during the past four years.
''Four years ago, Arlington was unanimously considered to be the worst section of town,'' says Brian Kasprzyk, NHS executive director. Then NHS, a nonprofit partnership of the business community and the city, provided low-interest home-improvement loans for 80 renovation projects. Property values for triple-deckers in the area have doubled to as much as $50,000, he says.
The NHS hopes to move into Lower Tower Hill by July, but Kasprzyk cautions that the neighborhood's business and community leaders have not yet been recruited into the partnership. A series of workshops will be held in February or March to explain the program, he says.
The city has made other efforts - such as channeling $30,000 to a youth jobs program - to improve the lot of Hispanics and other minorities.
But Lawrence is strapped financially, the mayor says. Therefore, much of the impetus for change has come from the state level.
State Sen. Patricia McGovern (D) of Lawrence has submitted a $5.5 million ''emergency financial package'' to the legislature to help Lawrence, which she says ''is the kind of city that keeps taking any kind of immigrant, without getting any help from outside. . . . Now we need to provide some help.'' The legislation was passed by the Senate Monday and has been sent to the House of Representatives.
Some of the money would be used to provide additional training for Lawrence's police force and its public schoolteachers. Senator McGovern explains that most of these longtime city employees are white and now find themselves serving a sizable Hispanic community. There is a need ''to become sensitized to the cultural and linguistic differences'' in order to serve more effectively the city's 20,000 Hispanics, she adds.
The package also includes outreach and counseling for Hispanics, new police equipment, and improvements in public housing.
Since August the administration of Gov. Michael S. Dukakis has also moved Lawrence near the top of its priority list. Jorge Santiago, director of community projects for the Executive Office of Human Services, says he has been assigned to work full time on coordinating social services in Lawrence - from shelters for teen-agers to English classes for Spanish-speaking adults.
''In the two months I've been there, the amount of activity has increased tremendously,'' Mr. Santiago says. ''Of course, the usual tensions still exist and will continue to exist for some time. Lawrence is not unique in that respect. But now people have begun to sit down and talk, something they never bothered to do before.''
A number of programs here - some of them planned before the riots - have recently spurted from the bureaucratic pipeline. Others are the result of cooperation between the private sector and the state.
One of them, Project LEEP (Lawrence Education and Employment Program), is scheduled to begin some pilot programs in January, says DiMarca, who will spearhead the effort. Project LEEP will focus on economically disadvantaged adults who need basic education and job skills, he says, noting that many of Lawrence's immigrants came from parts of the Caribbean Basin where there are few schools. Northern Essex Community College in nearby Haverhill is also involved in the project, and ''we are hoping for a satellite campus in Lawrence,'' DiMarca says.
Santiago says that Project LEEP, funded with $100,000 from the state, is one result of his effort to coordinate the city's educational services. ''For the first time,'' he says, ''Lawrence has a comprehensive package from first grade to college.'' He says he hopes this sort of continuity will reduce the high turnover rate of Hispanics in the schools. ''Things are moving, but there are still . . . a lot of improvements that need to be made.''
Many of these improvements may depend on Hispanics themselves.
Of those who are American citizens, few have let their voices be heard at the ballot box. Some community leaders say fewer than 1,000 Hispanics, of about 7, 000 eligible voters, were registered to vote. Lawrence's form of government has also helped to dilute the Hispanic vote - aldermen are not elected by districts but serve the city at large.
However, all this is changing.
The Spanish-speaking proprietress at El Caribe luncheonette registered to vote for the first time this fall. She was among those targeted by the National Puerto Rican/Hispanic Voter Participation Project, a private, independent organization that contributed $3,000 for registration of Hispanics in Lawrence. Since late summer, more than 2,000 people, mostly Hispanic, have been added to the voter rolls, says DiMarca, who worked on the drive.
In addition, the city will shift to a ''strong-mayor, district-representation'' form of government for municipal elections next November.