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Lawrence: roused and responding to challenge

By Cheryl C. SullivanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 29, 1984

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.

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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.