A year after riots, Lawrence, Mass., still copes

In the dirt and asphalt courtyard of the Merrimack Courts housing project, a half-dozen Hispanic men stand talking about their neighborhood since the riots here a year ago. Enoch Robinson, a Dominican who came to Lawrence 16 years ago, remembers well the violent, sweltering nights of Aug. 8 and 9 that began with a family feud and evolved into mobs throwing firebombs and rocks at hundreds of police.

What continues to bother Mr. Robinson are the still-squalid living conditions he says created some of the animosities for the vandalism and fighting. ``Just look at the conditions. You don't have to say anything,'' he says.

Broken glass, bricks, and trash litter the mostly bare courtyards. Graffiti adorn the exterior of several buildings and cover the filthy hallways where residents say heroin and cocaine deals are not uncommon.

Although the rioting was a racial confrontation between groups of whites and Hispanics, the men in the courtyard and others say they believe lack of city services, lack of jobs, drug abuse, and poor living conditions were the underlying causes.

Merrimack Courts is 100 percent occupied. That means 655 Hispanics, 12 orientals, 10 blacks, and 140 whites -- a total of 817 people (not counting those living there illegally) inhabit 14 buildings situated on about two acres of land.

Despite some changes, critics complain that basic problems remain largely untouched. Yet city officials say they have responded to last year's ``civil disturbance'' in the Lower Tower Hill area.

Roland Hatch of the Lawrence Housing Authority points out new kitchen cabinets, bathroom facilities, and windows in Merrimack Courts. Other changes include:

Recent establishment of a nine-member Human Rights Commission as a regular part of city government.

Improvements on Oxford Street, where the city Department of Manpower Development has installed handball courts and a basketball court with state aid.

Work on new sidewalks and resurfacing of Oxford and neighboring streets, financed by $5.5 million in state riot-aid money to the city. Five fire-damaged homes have been demolished and funds lent for home repair.

Some residents of Oxford Street say another riot in this area seems unlikely. Others are not so certain.

``Things have cooled off in this [Oxford Street] neighborhood, but there are at least three other places in the city that are trouble spots,'' says Nunzio DiMarca, a candidate for mayor in the November elections.

Alex Rodriguez, chairman of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, concurs but sees some progress. ``They [City Hall officials] basically put their heads in the ground for a long while. There's been tremendous progress since April, but we had to hit them over the head with a 2-by-4 to do it.''

Martin Walsh, regional director of community relations for the US Department of Justice, says City Hall's progress in attacking racial discrimination has been ``a mixed bag'' so far.

Mr. DiMarca counts on his fingers areas of ``high frustration'' for the city's roughly 80 nationalities. Primary is the ``continuing lack of understanding by police for the Hispanic culture,'' the need for bicultural training and more Hispanic officers. Only two of the department's current force of 113 officers are Hispanic.

Another problem he lists is the affirmative-action program for minority hiring within City Hall. There have been five affirmative-action officers in five years. Only a handful of city employees are nonwhite.

There is a need for city government to react constructively instead of defensively to the influx of immigrants, says Eugene DeClerq, a political science professor who heads the city's new Human Rights Commission.

``The history of the city is of immigrants moving in and taking one to two decades to fit in. We're essentially in the middle of the assimilation of the Hispanic community,'' Dr. DeClerq says.

Though there were few Hispanics in Lawrence in the 1960s, they now make up more than a third of the city's 60,000-plus population. Many know little English and have trouble finding work. High-tech firms have not been able to replace jobs lost when textile mills closed.

Drug trafficking is a major problem. Jos'e Santiago (not his real name), who arrived from Puerto Rico in 1966, says the city needs a drug-treatment program.

Mr. Santiago says he received treatment in Boston for a $100-a-day heroin habit. Though he remained free for a year and a half, he began using heroin again a month ago. He says a local program might have helped him. A relatively new police drug task force has reportedly begun to cut into drug trafficking.

Many observers, however, say the biggest opportunity for real progress will be the coming elections. A new form of city government is slated to be installed to give more power to the mayor, less to city councilors. Some observers say the resulting shake-up may spread political power more evenly among the city's minorities.

``In November, political representation is going to be within reach of everyone,'' says State Rep. Kevin Blanchette, who lives in the Lower Tower Hill area. ``This is a critical election year for Lawrence.''

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