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Lawrence CommunityWorks lives it every day

Posted on November 1, 2018

LAWRENCE --- On a cold day in late January of 2017, Armand Hyatt and Jess Andors used the grand opening of Duck Mill at Union Crossing to warm up the crowd by defending their city.

Hyatt ripped a magazine article that called Lawrence “city of the damned” and suggested what the reporter could do with it. The crowd in community room roared. Then, Andors implored the audience to stay focused on hope and to ignore public discourse fueled by stereotypes and negativity. “If we let fear and loss completely stain our perspective, we will destroy our possibilities,” she said. “We will blind ourselves to the gifts in front of us.”

It was a typical Lawrence CommunityWorks (LCW) event. Bring out the community. Serve food. Throw a party. Make it inspirational, aspirational and fun. LCW has been building its coalition this way since the 1990s with an enduring philosophy and a nucleus that is proud to call Lawrence home.

To understand LCW’s legacy, let’s start in the 1980s. LCW Deputy Director Juan Bonilla moved to Lawrence from Puerto Rico when he was 9. Growing up, he says Lawrence was known for car thefts, school drop outs, job losses, and people leaving the city. Legend has it Walter Cronkite called it the arson capital of the world.

Local attorney, LCW founder and board member Armand Hyatt remembers too. He watched as the city bulldozed the neighborhood he grew up in to make way for market-rate housing. He recalls a headline in the local paper celebrating the banning of any more affordable housing.

Hyatt worked with other local leaders like Len Raymond to stop the demolitions. They threatened litigation. The city caved. From this victory, the organization that would become LCW was born.  After some initial success, the nonprofit floundered.

They had high expectations

Enter Bill Traynor. A Lawrence native, he’d gone onto a career in community development, most notably in Lowell. He saw what Hyatt had helped start and began “formulating ideas.”  Then, while teaching a class at Tufts, he met Tamar Kotelchuck. A student at MIT’s Urban Planning master’s program, Kotelchuck said she and two friends – Jess Andors and Kristen Harol – had done their a class project in Lawrence and wanted to stay engaged. “They all spoke Spanish and had a sense of adventure and high expectations,” said Traynor.  “It was like catching lightening in a bottle.”

In 1999, Traynor took over as LCW’s executive director. Kotelchuck, Andors, and Harol – now graduated – came with him. So did real estate specialist Deb Fox. A short time later, another one of the MIT gang – Maggie Super Church – joined the team.

LCW’s focus was the heart of the city – the North Common neighborhood and the nearby mills. Over the next few years, they met constantly with residents. “We didn’t offer much other than enthusiasm,” said Harol, now president of the Life Initiative, a community development fund. “We spoke bad Spanish but people were really nice, although I don’t think they thought we were going to get anything done.”

Ana Rodriguez was one of the doubters. A social worker for the state Department of Mental Health, she was on the nonprofit’s board in the early days. When Traynor asked her to return, she hesitated. She wanted to make sure Traynor’s team wasn’t just passing through.

What she saw impressed her. Andors, Kotelchuck, Harol and Super Church moved to Lawrence. Harol worked at LCW until 2007. Kotelchuck worked at LCW until 2012 and now runs a small cities grant program for the Boston Fed. Super Church has been a consultant for LCW and other local nonprofits throughout. Andors is now executive director.  All still make their home in Lawrence and remain involved on city boards, the schools and community activities. “When (they) decided to move here, that was big,” said Rodriguez. “Their investment was impressive.”

Rodriguez rejoined the LCW board and remained for two decades, using her social service background to help keep LCW’s focus on people.

Traynor said they always tried to show up at city meetings with at least 20 residents. In 2003, LCW brought 50 people down to Washington during a snowstorm to brief lawmakers on what they were now calling the Reviviendo Gateway Initiative. Sen. Ted Kennedy loved what they were doing and would bellow “Reviviendo” whenever he came to Lawrence.

Victories big and small

By this time, LCW had expanded its team. Traynor brought in one of his former Lowell colleagues, Liz Gutierrez, to work with Super Church on planning and zoning. André Leroux – now head of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance – joined the effort. On the community side, Alma Couverthié helped make LCW’s resident foundation stronger.

LCW enjoyed victories big and small.  It developed youth and family programs. It did infill housing, and worked with sister organization Groundwork Lawrence to add parks and clean up open space near the city’s rivers. It built consensus with residents, mill owners and the city on a master plan. The new zoning – adopted in 2003 – provided a template for neighborhood revitalization. “We wanted people to think about their ideal neighborhood while working to get the city to approve mixed-use by right,” said Andors. “It was a marriage of vision and practicality.” 

LCW Deputy Director Juan Bonilla, who went to Bowdoin College and left the private sector to work for LCW in 2004, says the mixed-use zoning changed everything. No longer was a manufacturing revival the only hope. Since 2003, seven mills have been transformed into over 700 apartments. Another six mills totaling another 700 units are in pipeline.

Other mills – most notably Marianne Paley Nadel’s Everett Mills and Sal Lupoli’s RiverWalk Properties – have been redeveloped into commercial centers. LCW tackled mill development too, transforming Southwick and the nearby Duck Mill (together, Union Crossing) into 60 and 73 affordable apartments respectively, plus 26 artist studios and affordable office space. Both received long-term financing from MHP. “We made the leap into mill development as a means to an end,” said Andors. “The real estate is the visible stuff. Organizing people and understanding their gifts is the core of what we do.”

See the 'gifts in front of us'

Jacoba Olivero is one of those gifts. After moving to Lawrence from the Dominican Republic, Jacoba’s husband died, leaving her with an eight- and five-year-old to raise.  “I didn’t speak any English,” she said. “The only thing I could do was drive.”

She learned English. She cleaned motel rooms, worked at Pizza Hut, a textile mill, and as a cleaning supervisor. Her determination inspired her children, Cesarina and Leuvis. “Me and my brother never wanted to let her down,” said Cesarina.  

They didn’t. Cesarina has a master’s degree in criminal justice from Ana Maria College, and is now Dean of Discipline for the Lawrence Public Schools. Leuvis graduated from Trinity College, speaks seven languages and is a freelance journalist in Brazil.

In 2010, while taking a course at LCW, Jacoba realized she could give back to others like her. She started volunteering at LCW and was asked to join the board, where she co-leads the Program committee. Today, she’s taking college courses in social work so she can help new immigrants make it in Lawrence.

When Andors urged the Duck Mill crowd to see the “gifts in front of us,” she was talking about people like Jacoba Olivero. She was talking about the opportunities she and the other LCW originals see every morning when they open their eyes. 

They know Lawrence still faces challenges in terms of reducing crime, increasing employment, and improving its schools. All they ask is that people look beyond negative stories and people that use immigrants as cannon fodder in order to divide us. They ask that you see the progress and potential too.

This focus has stood LCW well. It has grown into a $3 million organization with over 5,000 residents and stakeholder members. It has generated over $110 million in investments, including 210 units of affordable housing on 15 abandoned and vacant parcels. It has developed a new community center, four new playgrounds and a range of programs that have impacted thousands of families.

LCW has earned respect within the community development field, and the confidence of private and public investors, including MHP. All told, MHP has used its private funds to provide $7 million for the financing of 133 affordable apartments. Its ONE Mortgage Program has helped 630 low- and moderate-income families buy their first home, leveraging over $133 million in private mortgage financing. Of these buyers, 387 came through LCW’s homebuyer support programs.   

 “LCW is extremely effective at engaging residents,” said Joe Kriesberg, president of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations. “They have built a real constituency that builds change over time because they are in Lawrence, living it every day.”