Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

"This Would Be a Ghost Town": Urban Crisis and Latino Migration in Lawrence, 1945-2000

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

"This Would Be a Ghost Town": Urban Crisis and Latino Migration in Lawrence, 1945-2000

Article excerpt

There are two very different ways to tell the story of how Lawrence, Massachusetts came to be the city it is today. The first version explains how the textile industry, the backbone of Lawrence's economy, left the city after World War II, provoking an economic collapse. The city's population, mainly hardworking mill operatives with an array of European-immigrant origins, declined dramatically after the mills closed. This version of the story claims that the struggling city came to be populated by a motley cast of drug dealers, gang members, and welfare cheats. The huge brick mills that had formerly attracted international attention for the scale of their industrial output began to crumble with decay, becoming the haunt of addicts and arsonists. Nearby residents drove in an arc around the city, rather than driving through to get to the other side. Lawrence soon earned the moniker "the armpit of the Northeast" and was widely derided throughout the region.

The second version tells how Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrants were drawn to Lawrence in the early 1960s to work in the few low-wage manufacturing jobs that still remained in the city. Migrant networks beckoned others to Lawrence, and family and friends of the original Latino settlers joined their kin in the city. This version of the story explains how the diverse Latino population of the city swelled, with Dominicans coming to predominate. By 2000, the U.S. census reported that the majority of residents were Latino.

An array of Latino-owned businesses sprung up in New England's first Latinomajority city. Some provided transnational services like shipping, travel, and money transfers. Others provided bilingual/bicultural services and products for local Latinos, Latin American foods (either in groceries or in restaurants), local taxi services and transportation by van to Latino neighborhoods in New York City, bilingual/ bicultural health and legal services, assistance obtaining a home or access to government social services, and Spanish-language and bilingual media. Still other Latino-owned businesses provided leisure sites, such as bars and nightclubs that catered to a Latino clientele. Latinos came to the forefront of Lawrence's public culture as Spanish became the main language of commerce and conviviality in the city, as bachata, merengue, and reggaeton regularly floated through the summer air, and as the streets and parks of the city became the sites for public celebrations of Latin American and Latino cultures.

These two versions of Lawrence's recent history, the one emphasizing Lawrence's crisis and the other its Latinization, are both true in most respects (although the story of Lawrence's descent into criminality and decay has often been wildly exaggerated). Lawrence is both a shocking example of the extreme impact of deindustrialization and urban crisis, and an unparalleled illustration of the extent to which Latinos have transformed U.S. cities in recent decades. Two questions remain, however. The first is how do these two versions of Lawrence's history relate? In other words, what does Lawrence's crisis have to do with Latino settlement in the city? And the second is why should anyone care? Lawrence is a tiny, seven-square mile city with less than 100,000 residents on the border between Massachusetts and New Hampshire; should anyone be invested in learning its history? This article will attempt to answer both of these questions, exploring the relationship between urban crisis and Latino settlement and will also propose that the history of such small cities is emblematic of larger changes in globalized urbanism.1

As Lawrence's economy and social infrastructure decayed alongside its physical infrastructure, many longtime residents blamed Latinos for the city's decline. Some white residents believed that Latinos had brought with them the poverty, crime, and deterioration that plagued Lawrence. To those who scapegoated Latinos for the city's problems, the connection between the city's crisis and its new Latino population seemed obvious. …

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