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One City’s Road to Recovery Offers Lessons, and Hope in Lawrence, MA

By Eduardo Porter, New York Times

Lawrence, Mass., once an industrial power, set out to reverse a long decline with the Federal Reserve’s help. Now it faces a new economic challenge.


This old textile-mill town, 30 miles north of Boston on the Merrimack River, was once a standard-bearer for America’s industrial power. That was a long time ago. Over the last decade, the state took over its schools after math and English scores plummeted to the bottom 1 percent of Massachusetts rankings and the dropout rate soared to three times the state average.


A textile hub in the early 20th century, Lawrence became one of the poorest cities in Massachusetts in the early years of the 21st. It was overcome by heroin and crime. City Hall was tarnished by corruption scandals. In 2012, Boston Magazine bestowed an unwelcome title: “City of the Damned.”


Now the coronavirus pandemic has cast an additional pall over Lawrence, as it has on the rest of the economy. But for the many small cities that have long been left behind, struggling to find a place in the new economy, Lawrence offers a glimmer of hope that they may have a shot at recovery.


While there are empty storefronts and boarded windows downtown, the price of the typical Lawrence home increased $100,000 over the last five years, to nearly $280,000, according to Zillow. The high school dropout rate, nearly 30 percent a decade ago, is now under 12 percent. And the income of the typical Lawrence family, which five years ago had tumbled to just over 55 percent of the median family income in the United States, inched back to 61 percent.


Incomplete and tentative, Lawrence’s progress suggests that concerted efforts to reinvigorate depressed local economies — long considered a waste of time by most economists — might offer some promise.


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