Irish immigrants, seeking escape from famine and hopelessness in the 1840s, settled in Montana ,where they found jobs and survival in the cooper mines. One of them, writing home to family saving money for the same passage of hope, enthusiastically proclaimed “Don’t stop in the United States come to Montana.”
Those finding jobs in the mills of Lawrence might have written a similar letter. The place is incidental to those seeking hope and possibility.
As the ocean remakes the contour of the shore, so, too, did the changing tide of ethnic identity reshape the city of Lawrence. Seen through the eyes of someone coming of age in the Lawrence of 1950s, today’s city would be unrecognizable in many ways.
Unlike some in my generation, I am not lamenting the loss of the Lawrence I knew, but rather am embracing the hope and categorical imperative of evolution — the essence of all life is change. I was heartened when Lawrence finally had its first Hispanic mayor. The dying embers of one culture are fanned and become the spark for whatever follows —out of the detritus and decay of the old something new is born.
When the textile mills began their southern migration, the livelihood and hope of many in Lawrence went “south” with it. Many decades later, the same hope of a better life receded further into the distance as Lawrence’s first Hispanic mayor demonstrated clearly with his actions what he was all about.
The changing ethnic tides, as it did with the Irish, brought malignant algae seeking only to secure a life of privilege, power and control over the population they purported to serve. Hope slowly ebbed away, as it became apparent that the outgoing mayor of Lawrence, like the immigrant miners in Montana extracting cooper from an Earth reluctant to yield its bounty to human kind, saw public office as an opportunity to extract whatever he could from an Hispanic community consumed with the day to day issues of survival. The aftermath of his incompetence was of little consequence to him.
In Lawrence of the 1950s, it was still possible to predict someone’s ethnicity by the parish they belong to. The 2010 census showed that the Irish population had fallen to 4 percent. There is a certain comfort in being surrounded by those who share a common culture and heritage.
But, as the city discovered, this does not inoculate the populace against the ambition of a politician, Irish or Hispanic, who looked upon the city as his personal fiefdom. Competence was often incidental to and casualty of loyalty with a mayor whose governing philosophy required more than just a symbolic oath of fealty. Like some Irish pols before him, Lantigua practiced the art of cronyism in the shadows and dark corners of city hall.
Early signs indicate that, while the calendar and recent weather may suggest otherwise, it appears that spring has arrived very early in Lawrence this year — on Jan. 4, to be precise. With friend and political ally Elizabeth Warren administering the oath of office, Dan Rivera became the second mayor of Lawrence of Hispanic heritage.
The new mayor is pulling up the shades and opening the windows in a city hall that, in recent years, was suffocating with the stale air and darkness where political wheeling and dealing festers. Spring cleaning, the actual and symbolic rite of renewal, is in process if the new mayor’s initial actions can be seen as a promise of things to come.
Some in the greater Lawrence community who don’t share my politics may take issue, but I find the inclusion of Elizabeth Warren in the ceremonial beginning of the new mayor’s term very hopeful. In responding to a question about what she wanted to see if she was not approved to head the Consumer Protection Bureau she responded, “plenty of bloody teeth on the floor.” She is a “street fighter” in the best, metaphorical sense of that term. I sense a kindred spirit in Mayor Rivera.
The parallel with Irish politicians in the history of Lawrence and the outgoing mayor may suggest to some that corruption and scandal are inevitable, regardless of ethnic identity. If so, there is real hope that the cult of cronyism that gripped the city was relegated to history when Dan Rivera recited his oath of office. History need not be destiny.
While being led by someone whose ethnicity is reflected in the faces and culture of people he serves may provide a sense of belonging and comfort, recent history has shown it is not enough. You need to start with a good man — a good human being.
Dan Rivera, a man, whose very name bridges the city’s past and present, seems to be “that good man” with a vision of the future not bounded by the navel gazing self absorption of the last mayor. The purging, the extricating of the city from the clutches of the culture of the cronyism has begun. From the vantage point of someone who still cares about Lawrence, the future feels hopeful.
I am heartened by the prideful exuberance that shone through words from Mayor Rivera’s inaugural address, “We are Lawrence — a community that has and always will have a strong work ethic, strong families and, yes, a strong accent.”
Jim Cain writes from North Andover.