For young families struggling to make their start, Lawrence offers an opportunity that is hard to resist — properties priced well below the averages in surrounding communities.
The hope of many of these families is to buy low, invest their money and hard work in their property and once they’re on a more solid financial footing later in life, sell it at a profit and move on to the city’s leafier suburbs.
That’s the way Lawrence has worked for generations. But for the current crop of young families, this pursuit of the American dream comes with an added cost — the risk of exposing their children to the squalor and degeneracy of life in one of the state’s poorer communities.
Last week, reporter Keith Eddings told the story of one such young family that is investing its time, money and hopes for the future in a duplex on Cedar Street. Alex Serrano, 30, and his wife, Lillian, 28, take good care of their property. But they worry about the risks to their three young children posed by the abandoned and filthy property — some of it owned by the city itself — that surrounds them.
The alley and vacant lots that surround the Serranos’ home on three sides are frequented by drug users, prostitutes and illegal dumpers. The addicts leave their used needles where they fall or stuck into trees. The prostitutes and their customers use filthy mattresses dumped on the property and leave condoms scattered on the ground. Dumpers use the lots to dispose of old televisions, tires, furniture and ordinary household trash.
“It’s disgusting,” Lillian Serrano said. “What if the kids get stuck with a needle? They’re kids. They don’t know what those things are.”
Illicit activity in the vacant lots peaked a year ago, just before the Police Department was able to reestablish a narcotics unit that budget cuts had idled for two years. That’s when Serrano erected a solid six-foot fence around his property.
From their rear deck, they still see what goes on all around them.
“Two days ago, my wife heard a noise,” Serrano told Eddings. “When she went to the second floor, she could see a couple having sex (on a mattress in the alley). It was in the day. I think it was 9 in the morning. It was early.”
Serrano has called the police when he has witnessed drug use on the property. But when police arrive, the addicts scatter, only to return later. He has tried to get the city to do something about cleaning up the vacant property, with scant success until our reporter began asking questions.
An initial call to the Department of Public Works produced little more than frustration, Serrano said. The attitude he encountered was: What do you want us to do? It’s Lawrence.
DPW Chief John Isensee told Eddings that’s not a standard response and followed up by sending a clean-up crew to the vacant lots. They needed a front-loader, a bobcat tractor and a truck.
The Serranos may be tiring of the struggle. Serrano, who works at a Whole Foods in Bedford, said he is considering selling the house he bought five years ago and moving to Haverhill, Methuen or Andover.
Young families like the Serranos who are willing to take a chance on Lawrence and back that gamble with their money, sweat and tears are the only hope the city has. If Lawrence loses them, the city is well and truly sunk.