LAWRENCE – Joshua Jimenez spent the first few months of his senior year at Lawrence High School crowded into a Haverhill hotel with his family and then at his uncle's home elsewhere in Lawrence, after he and his family were forced from their own home on Osgood Street following the gas disaster on Sept. 13.
Jimenez and his family were displaced for almost two months, until Columbia Gas restored service to their home and made sure it was safe for them to return.
Now he's being forced out again by one of the ongoing effects of the disaster, this time from the tennis courts at Sullivan Park where he plays for the high school team.
The city took over the courts in September in a frantic search for space to park hundreds of trailers to house other victims of the gas disaster. It began towing the trailers off the courts in November as service was restored and families began returning home. But the damage was done. The six asphalt courts were crushed under the weight of the trailers and fencing was ripped out to make room for the encampment.
The courts won't be repaired anytime soon. The city just recently received bids for the work, which was bundled into another bid to repair other damage at the South Common where another trailer park was opened. A third was opened in the parking lot at Pemberton Park, where less damage was done.
The city hasn't yet awarded the bid to repair the tennis courts and the South Common, but Public Works Director Carlos Jaquez said it's likely to go to a company that bid $2.8 million. Jaquez said the city is seeking to recover that from Columbia Gas, but he said the home court for Jimenez and the 30 so other boys and girls on the high school's tennis team is lost for the season.
Beginning with the first day of tryouts on March 18, the team will be bused to practices and matches elsewhere, said Eric Allshouse, the coach of the boys team. Where isn't known yet. Chelmsford has offered to host some of the practices and matches, but the 32-mile round trip may be too far, high school Athletic Director Brendan Neilon said.
In interviews beside the high school courts last week, the teenage athletes expressed a mix of feelings about losing their home court: some heartbreak, a tinge of resentment, a good deal of satisfaction that their sacrifice was for a good cause, an understanding that it all could have been much worse. One city high school student, Leonel Rondon, a senior at Phoenix Academy, was killed in the disaster when a Chickering Road house exploded just after he pulled into the driveway, causing its chimney to fall on his car.
“When I saw the RVs take the park away, I knew this was going to happen,” Jimenez said, referring to recreational vehicles, also known as trailers. “I expected the worst. But at the end of the day, those families in the same tragedy, they had to relocate just as I did. But it was sad to see the (courts) just destroyed like that.”
“A lot of these guys, we've all spent summer here playing tennis,” said Bladimir Guerrero, a 17-year-old senior who hopes to play for Middlesex Community College next year. “We'd be playing right now if we could.”
There's a mean irony for Lawrence High School athletes, called Lancers, in losing their tennis courts for a season. Two years ago, the football and track teams were forced out of Veterans Memorial Stadium after it was rented out for a concert and cultural festival that drew as many as 10,000 people. The morning after showed the track and artificial turf field covered in trash, urine, cooking oil, broken glass and foot-deep holes where spikes were driven to hold the stage. The field and the track were destroyed, but rebuilt in time to allow the football team to host the Thanksgiving game with Central Catholic High School. The work cost more than $500,000.
The tennis team won't be as lucky.
“Happening twice, it makes you think that maybe some people don't care about Lawrence as much as they should,” Guerrero said. “With the festival, the negligence of Columbia Gas, it makes you think, what's to stop it from happening a third time?”
Mayor Daniel Rivera said he remembers feeling as though he should be always on guard for the city during his four years at Lawrence High School, where he played center on the football team at Veterans Stadium. He said he carried that feeling into City Hall.
“People always told us not to expect the best,” Rivera said about his high school years. “Both what happened at Veterans Stadium and at the tennis courts and Sullivan Park were things that people did to us. And like we did the first time, we're going to go after them. Just because you're from Lawrence doesn't mean you will let people take advantage of you. We haven't, and we won't let that happen here.”
“It's sad. It's our home,” said John Mendez, 16, a junior on the tennis team. “There's nothing better than playing a tennis match at home representing your city. But at the same time, it feels good to know we gave our court to help our community, because Lawrence was going through a hard moment. Things like that happen. There's nothing we can do. Some people say it's because we're Lawrence. I don't see it that way. I don't think that way. Lawrence is a great community.”