Last Wednesday started out like nearly every other trip I ever made to Lawrence: Meet people in or near one of the old mills in the North Canal section of Lawrence, which, for me, involves driving North on Interstate 495 from Lowell and getting off at the Marston Street exit, and navigating the ever-present construction (which hints at things to come).
But last Wednesday was not like any other trip I had ever made to Lawrence, and the day was full of surprises. I was starting my day there with the rest of the Sandbox Leadership Institute (“SLI”) class of 2013, our fearless facilitator, Todd Fry, and a number of special guests. Our preparation had been: some assigned reading from the book “Huddle Fever” by Jeanne Schinto, and to consider some concepts we had discussed a week earlier during our orientation day.
One of the motivators that caused me to want to be part of SLI was my desire to challenge my point of view and attitude, especially with regard to the roles and relationships between people, various institutions, and the communities they interact within.
I believe that if one were to do a statistical analysis of the views and attitudes of everyone in my SLI class, I would be several standard deviations outside of the norm. That doesn’t make me wrong or right—just different; perhaps very different. But then…isn’t diversity important and valuable?
The day began at the Lawrence History Center’s Bread & Roses centennial exhibit on the top floor of the Essex Mill. There we met our classmates and special guests, and, eventually, gathered in our pre-assigned teams to being our “scavenger hunt” of Lawrence or Lowell, but not before some lively discussion and a group exercise wherein we all wrote down words or thoughts that came to our minds when we thought of Lawrence and Lowell.
This “scavenger hunt” would have us collecting observations and insights, pictures and notes, as opposed to the kind of hunt where you find physical things and bring them back with you to try to win a prize.
Since I live in Lowell, and have so little knowledge of and exposure to Lawrence, I was very happy that I was on one of the 3 teams assigned to explore Lawrence as part of the scavenger hunt we were on. My team gathered in the Union Street Grill on the first floor of the Essex Mill, conveniently owned by one of the team members. We reviewed the questions for us to consider as we explored Lawrence, and then all piled into the minivan driven by another teammate.
A personal observation which I did not share with the group was that while the exhibit and numerous books on the subject of Lowell and Lawrence, and the Bread & Roses strike, all mention the creation of tens of thousands of jobs that were more lucrative and appealing than farm and other work done previously by the laborers who came to these cities, the mill owners seemed to be perceived as purely bad, and the workers as purely good. Clearly there was a far more complicated, interdependent relationship between these groups of people, just as there is today between management and labor.
The first few places we visited were right there in the North Canal area: the Bell Tower building, Cambridge College and the Essex Art Center. This was the only part of Lawrence I was accustomed to seeing and spending time in, and yet I was already seeing more because a number of my teammates knew not only the buildings, but the people and businesses inside them. Around here, the construction and renovation, while frustrating to visitor and locals alike when trying to get around, is a bright sign of renewal and vitality for this city on the river. Also here is the Habitat for Humanity “ReStore” where donations of home construction-related materials are available for those working on Habitat homes.
Driving around Lawrence, we could see the history, represented by the beautiful churches and landmarks like the old Lawrence High School, and important institutions like the YMCA .There are many “multi-service” businesses which seem to have a core value such as hair styling or selling mobile phones, which also provide numerous other services. Many businesses sell food, though there is some question about the legality of some of them doing so.
I believe people should be free to buy food from anyone they want to, regardless of whether or not they possess a license to sell food. It would be better if the food people chose to purchase was good for them rather than not, but making the right choice is their responsibility. There is clearly often a struggle between cost and convenience, versus healthy or nutritious.
Our first stop after leaving North Canal was at the main building ofNorthern Essex Community College. As luck would have it, that day there was a student fair in the courtyard, where students of the college were able to learn about the many departments and course offerings available at the Lawrence and Haverhill campuses. One of the strong recommendations was from a man in his 40s who worked at the cafe. He thought the Senior Center was a must-see; it was already on our list, but his hearty recommendation meant that we HAD to see it.
Arriving next at the Senior Center, it was plain to see that this was a busy place with many visitors there for different reasons. The Senior Center was bustling with all kinds of people, not just seniors, looking to participate in one of many activities. One could see signs of the usual senior center activities such as meals and bingo, but also other things, like exercise classes and arts and crafts. At the front desk we met a young woman and young man who were dressed in their uniforms from Notre Dame and working at Senior Center as part of their work required by the school. They both had big smiles as they were greeting and assisting people.
We spent some time speaking with the Director of the Senior Center. Something I found especially interesting was the Director’s remark that many people were resistant to donating to the Senior Center because it was run by the city; the assumption was that since taxpayer dollars were funding it, that should be all they need; it is not. Yet, because the Senior Center is a government entity, it has very strict rules by which it may operate.
As we drove around,, I could see the challenges , but I also saw a lot of people trying to get things done and move ahead. Perhaps more than any other type of business, it was small, often ethnic, restaurants that according to people on our team and people we spoke with, appeared to be well-liked and doing well. From those in the know, Cafe Azteca was strongly recommended, as was Pollo Tipico, a Dominican fried chicken restaurant famous in Lawrence that is opening a second location in Lowell this fall.
After the Senior Center and before our final stop, we visited the Cor Unum Meal Center, a unique facility that provides free breakfasts and dinners to all in need every day of the week. The facility has but one paid staff member—the Director—all other work is performed by volunteers. Many individuals, organizations and companies donate money and food to help them in their mission. Visitors in need of a meal are welcomed at the door and seated at a table where their order is taken from the available menu of items at each meal, just like in a restaurant.
At the Cor Unum Meal Center, people are treated with dignity and respect, and no one is turned away. Children are not only welcomed, but are allowed in even without accompanying adults if that is their situation, and there is a table reserved just for kids at all times. In the nearly six years they have been in operation, Cor Unum has served over 1 million people – amazing! The Director of Cor Unum made a point of saying that since they do not accept any government money, they can operate as they see fit.
In comparing institutions like the Lawrence Senior Center and Cor Unum, I once again came to the conclusion that maintaining flexibility makes far more sense to me than relying on funds with many strings attached, but, in the end, we are all trying to solve the same problems.
This, I tell myself all the time, is why I do things like join the Sandbox Leadership Institute, or partner with people of different political parties than my own: To explore and test different solutions to common problems we all see. I long ago concluded that presumptions and prejudices exist aplenty across the political spectrum, and that we need more people looking, listening and speaking with one another. The SLI is a great way to make that happen.
Early in the day’s drive, it was said that the [Merrimack] river divides North and South Lawrence, and that the two sides were almost two different cities in how they felt. Indeed as we did loop through South Lawrence, I found that many of the neighborhoods appeared nicer than the Acre in Lowell where I live.
We completed our brief tour of Lawrence by driving through the industrial park which houses many large buildings, including a Staples fulfillment center, and then headed to the Tripoli Bakery for lunch and a couple of photographs. Tripoli is one of Lawrence’s landmarks and an institution.
It was interesting to hear everyone’s own stories of the day, both of Lawrence and of Lowell. I was left wanting more, and look forward to learning more about both cities on my own and with others. There are a lot of great things happening in the Merrimack Valley.