Lawrence reborn: A polluted mill town reclaims its future

The Merrimack River helped small towns such as Lawrence become industrial centers in the late 1800s, drawing mill companies to the nearby source of water power. Today, many of the mills are brownfields – potentially contaminated sites that are costly to remediate or redevelop. Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor.

When Lesly Melendez recalls her walk to school as a child in Lawrence, Mass., she remembers the six-foot-tall fence cloaked in black cloth and decorated with caution tape. “Keep Out” signs warned passersby away from the so-called Dresden of Lawrence, the burned bones of the former Russell Paper Mill.

“As a kid growing up and walking by things like that…,” Ms. Melendez trails off and sighs.

But her childhood neighborhood looks more appealing today. After years of stop-and-start cleanup, the Russell Mill site is now Oxford Site Park, a green welcome mat for the city. It’s an open space with a bike path. Long grasses bend in the wind, free from any fence.

And this park may have helped the city grow opportunity as well as greenery. Lawrence, long one of New England’s poorest and most polluted communities, has become a center for public and nonprofit job training programs. They are certifying locals to clean up brownfields, properties where redevelopment is stalled because of potential pollution.

Job training grants from the Environmental Protection Agency in particular have enabled hundreds of local workers to boost their résumés, lead change where they live, and transform polluted eyesores into redevelopment opportunities.

The city’s success – and its collaborative approach – could offer a model for other low-income minority neighborhoods ridden with abandoned industrial sites. For Lawrence, brownfields like the Russell Paper Mill are about more than jobs and blight. Cleaning up past pollution boosts a community’s self-esteem.

“Brownfields are one of the programs where you really see the connection between environmental justice and opportunity,” says Alexandra Dunn, administrator for the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 1, which includes the six New England states. “Through these grants we can create a very different chemistry in these communities – one that is focused on economic vitality and the future, as opposed to the historic presence of pollution.”

Across the country, hot spots for pollution are disproportionately located in low-income communities such as Lawrence. For today’s young residents, often nonwhite and immigrant families, the legacy of pollution is a stark example of environmental injustice. 01-11-19

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