The Founding: Roots in Community Organizing
Lawrence CommunityWorks was founded in 1986 under its original name, Heritage Common Community Development Corporation, by a local group of affordable housing activists. Since 1981, they had been organized and working as a nonprofit entity named Immigrant City Community Housing Corporation seeking to develop 140 units of high-quality affordable housing on a large tract of land within the North Common neighborhood. The site had become blighted by the demolition of hundreds of residential units in triple-deckers and other structures as part of an urban renewal plan. Recognizing that the Lawrence Redevelopment Authority’s Request for Proposals failed to ensure an adequate low-income component in the redevelopment process—and violated federal law—Immigrant City devised and executed an organizing strategy involving the civil rights of several displaced residents from that North Common neighborhood to legally compel the City to re-institute the process. Ultimately, Immigrant City won the competitive selection process to become developer of the much-needed affordable housing, as the real estate market crashed and development conditions worsened drastically.
The community-based group sought ways to enhance its effectiveness to deal with the many challenges ahead. Thanks to the visionary leadership of Board President Leonard F. Raymond and the undaunted efforts of its pro-bono legal counsel, Armand Hyatt, Immigrant City’s Directors organized and formed our present-day CDC, thus augmenting its development options and providing an ongoing capacity for residents and local business participants to address other pressing neighborhood issues to engage more fully in a broader mission of community development. This organizing effort was successful in two respects: the establishment of our beloved CDC and the completion of 140 high-quality, aesthetically pleasing and affordable limited-equity cooperative residences known as Heritage Common. Special thanks go out to Len Raymond (original Executive Director), Armand Hyatt (original Board Chair), Isabel Melendez (original Community Organizer), along with Modesto Maldonado, Pat Smith, Father Bob Guessetto, Ana Colon, Rev. Jim Keller, Jacques Fournier, Charles Crowley and Angela Harty, the founders of our much loved organization.
The Early and Growing Years
After changing the organization’s original name to Lawrence Planning & Neighborhood Development Corporation to avoid confusion with the family housing development, the Board of Directors of the CDC, expanded its territorial boundaries beyond the North Common neighborhood, both westerly and northerly, and undertook as projects the successful acquisition and major renovation of two residential sites within the newly-expanded boundaries a 38-unit housing complex, Berkeley Place Apartments, and a 5-unit wood-frame building, Bradford Apartments. Our current organization still owns and manages both properties as affordable housing. During these early and middle years, LPNDC sought to address other issues important to the community and operated a successful arson prevention program to combat the arson terror that raged through Lawrence prior to and during that period. This was the first step by the organization to actively engage youth in community development work, as the “Junior Firefighters” worked in conjunction with the City’s Fire Department.
Crisis in Leadership and a Dramatic Turn-Around
The organization continued into the 90s with a strong Board, but its capacity on the staff level dwindled. A number of both paid and volunteer executive directors did their best to build the capacity of the organization, but the CDC began to slip into disarray. By 1998, the organization was in crisis and had little capacity, beyond the core board leadership and its one remaining staff person besides the executive director—a property manager who also handled coordination of youth programs. This situation was exacerbated by funding problems, as the CDC had received notice that it would be defunded by both the city and the state, and the confidence of private funders had dissipated. In the spring of 1999, the core members of the CDC Board faced an uncertain future.
Fortunately, during 1998, three graduate students from MIT’s Department of Urban Studies & Planning—Kristen Harol, Tamar Kotelchuck and Jessica Andors—had begun working with the CDC in the North Common neighborhood and were excited to connect with community development professional Bill Traynor, a Lawrence native who had been consulting in his native City. They worked together to design a community organizing effort to engage residents in building a neighborhood association and developing a plan for redevelopment and began to enlist the support of the CDC board members, because the three grad students had realized great success engaging residents in a range of organizing and planning activities and in starting a new after school and summer program for youth.
Ultimately, the success of this work prompted the board members of LPNDC to turn to Bill Traynor, to propose that he take on the challenge of revitalizing the then floundering organization. On July 12, 1999, the Board voted Bill as its new Executive Director and Debra Fox, a well known and experienced affordable housing development expert, became the CDC’s Director of Real Estate. Bill asked founding board member and ongoing pro-bono general counsel, Armand Hyatt, to serve again as Board Chair and the CDC moved into a storefront office at 197 Essex Street to begin a remarkable turnaround and reinvention of the CDC, now known as Lawrence CommunityWorks, Inc.
The new team made quick and productive use of an extraordinary level of board activism and volunteerism, including countless hours of professional expertise in banking, real estate law and information systems. They were soon joined by Alma Couverthié, a remarkable community organizer, who helped establish a CDC rooted in community organizing and resident engagement under a newly coined banner: “Reviviendo” (Re-Birth).
Today, Lawrence CommunityWorks has a membership of thousands of Lawrence families, an energetic board and professional staff, and has generated over $70 million in new neighborhood investment, including 162 units of affordable housing on 15 abandoned and vacant parcels, a new community center, three new playgrounds and a range of family asset building and youth development efforts, impacting over thousands of families in Lawrence. Most important, Lawrence CommunityWorks has become one of the major forces for equitable development and economic justice in Lawrence, and one of the most dynamic and effective CDCs in Massachusetts.