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Down in the Valley: a community fights hard times.

America's economic decline began north of Boston in the Merrimack Valley. What has since happened to the steelworks of South Chicago and the defense plants of Orange County started in the planned mill towns along the stretch of the Merrimack River that Thoreau avoided. They grew up overnight, produced immense wealth and squalor, and lasted a little less than a century. Ever since the 1920s, when the textile mills and shoe factories and machine shops began to go south, Lowell and Lawrence have been dying a cruelly slow death.

In Lawrence, which has been the uglier sister ever since the 1840s, industrial ruin is everywhere to be seen. Between the river and canals run miles of brick walls with thousands of shattered windows. Some broken structures lie half buried under mounds of dirt, like archeological sites awaiting excavation, and you can walk by without even noticing what was once a brick turbine house or manager's office. In the 1960s Wang came to Lowell to build minicomputers, and for two decades the city enjoyed a modest revival. This time the cycle of boom and bust was much faster. Between 1988 and 1992, as Wang missed the personal computer revolution, Lowell lost almost a quarter of its manufacturing jobs. In 1992, Wang declared bankruptcy; in February its $60 million complex of towers on the city's edge, almost as empty as the old mills, was sold for $525,000.

The abandoned mills are haunted by ghosts, but thousands of the living, many of them recent immigrants from Latin America and Southeast Asia following earlier generations of Europeans, still live and work in these towns. They confront daily the same problems the rest of the country has become so despairingly. familiar with: bad schools, decaying houses, arson, drug-dealing and violent crime, incompetent and bankrupt government, jobs that disappear overnight.

The place where decline began is a very tough place to arrest that decline. In 1989 an organizer named Ken Galdston arrived in the valley and began interviewing every local leader he could find in order to construct an organization that would address the region's problems. The idea of a Merrimack Valley Project (M.V.P.) represented the refinement of Galdston's twenty years of experience. He was trained at Saul Alinsky's Industrial Areas Foundation in Chicago, which organized among people in poor neighborhoods. There were dramatic confrontations with city hall, and "the attitude was that the government and corporations and others had resources," Galdston told me. "It was a question of our getting our share of them." By the late 1970s, Galdston was in Buffalo, organizing exclusively through congregations on neigbborhood and consumer issues like housing and redlining; at the same time, "there was this elephant around the corner about to come walking through and we had no strategy for it."

The elephant was deindustrialization, and the havoc it began wreaking in Buffalo's steel mills convinced Galdston that community organizations could not afford to focus on narrow issues while ignoring unions and economic development. For a new model he turned to an old one, the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, Alinsky's original coalition of groups from Chicago in the 1940s. In the early 1980s Galdston revived the idea on a larger geographical scale in Connecticut's old brass towns, building a coalition of churches, unions, tenant groups and other institutions to address regional job loss and decay. The Naugatuck Valley Project emphasized local control over economic resources and undertook employee buyouts of factories, pushed for tenant-owned housing and started a home care cooperative.

In the Merrimack Valley there is no immediate crisis comparable to the closing of the Naugatuck Valley's large brass factories; the major companies don't have deep regional roots and the decay of neighborhoods and cities is more acute. Local control over land, housing and employment--what Galdston calls "a significant new vision"--remains a long-term goal, but in its first years the M.V.P.'s battles have been more rear-guard and modest. To turn a region of such affliction around, Galdston said, "We need to build a political base for the control and distribution of services."

Its public face is its members: a warehouse worker, a retired planner, a hairdresser, a mother of four on unemployment. But behind the scenes Galdston is constantly coaxing, reminding, looking for ordinary people who, roused by a particular problem, are willing to give time, be trained, speak and act on behalf of problems beyond their own circumstances. Galdston gives them a vocabulary ("leaders," "actions," "winnable fights") and the skills to interview neighbors, hold meetings, research city records, confront mayors, appeal to the press. In other words, he turns them into organizers. A labor expert who has followed Galdston's work said, "Organizers like Ken have a gift, like the early missionaries. He makes people aware of deep feelings and longings they already have inside."

The longing is for community. In the two bitterly cold months I spent with the project this winter, the word was repeated so often that its meaning seemed as various as the people involved. It meant a neighborhood, city or universe, what people had when they were growing up and lost somewhere along the way, leaving a void that's been filled by the information superhighway, 9 mm. handguns and jobs at Wal-Mart. It is, of course, the thing that the Reagan/Bush years and deindustrialization are supposed to have destroyed.

In this sense, though the Merrimack Valley Project is not just nonpartisan but resolutely specific in its issues, its aim is almost revolutionary. It wants to build this thing called community along the Merrimack from Lowell to Newburyport, among towns that have been looking inward since the Puritans, across the barriers of ethnicity and religion, against the American grain of individualism. It brings together the physicist from Westford and the factory worker from Haverhill, the suburban middle class and the urban working poor, under the pressure of forces both psychological and global that conspire to drive them into separate fortified worlds.

Around two years ago a New England supermarket chain was bought out by a Los Angeles investment firm and immediately announced it would close its warehouse outside Lowell; 650 jobs, 480 of them union, would be eliminated. "The company never approached us," a warehouse worker named Jeff Surprenant told me. "That's what hurt. Guys would have taken a $5-an-hour cut. We were all willing to give. But there were never any negotiations, just |We're shutting down.' "

The Teamsters picketed the supermarkets through the winter. By then Local 829 was a member group of the M.V.P., and other groups began to take up the cause. "That gave us a lot of credibility," said Mike Ferguson, a shop steward. "When you have a Teamster saying, |Don't take my job,' that's one thing, but when you have priests or reverends saying, |Pray for these boys, what hurts them hurts us,' that made a difference." Through the Catholic archdiocese in Boston and Los Angeles, the project contacted one of the investment partners. "We'll talk jobs," the company told the union. "Tell them to stop preaching against us next Sunday." In the end, the company and the union settled: A third of the union jobs would be kept, with a pay cut, for at least three more years; a severance package was worked out for the hundreds of laid-off workers.

The project has followed this pattern in numerous labor disputes across the valley, from a hospital closing to layoffs at an A.T.&T. plant: It uses economic impact studies and publicity to transform what had been narrowly seen as union-management issues into matters that concern the whole town or region. As a result the unions lose a certain amount of control. "They're being forced to," said Tim Costello, a business agent for the Service Employees International Union. "And it's good for the unions, which are far too insular. It also gets other people thinking about what a community is: It's economic and social life and how they're related. It's jobs and community policing."

Mike Ferguson kept his job at the warehouse; Jeff Surprenant lost his. The accident of seniority has had profound consequences for their lives as individuals and members of a community. Ferguson has become a vice president of the project, reading books on Saul Alinsky and Robert Moses. After losing his job, Surprenant, his wife and three children moved out of t heir Lowell apartment into a smaller one next to I-495. We talked in his kitchen: He was resting between two fourteen-hour night shifts driving an ambulance. A month after his unemployment benefits ran out, Surprenant got a job as an emergency medical technician: $6.50 an hour, almost $10 per hour less than he'd made at the warehouse. The family had suddenly fallen from the working class into the widening pool of the working poor. He has neither a union nor the camaraderie of the other warehouse workers. Surprenant seems to be going it alone now, too burdened to think of turning to the project.

The case of the warehouse illustrates the limits of what a regional coalition can do in the face of economic pressures coming from Los Angeles or farther afield. Two-thirds of the jobs at the warehouse were lost. A community hospital where the project tried to assist an employee buyout was sold to another hospital and later closed. The enormous A.T.&T. plant in North Andover, with a sophisticated electronic production facility, laid off a thousand workers last year and could shut down at any time, leaving yet another behemoth lying empty in the Merrimack Valley. The M.V.P. has delayed some blows and softened others, but in Tim Costello's words, "they're sort of going against the trend of Western civilization."

The hardest case in the valley is Lawrence, and one of the hardest cases in Lawrence is the Hancock Courts housing project.

The 1990 census showed Lawrence to be the twenty-third poorest city in the country, with one of the fastest rates of impoverishment. The official Hispanic population is 42 percent; unofficial estimates put it at more than 60 percent, most of them recent immigrants from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. They came for the low-skilled factory jobs that were already draining out of Lawrence before the latest recession just about finished them off. Amid the resulting poverty, hundreds of houses--the dense tenements built for the European immigrant mill workers--have been abandoned. In the past few years arson has exploded across the city and overwhelmed the undermanned Fire Department.

So perhaps it shouldn't seem strange that a poor and bleak project like Hancock Courts is considered the "anchor" of its neighborhood. It consists of eleven three-story brick block-houses with 600 people inside, and not a tree or shrub or blade of grass on the grounds--not even a jungle gym. A maintenance man gave me a tour of empty apartments. The rot under sinks and wreckage in bathrooms seemed to come from the indifference of tenants and management alike.

Lois Valentin is president of the tenants council; she and the vice president, Felicita Caminero, monitor the project by telephone-tree in a losing battle against drug dealers. They try to induce other tenants to come to council meetings. Last June, backed by the M.V.P., they conducted a tour of Hancock Courts for local and state officials and afterward presented a list of demands for improvements. A housing bond bill was signed by Governor William Weld, and now Valentin is trying to persuade the Lawrence Housing Authority to lobby for its share of the funds. "If Hancock sees it," she says, "it'll be a miracle."

Valentin recently lost her job at Head Start after her car was stolen. She never had a real education and struggles against great odds: a horrifying past, with abuse of every kind; poverty; obesity that obliges her to use crutches. Hancock Courts actually represents a degree of stability and happiness for her, and her work with the project has given her confidence she didn't have. "I liked the fact that they acknowledged we existed, the fact that our help meant something. It's the first time the city listened and acted as if we were important."

But before long Valentin and Caminero's embattlement and isolation were plain to see. The M.V.P. takes more from them than it gives, the women said, and wants credit for what their tenants council has done. In the project's view, of course, it's a matter of mutual support.

"I don't expect them to solve everything at once," Valentin said. "I'd be glad if they made a small dent."

"You don't expect miracles?"

"Oh, I always expect miracles. Small ones--if some of the better-organized groups outside Lawrence came here to help us out. They don't know our problems. Maybe they'd rather not know."

"You gotta be poor to understand," Felicita Caminero said. "Was Ken [Galdston] ever poor? I doubt it--he doesn't act like it. Or he's forgotten what it's like."

"There's a good side to Ken somewhere," said Lois Valentin. "It's just that I don't understand him. Maybe he doesn't understand me."

The M.V.P depends on a willingness to step over class divisions, but il's easy to imagine the reluctance of suburbanites, even with the best will in the world, to make Hancock Courts their fight.

Charles Tontar, an economics professor at Merrimack College who has worked with the firefighters union and the tenants council, told me that, given the city's dire state, the problems at Hancock Courts have to be treated like every other issue involving the project. "A right to have renovations is a losing issue. The way to win is to get other people to convince the city it's a community issue--you need to stabilize the neighborhood for the sake of the community. As long as Lois is the front person it's a management-tenant issue."

That's the way the project fights every battle it undertakes. It convinces a city official that people across the valley care whether a parish in Lowell gets a police substation. It tells the Lawrence City Council that hiring back firefighters isn't simply a union battle but a matter of citywide economic development, and it tells HUD that money for community firefighting is a way of bringing destroyed neighborhoods back to life.

Richard Lawrence, an African-American from Lawrence who was a member of the project until he was elected to the City Council, told me, "I'm very skeptical about its regional nature. I don't know what people in Lowell get out of going to a meeting on firefighting in Lawrence." He compared the project to his own earlier experiences in Chicago, where "there was fire in the belly and a clear enemy--the university. I don't see any enemies around here."

It's true that the project's personality is steady and unspectacular. Galdston himself strikes you that way: His most animated moments come not in public meetings but during the leadership sessions he gives to small groups of members, where, chalk in hand, he elicits reasons for the fragmentation of community and ideas about what went wrong in a campaign against neighborhood demolition in New York in the 1940s. His students analyze how to identify and pressure power brokers--banks, public officials, landlords--and draw spontaneous connections to their own campaigns. Mary Georgoulis, a Lowell hairdresser, told me that the word "leader" terrifies her. As they played out roles from the New York campaign, with organizers confronting a slippery, gladhanding city official portrayed by Galdston, it began to seem that this training was the project's most important contribution, its real work.

Galdston still speaks of the "significant new vision" of local control over resources and development. In the project's daily work it seems a distant inspiration that Galdston doesn't force on members. One group of tenants is trying to buy a federal housing project--but ownership is not an issue at Hancock Courts, where Lois Valentin and Felicita Caminero simply want a playground and new plumbing.

As for the elephant of deindustrialization, other than defensive battles, the response so far has mainly and perhaps necessarily been abstract: The project has become a player in a new outreach center at the university in Lowell that will provide technical help on modernization and conversion to small manufacturers in the valley. At a project meeting a member explained one of the practical benefits: Jobs will be created, people will be able to buy more groceries and warehousemen will keep working. The three Teamsters in the room, whose jobs at the warehouse are not guaranteed past 1995, nodded without conviction. Between the outreach center's long-term plans for reindustrialization and the Teamsters' short-term anxiety, there's a huge gap of almost separate realities.

The scramble for jobs resembles a desperate game of musical chairs, continually undermining the possibility of human community. Yet the project can't secede from the world its members live in. When Galdston brought up "democratic economic development strategies" at the training session, only a professional woman from Andover seemed to know what the phrase meant, and it didn't come up again. To the people who approach him for help and training, the issues are more specific and dire--threatened jobs, crime-ridden streets, unlivable housing. So the project looks for winnable fights and tries to create a community that can hold out amid all the opposing forces: the decay of cities, the emptiness of government coffers, the cynicism of politicians who don't see the point of dealing with an organization that doesn't deliver votes, the globalization of the economy. The mere fact that eighty churchgoers, workers and professionals from across the valley came to an organizational meeting to hear about one another's campaigns, as one of them later said, "on a weekday night in the middle of January, with the kind of winter we've had, in Lawrence, which is not a place where people go for fun," is an achievement of sorts in 1994 America.

"There is great success in developing individuals," Ken Galdston says. "But it can be evanescent, and you're always wrestling with the question of proportionality." Most members labor under the strain of families and jobs and constant worry about money. Mike Ferguson, the warehouseman, attends up to ten meetings a month, a pace that has burned out others, like Bill Middlemiss, a firefighter who worries that the life-span of other groups he's seen is about the five years of the project's existence. Some members seem to fall away when their particular campaign ends; some become frustrated with the difficulty of getting people around them to act on even the narrowest self-interest. Dennis Walsh, an electronics worker at A.T.&T., who joined because "the idea of the community coming together, meeting in a church, struck me as something lacking lately," wonders whether people he's trying to help are trying to help themselves.

Which brings us to the conundrum of quid pro quo--the project's "dynamic," according to Galdston. In theory, though they seem to have little in common, Lois Valentin helps Mary Georgoulis and then Mary Georgoulis helps Lois Valentin. Self-interest, not altruism, is the basis for community. But what if Andover, or even Lowell, doesn't really need Lawrence? What if reciprocity breaks down? Dennis Walsh said, "I can see that being the end of an organization." If, on the other hand, the project's "ethos," as Paul Dettman, a retired regional planner, put it, is "the idea that to some extent you are your brother's keeper," then there have to be enough people of decency and vision, like those I've described, to keep it going. Mutual support is no more inevitable than the war of all against all. Even most nice people find it hard to care, hard to act.

And yet this time the middle-class Protestant congregations from the suburbs, historic do-gooders from abolition to Nicaragua, are taking the risk of joining with poor people who live next door. The women at Hancock Courts are taking the risk of joining with suburban liberals who may abandon them in an instant. It's difficult to imagine a better organization or better people emerging from the battered Merrimack Valley. The project has already won some battles and prevented total loss in others; if it doesn't arrest a decay that's almost as old as the century, it will have done no worse than anyone could expect. And it will leave behind fifty or a hundred or 300 people who at least share an idea that their destinies in the valley are somehow connected.
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Title Annotation:Merrimack Valley
Author:Packer, George
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jun 27, 1994
Words:3419
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