Ask nearly anyone on the North Shore what should be done to fix the city of Lawrence, and they’ll likely give you some big answers: Reduce drug use and crime, increase jobs, rehab the schools. But as Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera has discovered, there are smaller things that can be fixed, too. And all of those small things add up to big things.
There was no bus, for instance, to get people from the city’s outer neighborhoods to the downtown business section. The Little League baseball fields were in desperate need of upkeep. A sloping sidewalk and dangerous intersection at Lawrence and Park Streets made it hard to access a nearby community healthcare center.
“You see how awful the conditions are, you don’t feel very good about your city or yourself,” says Rivera. “So I think we have to [make] some of these investments so people have a better sense of Lawrence as a place we need to take care of.”
Changing the perception of Lawrence, both inside the city and out, is one of Rivera’s big, overarching goals as its young, exciting new leader. Elected in November 2013, Rivera beat out incumbent William Lantigua by just 81 votes after a ballot recount. Since then, Rivera has brought new hope and vibrancy to a mayor’s office that had been plagued by ongoing allegations of corruption.
“I’m trying to earn people’s trust by doing the right things,” he says. “It doesn’t mean we’re going to be right all the time or get it right all the time, but when we get it wrong, we’re honest about it.”
Rivera moved to Lawrence from the Bronx at the age of five with a single mother who kept him busy and involved in community activities. He had a paper route, was a Boy Scout, and was senior class secretary for his Lawrence High School class of 1989. Later, he served in Iraq and Kuwait during Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield before earning his bachelor’s degree from UMass Amherst and, later, his MBA from Suffolk University.
“I’m the poster child for public schools, public college, GI bill, student loan programs,” he says. He also eventually served as the manager for the public housing project where he grew up.
After spending several years working in and out of politics, Rivera served on the Lawrence City Council, and eventually ran for mayor.
“I wanted to help out the community in a real way,” he says.
Rivera has been working to make Lawrence City Hall more professional and transparent. He says he’s gotten everyone trained on conflict-of-interest rules and how to do purchasing properly. He’s lifted the previous administration’s gag order on department heads talking to the press and has provided media training instead.
“For us, more professional government isn’t just wearing ties and showing up on time,” he says. “It’s a state of mind, so people think, ‘Hey, I know that my pay comes from the citizens of the city, so I’m going to give them a good product. I’m going to serve them well.’”
Rivera’s done other things, too. Big things, like adding more police officers to the city’s force, as well as those seemingly small things, such as scheduling traffic lights to alleviate gridlock downtown; bringing back the St. Patrick’s Day parade; rehabbing the Little League fields; and adding a downtown shuttle bus. He says the city’s also slated in spring to begin fixing the infrastructure at a particularly dangerous and business-unfriendly intersection. (He also wants people to smile more and be nicer to each other.)
In addition, he’s working to bring good jobs to Lawrence and its surrounding cities, with the added message for businesses that Lawrence has an eager and willing workforce.
“People come into this city from this immigrant experience. People come here with nothing. Literally, they come to Lawrence with nothing. And they rebuild their lives here,” he says. “The flip side of it is that we have a great workforce. Everybody wants to work as hard as they can to get out of their poverty situation.”
Rivera knows that it will take time to bring real change to the city, and he knows it will take collaboration and teamwork to do so. Along the way, he’s content to let the work speak for itself.
“People see it as, ‘You’re the mayor, what’s the answer?’ But really we come to this together,” he says. “I like the work. We don’t pound our chests or spike the football.”