Tensions that ignited two days of rioting in a Hispanic and French-Canadian neighborhood last week may have less to do with racial bigotry than with poor living conditions, unemployment, and a lack of recreational programs, say Hispanic leaders and local officials.
Although street fighting and rock and fire-bomb throwing appeared to be racially motivated, the root causes of the violence ''have been brewing for more than 10 years,'' says Nunzio DiMarca, director of a local education and job-service program that serves Hispanics.
''Any time you have a large group of people who are disadvantaged and isolated from the mainstream, you have a potential for a problem like this,'' he says.
Problems did arise on a warm Wednesday night as two families - one Hispanic, one white - began fighting after the Hispanic family discovered its car windshield had been smashed. The two families reportedly had been feuding for weeks, and this incident touched off a neighborhood-wide melee that involved 150 people and 154 state and local police, according to police reports.
The rioting along Oxford Street, in one of the poorest sections of town, worsened Thursday night when 250 to 300 people took to the streets, police reports say. State Rep. Keven P. Blanchette (D) of Lawrence said this second disturbance might have been prevented if there had been more police protection.
But Representative Blanchette also acknowledged that a larger police presence , which could have helped in the short-term, will not solve the neighborhood's deep-seated problems.
''Look at these streets - they're terrible. And city services in this area are almost nonexistent,'' Blanchett said. ''What the area needs is to have the city enforce housing codes and provide stronger civic leadership as well as recreational programs.''
The Boston Globe reported that a federal Justice Department spokesman said Lawrence officials may have ignored warning signs that racial tensions were developing. Earlier this year, Lawrence was placed on a list of potential racial trouble spots, in part because city officials failed to meet with Hispanic leaders, the report said.
''It is a racial problem. You can't deny it, but I'm not saying it's pervasive [among Hispanics here],'' Blanchette said.
Following the two nights of violence, Mayor John J. Buckley and the City Council Friday enacted a weekend curfew between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. to include an area several blocks wide.
Although there has been calm since the curfew went into effect, more than 20 families were reported to have left the area. Others, including a Hispanic who identified himself only as Johnny and who lives in the troubled Merrimack Courts housing project nearby, said the area will continue to be a hot spot.
''It's just senseless, stupid ... but it's been going on a long time and I think there's going to be more unless something changes.''
Lawrence is known as ''the immigrant city,'' because its fabric mills and shoe factories historically have given many new immigrants their start.
But the city is losing those basic jobs. Since January, three shoe companies and a textile company have closed, reportedly eliminating more than 400 jobs.
During the last decade, high technology industries began to settle near Lawrence, but the bulk of the minority and immigrant population here get jobs in the textile mills and shoe factories.
City officials Friday met hurriedly with Hispanic leaders. Later, the Hispanics, wearing yellow hats, walked the streets in the curfew area to defuse hostility before it started. DiMarca says these leaders may form a new group to continue a dialogue with city officials.