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Massachusetts acts to ease problems that led to Lawrence riots

If money talks, the Massachusetts state Senate has sent a message of hope to Lawrence, the old industrial city that was troubled by two nights of street riots in one of its poorest neighborhoods in August.

The Senate Monday passed a $5.5 million aid package to alleviate conditions that may have spawned the disturbances and to defray city expenses, mostly for police overtime, of quelling the riots. The legislation has been sent to the House of Representatives for approval and is supported by Gov. Michael Dukakis (D), says Sen. Patricia McGovern (D) of Lawrence, who sponsored the bills. Senator McGovern says she is ''very optimistic'' that the package will pass by the end of the year.

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The disturbances Aug. 8 and 9, which bordered on a predominantly Hispanic housing project, focused attention on a need for more services - such as education, English classes, day care, and job training - for the city's estimated 20,000 Hispanics.

''We're very happy, obviously,'' said Jeff Peterson, an aide to Lawrence Mayor John J. Buckley, after the bills cleared the Senate. The money will be spent on public-housing improvements, bilingual textbooks for the schools, and ''a host of Hispanic antipoverty programs . . . to try to reduce the likelihood of a recurrence of the August disturbances,'' he said.

While the Senate package targets money for needy Hispanics, it also earmarks force and the public schools, which employ few Latinos.

Although the Hispanic population now comprises about a third of the city, Hispanics have not shared the responsibility of city governance and, for the most part, have not benefited from the growth of high-technology industries near Lawrence. According to Nunzio DiMarca, a community activist who is deeply involved in efforts to prepare Hispanics for higher education, many Hispanics here speak no English and most do not vote. Those who come from the Caribbean Basin, as opposed to Puerto Rico or Cuba, are likely to be unschooled in Spanish as well as in English, he adds.

But if the disturbances did nothing else, Mr. DiMarca says, they ''served as a rallying point to unite the Hispanic community.'' In the 31/2 months since the riots, state and city officials have met frequently with community leaders to discuss ways to address Hispanic concerns.

Some Hispanics say there has been a lot of talk but few tangible improvements in the past few months. A number of new programs, however, such as day-care facilities in the housing projects and youth programs, are being planned.

And there are other signs of change as well:

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Voter registration. During a registration drive between late August and mid-October, more than 2,000 people - mostly Hispanic - were added to the voter rolls, Mr. DiMarca says. ''The population is at a point where they can become citizens and they can vote.'' The increase is expected to have its biggest impact next November when, for the first time, the city will elect its aldermen by district instead of at large.

Project LEEP. The state-funded Lawrence Education and Employment Program, which will provide basic job training and education to economically disadvantaged adults, is ready to begin some pilot programs in January, DiMarca reports.

GCA Corporation. In late October, GCA, which builds semiconductor manufacturing equipment, announced it will invest $20 million to build a factory along the banks of the Merrimack River, which courses through Lawrence. A company spokesman says GCA expects to employ 1,200 people - 400 from the ranks of the ''hard-core unemployed'' - when the project is complete in four years.

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