Festival aims to promote downtown Lynn businesses, organizations, artists

June 24, 2013
By Amber Phillips/The Daily Item

George Jackson has grown up in Lynn but always considered crime-ridden downtown off limits.

“The only time I’d come to downtown Lynn was to drive through it,” he said.

But on Saturday, Jackson parked his car on Exchange Street and actually got out to attend an art show at the community gallery Lynn Arts, which his friend had two pieces in. As he admired paintings of the Mary Baker Eddy House and a rug made out of plastic bags, catchy guitar hooks from bands playing at the park next door filtered through the room.

A traveling trombone quartet, TromBoston, played throughout Lynn on Saturday drawing people to downtown for a festival. Downtown Lynn's art scene is helping revitalize the area.
A traveling trombone quartet, TromBoston, played throughout Lynn on Saturday drawing people to downtown for a festival. Downtown Lynn's art scene is helping revitalize the area. (Item Photo / Owen O'Rourke

People filtered in and out too, strolling from Lynn Arts to the Lynn Museum, to local galleries, nonprofits and businesses during the neighborhood’s second annual block party.

Called Open Downtown Lynn, the festival highlighted the new downtown, which has become a place for community and artists supported by a myriad of organizations.

Jackson was impressed.


“It seems like it’s all cleaned up and everybody is down here helping each other,” he said.

Residents make downtown their own

Downtown Lynn’s thriving art district is the result of a decade of calculated moves by city planners to bring residents into the area, who built on a foundation of art organizations already in place to create the kind of neighborhood they’d want to live in.

It happened organically, as residents moved into industrial-turned-residential lofts in 2003 and 2004, said James Cowdell, president of the Economic Development Industrial Corporation, a city organization that supports downtown development.

“Our vision was, put people into downtown, and it will spur other types of development,” he said.

View photos from the festival

Downtown Lynn resident Seth Albaum was one of the first people to move into a part of the city where, Cowdell said, prostitutes and drug dealers worked openly.

Albaum said he moved in 2004 because he saw the potential of what the neighborhood could be: the nonprofit youth art organization RAW Art Works on one side of his loft and the community art gallery Lynn Arts on the other.

“This is what I want to be in the middle of,” said Albaum, who is now president of the four-and-a-half-year-old Downtown Lynn Neighborhood Association, a group that hosted Saturday’s neighborhood open house. Albaum is also running for City Council to represent Ward 5, which covers downtown.

Momentum builds on momentum

Albaum wasn’t alone. Other people and organizations also wanted to be a part of the neighborhood’s growing art renaissance, so much so that this summer their events sometimes overlap.

Downtown resident Corey Jackson founded Arts After Hours, a music and theater production organization, four years ago after he moved into the area to bring people out of their homes and onto the street for community concerts and shows.

The organization has since grown into a key part of downtown life. Among regularly sold-out shows, one of the group’s most-anticipated events has become a family friendly haunted house in their Exchange Street location that brings people lining up through Central Square.

And RAW Art Works, which just celebrated its 25th year in Lynn, is expanding into the building next door to “create more of a street presence,” said Shelby Morrison, a communications and marketing manager with RAW.

AAH and RAW’s success is catching on with other city organizations, who are shifting priorities to downtown Lynn and art.

Last year, the wide-ranging Lynn nonprofit Centerboard opened a free-to-enter community art gallery in their City Hall Square location and hosts moderately-priced art from local residents and youth.

On Saturday, Centerboard also unveiled several photos along the Central Square bridge (see page A6), a beautification project in its third year that is paid for by community members in an online fundraising campaign.

“We view [art] as an important element in terms of bringing people back into downtown and fostering the creative economy, adding a spark, giving people something to do,” said Carla Scheri, projects manager for Centerboard.

And the city continues to support development, in part by turning more abandoned buildings into lofts geared toward artists. EDIC plans to spend $2 million to renovate a boarded-up Central Street building next to RAW into a five-story artist loft and workspace and has more grant money set aside for future projects.

About seven years ago, the city also moved the Lynn Museum and Historical Society into its Central Square location. And in 2004, a refurbished Lynn Auditorium began drawing national acts to City Hall, and with it audiences who ate and played downtown before and after the shows.

Finally, on Thursday, downtown residents brought back a popular pizza bake off to be held once a month that was on hiatus since 2009 — a sign, organizers say, the neighborhood is ready to sustain prolonged events.

RAW’s Morrison said downtown’s fast-moving transformation all comes back to the people who moved into a mostly vacant area the first place and took ownership of their new neighborhood.

“These people took a risk in moving to downtown Lynn, so they were conscious about trying to build a community for themselves,” she said.

Affirmation from the state

The proliferation of events and organizations downtown got the attention of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which in March 2012 named downtown Lynn one of the state’s first official Cultural Districts — a designation that came with the opportunity of state money to fund the movement.

The designation also affirmed to residents and organizations on the ground that they were on the right path.

“It gives a certain kind of legitimacy and a cachet to a neighborhood, that it’s more of a sanctioned and official district,” said Kate Luchini, the director of the Lynn Museum.

Luchini was part of the group that worked on Lynn’s application for the Cultural District designation and subsequently secured a state grant that, in part, allowed the city to bring on brand development and designer Martha Almy to establish branding for the new designation.

Almy, of Peabody, has worked with key stakeholders in Lynn for the past nine months to develop a brand, website, logo, messaging and signage to mark Lynn’s Cultural District, all of which will be unveiled in early July.

More important than the logos, Almy said, is the strategy the downtown residents and organizations have developed to continue to tap into what makes downtown Lynn so special.

“It’s not about slapping a logo on something and saying ‘Oh, okay, we’re done,’” she said. “I think it’s acknowledging the foundation of assets and energy that define a downtown area and cultivating and nurturing and growing it.”

Fighting an image problem

But for downtown Lynn’s renaissance to truly take hold, the entire city needs to embrace it first.

Organizers say it’s still sometimes a struggle to convince other Lynn residents wary of crime — real or perceived — to come downtown for an event, say organizers.

“Sometimes the people within Lynn that don’t live downtown are the biggest critics of Lynn,” Luchini, with the museum, said.

That’s why so many of the neighborhood’s events are geared at people within the city instead of outside it. On Saturday, for example, AAH sponsored a trombone quartet to travel throughout Lynn and urge people to come downtown and join in the party.

Organizers hope that little by little, as each person has a positive experience downtown, they tell their friends and, hopefully, come back for more.

“You can do [public relations] all you want, but it’s really that foundational ‘I have a wonderful experience in Lynn, and you should too’ that’s going to create that systematic change,” Almy, the branding expert, said.

Downtown residents like Albaum know that their work trying to engage Lynners and the rest of the world, changing perceptions, will never be done.

“No arts scene is ever completely cemented,” he said. “If it’s not a moving, ever-changing thing, then it’s dying.”

But residents and organizers say they’re inspired by how far the neighborhood has come.

“When we started, it was very sort of lonely,” said Jackson, president of AAH. “And I would say now, it’s incredibly collaborative.”

That collaboration among downtown residents and organizers, spurred by work on branding the Cultural District, is what will ensure the downtown’s future success, Luchini and others said.

“We all felt like there’s a true unity happening,” she said. “We have all come together and we all work together quite well. I think that’s what’s going to make the difference.”

Amber Phillips can be reached at aparcher@itemlive.com.

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