The On the Street series looks at the past, present, and future of neighborhoods in Greater Boston.
LYNN — When you pull in to Lynn’s Central Square station on a commuter rail train, the city’s industrial past is easy to spot. Huge brick warehouses and factory buildings hearken back to its days as a capital of the shoe industry. Handsome old bank buildings echo a once-thriving downtown.
Lately though, you see new things, too.
Walls bedecked with bright murals including a Wampanoag archer pulling back her bow and a Dominican woman with a crown of curlers. A 10-story apartment building peeking over the skyline. A smattering of new restaurants on the streets below.
People who think they know Lynn are starting to give the city another look. That’s bringing new life to an old downtown where boosters had dreamed of rebirth for generations. It’s also putting pressure on current residents who worry they’ll be priced out.
Lynn is just a 20-minute train ride from North Station, as every developer in town is quick to note. Those old brick factories are gradually being converted to lofts, and new buildings are starting to rise on the empty lots that pepper downtown. The ocean is blocks away. There’s an arts community and a budding food scene.
“Lynn is one of those cities that has always had potential,” said Doneeca Thurston, a Lynn native and the director of the Lynn Historical Society and Museum and LynnArts. “We’ve been a gateway city for many, many years, and we’ve really grown into that name.”
Yet this city of 94,000 has long struggled to move past its industrial history, with redevelopment in fits and starts. Two devastating fires, nearly a century apart, leveled whole blocks. The rail line slices downtown in half, creating a series of dark underpasses and a tangled street grid. The ocean is cut off by the Lynnway.
The town’s longtime nickname didn’t help, either.
“It was ‘Lynn, Lynn, the City of Sin,’” said Jonathan Berk, an urban planner with long family roots in the city. “That’s how most people who grew up in Massachusetts know Lynn.”
Yet that image is starting to shift.
The obvious change is the art: 48 big, bold murals and light installations that dot downtown — some quite intentionally visible from the train — as part of a broader campaign to make the long-bedraggled blocks feel safer and more welcoming.
They’re the work of Beyond Walls, a five-year-old arts nonprofit funded by a mix of donations and state economic development grants. And they’re a real-life experiment in how public art can help transform a city.
“We activate spaces to strengthen communities,” said Beyond Walls chief executive Al Wilson. “Much of the artwork is on private buildings, but it changes what happens in the public realm.”
There’s brick-and-mortar too. Those fires and failed redevelopment schemes since have left downtown Lynn pockmarked with empty lots and surface parking. Friendly zoning rules enable sizable projects. All of it is, as Berk puts it, “closer to downtown Boston than most of Boston is” by train.
Developers have taken notice, launching a wave of apartment projects around downtown that’s been most recently topped by The Caldwell, a 10-story, 259-unit building that opened last fall on the former site of a shoe factory. With a pool, a climbing wall, and one-bedrooms that start at $1,700 a month, it’s like nothing Lynn has seen before.
The building’s still filling up, but developer Mike Procopio said he expects the neighborhood will go the way of Somerville, Revere Beach, and other pockets that offer urban living at a lower cost than the core of Boston.
“We really want to introduce people to downtown Lynn,” Procopio said. “When they get here they love it.”
That sort of development, and the promise of the foot traffic it’ll bring, is drawing more small business owners who are willing to make a bet on downtown.
Eric and Kathleen Gendron ended up in Lynn entirely on a whim. In 2015, they were browsing Zillow one night over dinner in Boston, and they spotted a spooky brick home with great bones.
They made an offer less than 24 hours later. They knew nothing about the city, but fell in love with its gritty vibe, and Kathleen eventually quit her job at Liberty Mutual and found a studio space at the city’s celebrated Lydia Pinkham Labs.
The couple grew a thriving business selling jewelry and ceramics online, but they wanted to be part of the downtown’s revival, so they opened their gift and curiosity shop, Ravenstone, on Exchange Street last fall. They hope it will eventually be a place where locals can gather, and visitors can linger after grabbing a meal or taking in an event downtown.
“There aren’t a ton of places in Lynn where you can meet your neighbors,” Kathleen said. “We’re still on that bleeding edge of things opening. . . . There’s not a lot of people who come to Lynn just to shop.”
Still, there are lots of people who live in downtown Lynn already. And some wonder what all this new stuff will mean for them.
Celinet Sanchez is an organizer with housing advocacy group Lynn United for Change. She hears all the time from tenants whose landlords see the rents the Caldwell and other new projects are commanding, and raise their rents in decidedly less-fancy buildings too. Amid all the changes coming, she worries they’ll eventually be pushed out entirely.
“I don’t want people like me to feel like they don’t belong here,” she said. “The people who make Lynn Lynn are not going to benefit from what Lynn will become if there’s not a different strategy for all of this.”
The city is finalizing a new housing plan, which calls for more, and more deeply affordable, units in new buildings — much as are required in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville. It’s one of several measures to prevent displacement and help low-income residents stay in a city where the typical renter household earns just $34,000 a year.
Still, the changes are happening fast. When Thurston, the Lynn Historical Society and Museum director, was looking for an apartment with her partner, she couldn’t find anything they could afford downtown. They wound up in Salem.
Having grown up in Lynn — her mother’s family had been there since the Civil War, her father immigrated from the Bahamas — Thurston always felt her city had potential. But she never expected to be priced out.
“People of my generation are like, ‘Woah,’ what is going on here,” said Thurston, who is 31. “There’s a boom that’s catching a lot of us off guard.”
And while Thurston likes the energy and opportunities that the new development, the restaurant scene, the public art are all bringing to Lynn, she, too, worries a little that they’ll overshadow the community that’s there now.
“Art has existed in this city for decades, for generations,” Thurston said. “The murals are great. But there’s so much more that is going on here.”
Indeed, when you pull in to Lynn station there’s another mural you can see from the train.
Consuming a whole side of the Lynn Arts building, it’s older, and its style less hip street art than the new ones. But it’s still bright. And it intricately depicts the city’s centuries of history, from famous residents like Frederick Douglass and Lydia Pinkham, to the Great Fire of 1889 and the GE strike of 1946, to the Cambodian and Central American immigrants who call Lynn home today.
The story of a city all right there. You just have to look.
Read more about Lynn and explore the full On the Street series.