LYNN — Under the bridge here on Market Street, it’s dark even in the broad daylight. Cars veering off the nearby Lynnway bear down on the scurrying pedestrians, who dart into traffic from behind the concrete pillars.
“This is the place to get hit by a car,” says Al Wilson, surveying the area grimly.
Wilson is the founder and executive director of Beyond Walls, a non-profit group that is helping revitalize parts of this working-class city. Named for the inaugural mural festival the organization sponsored last summer, Beyond Walls is set to unveil its second round of community improvement projects, including a series of artistic lighting installations that will transform some of Lynn’s most neglected underpasses.
At a fund-raising kickoff at the Lynn Museum April 5, Wilson and his staff will reveal plans for the lighting art, as well as their second annual mural festival, the installation of several vintage neon signs (like the one for “Lad and Lassie Shoes” — Lynn was once called the “shoe capital of the world”), and other downtown beautification efforts.
“Our mission is to activate space to strengthen communities,” says Wilson, a conspicuously tall former marketer, salesman and college soccer player who was inspired by placemaking public art projects in Miami and Philadelphia. “Naively,” he says with a laugh, he initially planned to invest a few months into the creation of a single mural festival. Now he’s in it for the long haul, looking to bring his ideas to other “gateway” cities both in Massachusetts and across the country, and making Beyond Walls his full-time vocation.
He’s not doing it alone. Associate director Pedro Soto, a Lynn native, previously served as a city planner in Peabody. Another associate director, Amanda Hill, brings a combined background in art and urban policy. Julia Midland, who manages Beyond Walls’ programming, is a Swampscott resident working on her master’s degree in arts administration from Boston University.
“I’ve been exploring the ‘scary’ parts of Lynn since I was a kid. They were never scary to me,” says Soto, explaining his interest in joining the Beyond Walls team. “There are a lot of beautiful places in Lynn that I thought were worth bolstering. For me, it’s very personal.”
The permanent murals created during last summer’s festival, by artists from as far afield as the Dominican Republic and Australia, have already attracted visitors to downtown Lynn, the organizers say. New restaurants are opening, and people are discovering the fact that the city offers “food from the seven continents.”
“I’m convinced that the creative economy is real,” Wilson says.
The underpass lighting project is designed to illuminate the hidden corners in downtown Lynn where crime has festered. To make it happen, Beyond Walls pulled together a diverse coalition of entities, many donating their time and resources, including MassDevelopment, the MBTA, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103 and others. Philips Color Kinetics, the same LED innovation that lights up the Zakim Bridge, donated more than $200,000 of hardware to the Lynn project.
David O’Laughlin, an officer with IBEW 103, says the union enlisted members and retirees, some from the Lynn area, to donate man-hours to the project.
“[Congressman] Seth Moulton reached out and asked us to help,” he says. “We’ve got [high school] juniors and seniors doing prep work. We’re trying to get the kids involved, to take some pride in the city.”
The installations will be programmable, capable of creating custom light shows, says Soto. He points to a bar near the T station known for carrying World Cup soccer matches.
“Let’s say Mexico is winning,” he says. Port Lighting Systems, the Seabrook-based company that will partner as the installation’s custodian, can change the nearby lighting to the colors of the Mexican flag.
Building on the goodwill created by the first mural festival, Beyond Walls has positioned itself as a deal-maker for Lynn’s improvement. Other cities are taking notice and asking for advice.
“People talk about public-private partnerships,” says Wilson, “but you need a group that’s able to forge those relationships.”
He stops to point out the symbolic imagery of David Zayas’s elaborate mural on the side of 33 Spring St. The building, he says, houses a recovery program. Zayas calls his artwork “The Protector.”
Last year, Wilson and his crew had to convince the city’s property owners of the benefits of offering a wall to a muralist. This year, given the visibility the project has brought to the community, Wilson says, those talks have come easy.
“They’ve been two-minute conversations.”
Beyond Walls Kickoff Party and Fund-raiser, 6-10 p.m. April 5. Free (suggested donation). Lynn Museum, 590 Washington St. www.beyond-walls.org.
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.