LYNN - Downtown still harbors visual vestiges of its former self - littered streets, boarded-up windows, and austere industrial buildings.
But there are some bright signs that Lynn is turning a corner.
Artists have settled in the lofts in Central Square. Giant colorful photographs adorn the walls outside the commuter rail station - one a butterfly; another a flower. Newcomers have been flocking here in the past several years, lured by inexpensive real estate. They fill the tables at nearby restaurants and the seats in the new performance arts center. The city’s museum, its galleries, and arts programs are thriving.
Now Lynn is hoping to build on that momentum as it vies for designation as one of the state’s first sponsored cultural districts. City officials and residents say the distinction will be a boon for the city of about 90,000, which has a burgeoning reputation as an arts destination, a tourist attraction, and an area worthy of future grants and arts funding
“This would really solidify for this city what this area is all about,’’ said Corey Jackson, a downtown resident who runs the Arts After Hours performing center that aims to invigorate the cultural community.
Governor Deval Patrick signed legislation two years ago creating cultural districts with the goal of stimulating the arts, establishing tourist destinations, and boosting creative businesses across the state. Last year, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, began soliciting communities to participate, and more than 100 communities responded, said Anita Walker, the council’s executive director.
Walker said the council is currently reviewing about 10 communities that have completed most of the application process, including Lynn, Pittsfield, Rockport, Gloucester, and Boston’s Fenway neighborhood, and will make its recommendations to its executive board on March 30.
Each community must complete a review process that includes an application, site visits, City Council approval, and a map of a compact, well-defined area of the proposed district, she said.
“At this point, we have not made any recommendations,’’ Walker said.
No grants come with the designation, but when the choices are finalized, the council will work on enlisting the aid and resources of various state agencies to work with the newly named cultural districts, said Walker.
“This is about economic development,’’ said Rockport resident Karen Berger, who is spearheading her town’s effort. “Ultimately this is what it comes to.’’
Known for its beaches, quaint shops, and spectacular New England vistas, Rockport has been feeling the economic pinch during the winters, when the tide of tourists ebbs. The new Shalin Liu Performance Center has given the off-season slump a shot in the arm, but Berger said the town has to do more to keep people longer at its library, music center, and the shops in and around Dock Square and Bearskin Neck.
“We are at the end the road,’’ said Berger. “At one point in time a lot more people traveled and spent weeks here. But things have changed.’’
The Fenway, home of the Museum of Fine Arts, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and several colleges, is seeking the designation to better market itself.
A cultural district would give it more weight in its efforts to keep public transportation currently threatened by budget cuts or to generate funding, said Kelly Brilliant, who heads the Fenway Alliance, which is advocating for the state designation.
More than a decade ago, Mayor Thomas M. Menino proclaimed the area a cultural district. But despite its world-class museums, Fenway has struggled to wrest itself from its image as home to an iconic ball park.
“We want the pride in saying we are a cultural district,’’ said Kelly Brilliant, who heads Fenway Alliance, which is pushing for the designation. “When I say Fenway, people still think of the Red Sox. We’d love to establish this as its own cultural mecca.’’
Around Exchange Street in Lynn’s Central Square yesterday, people streamed into the Lynn Arts Inc. building, where the Cathedral of Faith holds worship services on Sundays. The building also houses a radio station, art galleries, and the performing arts center.
A colorful mural covers an outside wall overlooking an empty lot that once housed bars, a bakery, and stores frequented by commuters, said Charles Bugden, a 61-year-old former cab driver who has spent his entire life in Lynn.
“This place was a hopping city at one time,’’ he said. “Then the economy got real bad.’’
He and other residents say they are hopeful that a state designation would help to lift the downtown and breathe new life into the community.
“This area was so busy at one point, and bustling, and it just died,’’ said Easter Wheeler, a 63-year-old lifelong Lynn resident. If the designation happens, “it’s really going to perk up this area. And we need this area. We need people to be exposed to the arts.’’