By Adam Reilly
Mar. 28, 2011
LYNN, Mass. — In 1930, Lynn was the shoe capital of the world. Today, it’s a hardscrabble community of 90,000 grappling with the problems of many old cities, along with a notorious reputation that makes many outsiders keep their distance.
But the people who live and work in Lynn say the city doesn’t get the respect it deserves. And despite the recession, they’ve got ambitious plans for the future.
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On its northeastern edge hard against the Atlantic, Lynn feels bucolic. Nahant stretches to the east and Boston’s skyline looms in the distance. People from across the North Shore gravitate to this spot, drawn by the views and miles of pristine pathways. The stretch is one of Lynn’s great charms, but not the only one.
“It’s big but it’s small. A lot of people kind of know each other. And with that, people do look out for each other a lot,” says Keith Lee, who grew up in Lynn but left to play college basketball.
While Lee was gone, he missed Lynn’s close-knit feel -- and the diversity he once took for granted.
“You’ll see within a group a couple of Latin kids, a couple Spanish kids, and a couple Russian kids all hamming it up,” Lee said. “So many restaurants — Latin, Vietnamese, African now — this a beautiful place.”
But most people don’t associate Lynn with gorgeous coastline or multiethnic flair. Instead, they think of empty storefronts and gritty streetscapes -- as well as the occasional violent crime. And despite Lynn’s affordable real estate and proximity to Boston, they keep their distance.
“If you live outside of the city of Lynn, really the only time you’re hearing about the city of Lynn is when something bad happens,” said economic development chief James Cowdell, who is determined to change Lynn’s image.
So Cowdell decided to rebrand Lynn as a mecca for inexpensive urban living. In 2004, Lynn rezoned its downtown for condos and spent $3 million on improvements. Now, 250 people call downtown home — but Cowdell says that isn’t enough.
“Our goal was 500. We viewed that as the critical mass that if we had hit 500 then we would really see new restaurants, those type of ancillary businesses opening up. So we’re halfway there,” Cowdell said.
Lynn also has big hopes for its neglected southern waterfront — including a boardwalk running to Swampscott and a mix of homes and businesses akin to Quincy’s Marina Bay. The power lines that prevented development for decades were finally removed last year. Now the city is waiting for developers — but the timing isn’t great.
“It’s the worst recession of our lifetime,” Cowdell said. “And so even if we remove all obstacles, we were talking about the power lines &nmdash; 150 acres of developable land — you still need somebody to come along and say let’s do it,” Cowdell said.
Until then, downtown remains Lynn’s best chance at a renaissance.
For that, the city needs people who see possibility instead of blight: People like Jocelyn Almy-Testa, who opened The Little Gallery Under the Stairs in Central Square five years ago.
“When I first moved here my in-laws actually drove me through downtown Lynn and said,You want to stay away from this. My eyes just popped open and I said, Are you kidding me? That’s exactly where I’m going,” Almy-Testa said.
Today, The Little Gallery boasts a calligrapher in residence, a makeshift bookstore and a steady stream of art shows, musical performances and movie screenings.
Almy-Testa says she’s hooked on Lynn’s blue-collar cosmopolitanism.
“I’ve met people from so many different countries, Russia, Ireland, different parts of Europe, Ukraine, all over Africa, South America,” Almy-Testa said. “It’s an amazing mix of people. And everybody’s just working really hard to make their dreams come true.”
Not everyone in that mix comes from far away. Swampscott native Matt O’Neill opened the Blue Ox restaurant in 2009 in a space where two other restaurants failed. Since then his Mediterranean-American cuisine has dazzled Boston foodies — and drawn people from outside Lynn to a place they might otherwise have avoided.
“North End, you can be in here in 20 minutes. East Boston. Chelsea. This is where we’re pulling from — Peabody, Salem,” O’Neill said. “We’re getting such a diverse crowd here that I never thought we’d get.”
O’Neil says the lesson is simple: downtown Lynn is a perfect spot for ideas and ambitions to take off.
“I hope we’re a case study as to what can happen downtown,” O’Neill said. “If you believe in what you’re doing and you work hard enough — yeah, it’ll work.”
As for that bad reputation — newcomers and natives alike insist it’s overstated.
“People take these sterotypes, the 'Lynn Lynn City of Sin,' and they run with it,” Lee said. They’re not open-minded enough to actually ask somebody from here what’s going on.”
If downtown keeps growing and the waterfront takes off — outsiders might finally get the message. Until then — the people who know Lynn best know what the rest of us are missing.
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