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It’s the talk of the town

ITEM PHOTO BY SPENSER HASAK
Grace Whitlock of Nahant can’t resist grabbing a selfie with artist Angurria as he works on Washington Street.

Commentary by BILL BROTHERTON

Something remarkable happened yesterday. I had a conversation with a complete stranger. In downtown Lynn!

We were standing on Munroe Street, gazing up at a painted, colorful crazy quilt that decorated the entire side of a brick building. It had visual shout-outs to Mom, Dad, Sofia and a dog named Ferdinand. It burned brighter and hotter than the noontime sun. “That’s pretty amazing,” said my new friend, making eye contact. “Have you been up to Washington Street yet? There’s a painting of a black goddess that’ll knock your socks off.”

Just then, an older couple joined us, said “hello,” and stood admiring the artwork. “I can’t believe we’re in downtown Lynn,” said the woman. A family of five arrived, the children ran toward the wall and touched it. “It’s so pretty,” said a preschooler. “Every day I’m more excited about raising our family here,” said the dad to us all. Before long, a group of teens happened by, whipped out their cellphones and took selfies in front of the mural.

Farther down Munroe, behind the community garden, is a huge, stunning portrait of a woman by the artist FONKI! It’s a true work of art, shaded with the same care that’s found on works in the Peabody Essex Museum and the MFA. Dozens of people stood with me; all were smiling, laughing and taking photos.

I walked toward Washington and Spring streets, stopping along the way to check out and appreciate the murals. Again, at every stop, strangers nodded their heads and struck up conversations. “I walk past this every day, and never realized this is such a beautiful building,” said one onlooker. Yes, the architecture in downtown Lynn has always been spectacular, but you’d walk right by. The murals have changed all that.

Welcome to Beyond Walls. You’ve no doubt read about it. North Shore resident Al Wilson, inspired by urban art installations in London and Miami, was confident that a large-scale art initiative in Lynn’s Cultural District would help revitalize downtown. He was right. The change — 15 murals by an international array of street artists decorating entire sides of brick buildings — has left both longtime Lynners and newcomers thunderstruck.

It’s much more than a cosmetic fix, much more than a little lipstick and rouge on a tired old face. It has brought new life to this old girl Lynn. This goes well beyond Beyond Walls: A power has been unleashed that has Lynners feeling better about themselves and their city. A building owner was painting the front of his Munroe Street storefront yesterday. “I want it to look nice for the party,” he said.

The Beyond Walls Rock the Block party is tomorrow, 1 to 9 p.m., in Central Square and adjacent streets. The murals will take center stage, but there will also be live music, DJs, food trucks, craft beer, vendors, interactive games and more.

There’s an energy in downtown Lynn these days that can’t be denied. Yesterday, in the shadow of the LynnArts building and its long-appreciated mural by Yetti Frenkel and others, a crowd of a couple hundred flooded the Central Square farmers market. A musician played an acoustic guitar and sang. A masseuse worked on the neck of a customer while others waited their turn. LynnArts and the Lynn Museum spotlight the city’s talent and history. Lynn Auditorium brings in internationally known performers and musicians. Coffeehouses and restaurants, offering fine dining, pub food and family-recipes of all ethnicities, are seeing business pick up. And all that positive energy is starting to make its way to other parts on the city.

I’ll be honest, when I first heard about Beyond Walls I thought “Murals on walls, neon lights and vintage signs are going to transform Lynn? Yeah, right.” A 40-year journalism career tends to make one a skeptic. I was convinced that Al Wilson, the visionary Beyond Walls founder and executive director, was a modern-day Harold Hill, the con man in Broadway’s “The Music Man” who poses as a children’s band organizer and sells instruments and uniforms to the gullible townsfolk and then skips town.

Then several months ago I met him. My doubts evaporated. A large group of volunteers and business leaders were believers and worked their butts off into making Beyond Walls happen. City leaders were strong supporters, and those who weren’t wisely kept their traps shut.

The real test will come after tomorrow’s block party and Sunday’s closing artists brunch reception at Brother’s Deli. What’s next? How do we move beyond Beyond Walls? How can the momentum continue?

Judging from the reaction I encountered yesterday, that won’t be a problem. This is only the beginning.


Bill Brotherton is the Item’s Features editor. Tell him what you think at [email protected].

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