Thursday, August 5, 2010

Timing is everything? Cities should use economic downturns to plan ahead and embrace change

Read this article in the Globe, then  read this one in the Item and come back and read the rest of this post.

We can get a little sore downtown, hearing so often about how well Salem is doing vs. Lynn, even though Salem as a few advantages that made their resurgence easier (thanks Nathaniel Hawthorne, Arthur Miller),  but I'm glad the article was written. It's a dose of bitter medicine Lynn needs to get better. Thanks, Steven Rosenberg. In all seriousness, you have done your city a great service.

For those newer to Lynn who haven't spent more than a reasonable about of time trying to figure out why the city is in the shape it is, Rosenberg brings to light some of those reasons. One of the most important ones is the differences in city leadership.

While Salem was adhering to its plans for the future, Lynn's leaders were stuck in a fading industrial past, refusing to let go of the world they've known. I believe this was a big contributor to our city government's insular behavior. From what I can tell, it was more of a defensive and possibly xenophobic posture than outright corruption, so-called hired hacks, nepotism and shady deals. At least I hope I'm right in the assessment. But it can certainly have a bad appearance from the outside, and we're lucky what happened to Chelsea in 1991, when it was placed into state receivership and city officials went to jail, didn't and likely will never happen here.

Correct me if this isn't how it went down, but when Lynn cut itself off from its waterfront resources with power lines, a treatment plant and big box stores, it was still thinking like an industrial city, where that kind of development fits in. Leaders here weren't thinking about ocean views, a boardwalk and a place people would want to live, eat and play. They were thinking about honest blue-collar jobs in Lynn, ignoring the fact that we're within a stone's throw from Boston, and even all of the route 128 office parks. I'm glad they're still here and hope they remain, but how much longer can we cling to papa GE?

Meanwhile, whether the outlying suburban malls and movie multi-plexes were to blame or not, downtown lost its mojo. It wasn't the only one. Most post-industrial satellite cities suffered the same fate, with legitimate businesses falling to national chain stores popping up in the more fashionable (at the time) suburbs. These were often replaced in our nation's downtowns, as Lynn knows all too well, with the illegitimate businesses of prostitution and drugs.

The difference between Lynn and Salem has more to do with how leaders handled the situation and laid the groundwork so that a re-invention and resurgence would be possible down the road.

And that's often been Lynn's mistake. As Rosenberg points out, Lynn designated a downtown cyber-district in 2000. Never mind the bubble bursting soon after, by that time, it was already an outdated concept. They needed to be ready to jump on that wagon by 1996, at least.

And you also can't put condos before artists. Though I'm a beneficiary of the condo development, most artists can't afford one. To attract more artists and build a scene around LynnArts, and to be able to have street-facing galleries, rent has to be cheap.

It may come as a surprise to some that it actually isn't that affordable here. The city basically rolled out the carpet to one downtown developer without checking up on them properly, and now they sit on dilapidated storefronts with their terrible reputation asking way too much in rent. (It isn't smart business for Mayo, but that's how they roll.) Artists need to be able to live, work, play and show their art here.

When a scene develops around young people with music and art, others will feel safe here and the development we're looking for will occur almost organically, good or bad economy.

But getting back to real estate, let's take a look at the Item article referenced above. It's only the latest in a string of articles discussing the possible taking of the old Hawthorne's by eminent domain. The idea of a government being able to come in and take your property when your taxes are all up to date, and when it doesn't involve some kind of redevelopment for public use such as a road, gives me the willies. On the other hand, it's almost criminal what the family is doing to stunt growth downtown by letting their property rot. They don't lack the funds to do something with it, either. We need to shame them, boycott their other restaurants, and perhaps find an office of theirs to make ourselves a nuisance in front of.

Getting back to the Item article, the five year plan EDIC wants to draw out is a good idea. But, we've had other plans that were good ideas, and the city has more or less ignored them. It's time to get a good plan and stick with it, so that we as a city are poised well enough in advance for the next economic upturn.

The city also must open its arms to more people from the outside. I'm not talking about our general population or saying that people here aren't welcoming. This is the most welcoming place I've ever known in New England. I'm talking about residency requirements. We need to be able to hire city workers from anywhere. A still pond becomes stagnant and chokes. One with recirculating water stays fresh (just ask the good folks by Goldfish pond). Furthermore, with entire city departments living in Lynn, they and their friends become powerful political forces who vote for their bosses, causing our elected officials to bend to the wills of their department heads (some have bucked the trend recently--Cahill).

The city must also, on an official level, embrace its diversity. I give Mayor Kennedy credit for all of her attempts so far and hope the trend continues.

The city must, even if they don't understand it, allow artists to live and breathe freely here. Let's make it easier to open and run live original music venues and art galleries. Combining both works very well, too, such as AS220 in Providence. How can we do that? Perhaps, some creative incentives for landlords who rent to creative people would be a place to start. But also, LynnArts needs to step up its game a little. I understand funding is short, but how about getting a little more daring with art and performance? And with the Meet Me Downtown Festival of the Arts, let's make it more about art and less about cheap plastic trinkets, balloons, cover bands and corporate schlock. That's what I call "Lowest Common Denominator programming" and Lynners are too smart for that. We need to reach out to more artists for that, too. One of Lynn's most famous talents, who was born and raised here, recently told me about LynnArts, "I was treated like a homeless person there." This guy is famous in his circle on a national level and certainly isn't homeless or crazy, and nothing about him even gives off that impression. It made me sick to hear it. And if that's airing our dirty laundry, so be it. It's a way forward.

We also need to bring more young people downtown. If that's not a part of the plan, we've got the wrong plan. When I first moved here I was, in fact, comforted by the sound of skateboarders out in Central Square. Where did they go? I haven't seen or heard them in about a year. How about some of our street fairs festivals target their demographic a little more? Hodgepodge Music Fest, recently held in Lynn Woods, is a fine example. But, I love the fact that it was in Lynn Woods. Maybe we can dream up something else for teens and young adults here in DTL...actually, no, we shouldn't. What's great about Hodgepodge is that it came from the kids. We just need to make it possible for them to make it happen, here.

And what am I doing? I don't think it's right to complain without making oneself part of the solution:
working with other Lynners on

and helping Juan from Fernando's with his fun Culturefests - next one on Aug 21st!

Artist: Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers
Song: Roadrunner


  1. Awesome...awesome article seth.

    Couldn't agree more. One of our topics with Senator McGee on Monday needs to be incentives for creative types to move in here and make their magic.

    Thank god we have TLGUTs. That gallery is out of this world, good. We need more commitment to the community like that.


  2. Yes. TLGUTS shows the best work in DTL. And as much as I like the name "The Little Gallery Under The Stairs," Jocelyn deserves a "Big Gallery on the Main Floor," umm.. better that she comes up with the name if that ever happens.

  3. Yeah, great post. What a history lesson.

  4. Interesting and thoughtful analysis. It's great to witness the downtown folks keep their momentum growing. I hope you succeed. And you make a great case for getting rid of the residency requirement.


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