Happen’s Stance – Signs of Downtown

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This first Happen’s Stance is going to begin with the issue that drew me into neighborhood and city politics. It is not something that should be on the top of Lynn’s list of priorities, and there are also people for whom this matters more than it should matter to me. And yet, when I first found out about the Sign Ordinance for Downtown Lynn, it really struck a nerve. It still does, because I see the effects of it on the streets ever day.

It was March of 2007 and I finally had the keys to my Lynn residence. Like any other overzealous first-time homeowner, I read all I could find about Lynn, online, beforehand. While perusing, I came across an article on the Item’s website about a Downtown Sign Ordinance. I can no longer remember if it was about recent passage by the Council, lack of compliance by businesses within the district, or in any other context. What I clearly remember is being rattled by the gold lettering on black background standard it imposed.

I was moving from Jamaica Plain, which has beautiful murals, vibrant business signage, and some even as unique sculptures by local artists, seeming to leap out of the brick. What I saw in Downtown Lynn, was a blank slate where artists and creative businesses might move in and do some sprucing up. Why not? Lynn is also a diverse community, with diverse neighborhoods not dissimilar from the diverse sub-neighborhoods within Jamaica Plain. And just for the record, I did not expect some sort of instant magical transformation. These things take years. Nor, did I expect to bring Jamaica Plain with me. I wasn’t looking for a carbon-copy of where I had been, just a cool urban place, with potential to grow in its own way.

I was afraid growth of my emerging neighborhood would be stifled, though, even if just in appearance.  I also didn’t think it was legal to dictate taste in signage in that strict of a fashion, unless one owned a suburban strip mall. So as a result, I had an irrational panic over the thought of our City Government attempting to suburbanize the area. I spent a good deal of my youth plotting my escape from boring, bland, suburbia. I had just gotten the keys to my place, hadn’t moved a piece of furniture yet, and already there were forces beyond my control conspiring to ruin it. So I thought.

The first thing I did in response was to register and comment on the Item’s web site. Much to my surprise, the Item later contacted me and wanted to ask a few questions for a follow-up story. I barely had a bed in the place, I wasn’t sleeping there full time, and I was already quoted as a concerned resident in my new local paper for a front page article that included a picture of Centre Street in Jamaica Plain, which I was in the process of leaving. What a welcome!

Flashing forward to now, I must say that the ensuing dialog with City Hall as been great. I’ve been able to speak with Jamie Marsh, who is now in charge of the Community Development Office, on a number of occasions. (He has always been willing to listen to me and others in the Downtown community on matters of importance to us.)

We agreed that some of the gold on black signs are attractive. The Lynn Museum is a fine example. We agreed that a lot of existing signage within the Downtown District is in poor condition and unwelcoming, but more importantly, we agreed that the ordinance was not working in all cases as intended.

In fact, some of those compliant signs look worse than the non-conforming ones they replaced.

I’ll admit, gold on black looks very nice in a carved wood sign on a 19th Century red brick building, but it doesn’t look right on just about anything else. It’s awful on awnings, hard to read when it’s small, and nasty on glass. In many cases, the lettering is simply painted flat onto a flat sign, dull and sometimes difficult to read from a distance. The Downtown Sign Ordinance backfired.

A one-style-fits-all approach to business signage is not an effective way to revitalize the appearance of any urban center.

As a result, the Ordinance Committee went back for a review and the language of the ordinance was revised.

Why, then, are most new Downtown businesses still adhering to this limited standard? Is ISD still enforcing the old rules? Were the new rules never officially enacted? Or, is this a case of selective enforcement?

I suppose that I can call and find out. But for now, what I see happening on the street determines reality.

And on a related note, Market St. businesses looking for help with sign improvements can contact Community Development through their website, http://www.cityoflynnoecd.net/ . Through grants, monetary assistance may be available. Information is also available there on Washington St, Market St and Waterfront improvement plans.

Seth Albaum


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I am not sure where the idea came from to have Gold on Black lettering.
Enforcing signage control in historic districts should be in the flavor of what was used in historic times. They used plenty of color then.

Signage control should be used to control unpleasant signage, not for enforcing some crazy gold on black rule.


Mark Chapman


Unique and original signs, should be encouraged. I can think of numerous examples where signs add so much character to neighborhoods: The CITGO Sign at Fenway, the flashing colored neon of the Hancock building, the neon of Vegas and Times Sq. Not that we’d want or need anything that flashy in our little city, but it would add some much needed personality. Maybe would could require that signage at least be keep working and clean. It would be great to see the signs at Zimman’s and Anthony’s Hawthorne working like they once must have.