Beyond Walls’ CEO tells all — except future plans

Beyond Walls CEO and founder Al Wilson looks through portraits of mural artists that the nonprofit has worked with. (Spenser Hasak) Purchase this photo
Vivian Mançellari

If you happen to use public transportation and need a way to remember Lynn as your stop, you might consider memorizing the colorful murals on buildings all over town. The nonprofit organization Beyond Walls is responsible for the city’s fresh and upbeat new look.

But who is responsible for Beyond Walls?

Let’s get to know the man behind Beyond Walls, founder and CEO Al Wilson.

Asking Wilson himself to complete the sentence “Al Wilson is,” he answered, “Right now I’m pretty beat up. Beat up, but excited.”

Looking back on what sparked Beyond Walls in 2016, Wilson explained that seeing what large-scale artworks were doing for the local economies in Philadelphia, Miami’s Wynwood area, and London’s King’s Cross area encouraged him to leap from tech sales into the world of nonprofits.

Wilson worked in Lynn after college. He later moved away, but then came back to the North Shore, where he played soccer and got invited to several community meetings. During those meetings, most of which were held at the Lynn Museum, residents, the business community, and elected officials would discuss the challenges facing the city’s downtown. That was when Wilson began to envision what would eventually become Beyond Walls.

“Obviously, we’ve got awesome art institutions, but there was a lack of public art, so that everyone knew you are in an art and culture district,” Wilson said.

The challenges created by a lack of lighting in Lynn back when Beyond Walls was starting up were twofold, according to Wilson.

“Primarily chiefly under free underpasses that the community was sharing where people were getting hit by cars because they weren’t lit, and then pocket areas of the downtown, in the business district where people felt that there needed to be more lighting for pedestrians to enhance commerce,” Wilson said.

Beyond Walls began as a volunteer-based movement and eventually turned into a nonprofit that is operating beyond Lynn. Wilson described Beyond Walls’ work a “deliberately broad mission” due to the uncertain challenges of the communities it serves.

Beyond Walls CEO and founder Al Wilson is framed by a wall of photos highlighting some of the artists who’s murals can be found around Lynn and beyond.

Regarding Beyond Walls’ transition to a nonprofit organization, Wilson acknowledged the positive impact of the Lynn Housing Authority and Neighborhood Development.

“They built the majority of the subsidized housing units in the city since 1979 and their executive director, Charlie Gaeta, also understood the needs of the community really well and knew the challenges of the MBTA bridges,” Wilson said.

Speaking of Lynn’s new look, Wilson said that the “city of sin” label was unfair to begin with and fueled by the fact that Lynn is close to major news channels. As a result, its negative news stories were broadcast more than those of other cities and towns in the area.

“Lynn is a great city full of awesome people, great organizations. It’s got some of the challenges of any former industrial city, it just happened to have this ditty,” Wilson said.

Wilson doesn’t dance around the theory that his work with Beyond Walls might enable gentrification.

“If people getting hit by cars less often, or not at all, makes the place more desirable to live… the alternative, well, let’s knock out every light,” Wilson said. “We were strongly involved in pushing for a housing plan for the city that the city has now carried through. And while we’ve been doing the work, a housing study was commissioned, a plan came out. Lynn now has an inclusionary housing plan.”

For its third year serving cities in addition to Lynn, Beyond Walls called for applications from municipalities. Wilson said 37 came in.

“There’s a lot of desire to have public art to do this type of work, and that’s the type of thing that gets me up in the morning,” Wilson said.

As for Lynn, Wilson expressed excitement about the waterfront public park. Although it is not the work of Beyond Walls, he called the development groundbreaking, considering the challenges preventing people from taking public transit, and called the ferry “a game changer” for the community.

While Wilson said that Beyond Walls is on the verge of making an announcement about the towns and cities it will be serving soon, he declined to give more info. He did say, though, it will come soon and that Beyond Walls’ work will be “very impactful.”

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