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Reviews | Rocky Brown kept his promise to improve his Baltimore community

Richard B. Karel is a freelance writer in Baltimore.

The prospect of redemption is a dashed hope time and time again, so it’s worth celebrating when someone lives a redeemed life after a life of crime — and a decade in a federal penitentiary. It was the life of Rocky K. Brown Sr., who died Aug. 8 in Baltimore at age 68.

His stature in the community is clearly evidenced by two murals in East Baltimore’s Bocek neighborhood, which he helped transform after his time in prison. A dramatic two-story mural adorns the side of a townhouse just off Monument Street, the main east-west artery that runs through the neighborhood. Brown’s likeness stares intently into the distance as a lion looms over his shoulder. The mural was created in 2018 by artists Elise Victoria and Justin Nethercut of the Baltimore-based organization Arts & Parks. The couple painted a similar image of Brown’s sister, Maxine Lynch, on a townhouse across the block.

It was in his neighborhood of Bocek that Brown caused, in his own words, “chaos and corruption.” Arrested multiple times and facing a potential sentence of 30 years to life in federal prison, Brown has sworn that if he ever gets out he will do whatever he can to give back to the community where he caused so much. of badness. He was released after a decade for good behavior, and he kept his promise.

I met Brown early last year when he moved into a rental house I own in the Ellwood Park neighborhood of East Baltimore. Brown and his longtime partner, Bernice Moreno, and son needed stable housing when the dilapidated house they were renting a few blocks away in the Bocek neighborhood came on the market. I didn’t initially realize that Brown had become a near-legendary force for good in his community of Bocek.

By the time Brown moved into my rental home, he had suffered a stroke and his health was declining, but his powerful and caring personality remained vibrant. At his funeral in August, I said that every time I met Brown (still in my role as owner) he projected love and gratitude. That’s no exaggeration – and, as any landlord could tell you, these are feelings rarely encountered in the landlord-tenant relationship.

Prior to his arrest, Brown had commanded respect on the streets, but he kept his family away from his criminal activities. When he returned home after a decade in prison, he began to do everything in his power to help his community, earning a whole different kind of street cred for himself.

Brown learned how to lobby political, nongovernmental, and business leaders to take an interest in his neighborhood. The community recreation center had been closed and the land behind was overgrown and surrounded by a locked fence. Brown cut the chains off the fence and brought various city officials there to make his point. He personally set out to clean up this area and other areas around his community, sometimes using a borrowed lawn mower to cut the grass.

Not a day went by that he didn’t do something to improve his life and the lives of his neighbors, said Lynch, his sister. Several days he patrolled the streets and alleys looking for trash at 5 a.m.

Brown’s life made me think long and hard about the subject of redemption. Like many of those imprisoned, Brown became familiar with the Bible, and it’s fair to say it helped him through his ordeal and subsequent acts of grace for his community. At his funeral, many expressions of faith surrounded the notion of redemption from the afterlife in Christian tradition. But Brown chose to redeem himself in this life, every day, in a poor, tough neighborhood.

When asked to speak at his funeral, I said I couldn’t speak about the afterlife, but that Brown would live through the many lives he positively touched after his release. from prison.

Brown – who had once feared law enforcement – ​​coordinated with local police officers, who in turn took an active part in mentoring children in the community. In December 2014 the Bocek/Madison East End Community Association was formed and in early 2015 Brown became its first President.

As someone who once brought fear to his neighborhood, Brown brought an authority born of experience when he decided to focus on at-risk youth as a path to a brighter future. He received many accolades in the years following his release from prison. And, at his funeral, dignitaries and government officials, including the Baltimore District Attorney, commended him as an example of someone who had truly changed his life.

An anecdote heard at the funeral came from Bill Atkinson, a public relations executive. Atkinson remembers meeting Brown at a community cleanup event. Shannon Sneed, then a member of the Baltimore 13th District City Council, had helped secure a $130,000 beautification grant from Coca-Cola, an Atkinson customer, to improve the community. Atkinson took a personal interest in Brown’s efforts, and one day, coming straight from work and wearing a suit and dress shoes, he stopped to see how things were going. Brown stuck a rake in his hand and told him to pitch in and help — despite the dressy clothes — which he of course did. As Atkinson recalled, no one said no to Brown.

In his later years, Brown told many friends and acquaintances that he wanted to see the Bocek Leisure Center reopen before he died – and on April 22, 2021, that dream came true when he cut the ribbon during of the official reopening of the leisure center.

Redemption may be in the eyes of the beholder, but it’s clear that in his community at least, Rocky K. Brown Sr. has been redeemed.

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