Rocky Brown was known for pushing the city to meet the needs of youth in the Bocek/Madison-Eastend neighborhoods in East Baltimore where he lived and was active.
One example of that was in 2017 when he convinced the city to reopen the Bocek Recreation Center, at the time a lone, boarded-up building with trash piling up by its doors and a playground that went unused. The facility had been closed for at least 20 years.
A full revitalization of the recreational center wouldn’t come for five more years, when a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held in 2021. But Brown, the president of the Bocek/Madison-Eastend Community Association, had already fostered a space for the children and young people in the neighborhood.
Brown — who had experienced strokes in recent years — died in August at the age of 68, and many are missing his presence in the neighborhood.
Many times, community organizers — or champions, as Morgan State University professor Lorece Edwards puts it — act as guardians of the places they live. They are experts, Edwards said, knowing the heart and DNA of the community, what they lack and need to prosper. It often leads Edwards, a public health professor in the school of community health, to ask herself: How much change can one person bring? And what happens when neighborhoods lose people like Brown?
Molly McCullagh, director of neighborhood revitalization at Southeast Community Development Corporation, said she does think that the Bocek community was stabilizing largely because of Rocky. He seemed to have volunteered all of his time to the neighborhood, she said.
Edwards wonders how city conditions would be if every neighborhood had organizers dedicated to their community.
“We could really reimagine a safer and more caring Baltimore,” Edwards said. “It would be, really, a Charm City.”
While Brown revived the Bocek/Madison-Eastend Community Association around 2015, he had lived in the East Baltimore area all his life, his sister Maxine Lynch said. They were a family of six and Brown was her youngest brother. He had earned the nickname “weasel” during his childhood, in some ways because he wasn’t one to back down from what he wanted to do.
“Either you would come with him and take it on with him, or he would walk around you,” she said. “And get it done.”
Brown has been incarcerated, Lynch said, and faced several criminal charges. It was an aspect of his past that Brown wanted people to know about, saying that it did not have to define a person.
“I was a part of the destruction of Baltimore City, but now,” Brown often said, according to Lynch. “I’m gonna be a part of fixing it up.”
“And he never stopped,” Lynch added.
Brown used to wake up as early as 5 a.m. to patrol the neighborhood, and called the department of public works if he noticed that the streets had been neglected or if the trash bins were overflowing. He organized cleanups with children, too, often making a game of it — whoever filled a trash bag first would get a prize. On Memorial day, Brown and his sister lit candles in the park and painted rocks with children whose family members had died.
One holiday season, Brown must have used three or four extension cords between his house on East Madison Street and the Bocek recreational center for a community Christmas tree, Lynch said. He and the children were cold, choosing the night of a blizzard to put up ornaments on the tree, but they were happy.
He lit up the tree every night during that December, Lynch said.
Corey Gillie met Brown, who he called “Mr. Rocky,” when he lived by Rose Street. A strong-minded kid, Gillie was at the brink of his teenage years back then, trying not to fall to peer pressure. As a 13-year-old, Gillie wanted to do something positive, he said.
Brown directed him to Rose Street Community Center, a nonprofit organization that provides social services. Gillie, now 38, describes himself as an alumni of the center. Brown was an example for him, he said. Gillie still tries to empower his Rose Street community, helping people get resources and find jobs.
Brown was family away from family, he said.
“If he couldn’t do anything for you, he probably had ... someone that could possibly help you as well,” Gillie said.
Brown was a known presence in the mayor’s office and various departments. He barged in the offices of the recreation and parks department once in 2017 to speak up for the youth in his neighborhood, remembers Tracey Estep, the chief of operations for the department at the time. He was “going off,” she said with a smile, arguing that “his kids” in Bocek deserved a recreational center just like every other kid in the city. He was stubborn and persistent, she said.
“That was Rocky,” she said with a smile, “my buddy.”
Estep told him the city had funding for neighborhoods that didn’t have rec centers and worked with Brown to set up meetings between department officials and the community. And he kept calling and showing up to her office, she said, such as when he found piles of trash dumped by the recreational center. Estep got someone to clean it up, and she said they decided to paint the boulders and boards to make the building more welcoming.
The COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to many of the community events Brown organized. Brown’s health severely deteriorated around that time after he had two strokes. Lynch didn’t want to risk him getting infected with COVID-19, she said. Even after Brown moved to the Ellwood Park neighborhood in 2021 after their landlord sold his house at Madison Street and evicted them, he still snuck out to Bocek, no matter what Lynch said or did.
In April of 2021, at the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the newly renovated center with a computer lab, a community room and teen space, he told Lynch and Estep that his work was done. He could finally rest.
“As long as they keep my legacy going,” Brown said. “I’m good.”
And the neighborhood is trying to keep Brown’s memory alive.
There are current plans to expand the recreation center, including the addition of a gymnasium.
Recreational centers are vital for communities, said research scientist Lawrence Brown, especially for Black neighborhoods that are redlined and historically deprived of resources from city agencies.
People like Brown are almost like surrogate social workers, providing a safe place for young people to engage with the community, said Lawrence Brown from Morgan State University’s Center for Urban Health Equity. They often take on multiple other roles as well — father figure, someone who acts as a glue for the community — filling voids left by disinvestment.
Community organizers like Rocky Brown are addressing issues that the city should have been taking care of, Lawrence Brown said — and that kind of work can affect one’s health. His dedication to the neighborhood probably drained him and prevented him from taking care of his own health, he said.
“It’s important to recognize his sacrifice,” Lawrence Brown said. “It’s important to recognize the fact that he probably had a lot more to give if only we had a city and a society that didn’t have [Rocky Brown] and people like him work so hard.”
In Edwards’ line of work with community health, she has experienced leaders moving out of their neighborhoods. Some of their efforts continued to thrive, she said. They had left roots and gave them the tools that allowed people to move forward and honor what has already been done. Building a sense of community and mobilizing people requires investment, she said.
“Time is one thing that’s not renewable,” she said. “So hopefully someone can continue to mobilize community members to keep the work going. You don’t want to lose it.”
Clayton Guyton, a community organizer from Rose Street who often worked in partnership with Rocky, said that Brown facilitated service in the community.
“He left a lot of legacy behind,” he said. “So I believe that someone will step up.”
Lynch wants to preserve her brother’s legacy. An art mural depicting him watches over the neighborhood at 2929 E. Madison Street, not far from the recreational center. There is also a mural of Lynch nearby — both murals a part of the Arts & Parks organization and funded by Coca-Cola. Lynch’s tribute is on 2922 E. Monument Street, a lionessbehind her on the artwork matching the lion on her brother’s mural.
She wants to have a plaque on the walls of the Bocek Recreation Center with his photo and information about his life, telling his story that no one forgets. She said she will try to make sure the building is taken care of, too — that the grass doesn’t get too high. He wouldn’t have liked that, she said. And maybe next summer, Lynch will hold more events for the children in the community. They don’t need a lot, she said.
“They just need a hot dog, some juice, some chips, some music and something to do,” she said.