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Two brothers, two Baltimores [Commentary]

I returned to my old community of West Baltimore, under the shadow of Bon Secours Hospital near the intersection of West Fayette and North Payson streets, to visit a native I had not seen for three decades. David Brown, who lived across the alley from me in the old neighborhood, had years ago opened a small store directly across from the sprawling hospital.

The New Fayette Street Market & Deli is like a small fortress, with a Plexiglas bastion from which he can sell sundries and essentials in blackest night or brightest day. In one corner of his store is a small desk with two computers, which provide neighborhood kids with a window to a world far removed from the blasted buildings and broken streets of the community.

When I lived there back in the '70s my window was books. I consumed them like groceries at the old Branch 2, a few blocks down the street from David's store. It's now a boarded up wreck, but it lasted long enough to show me a way out. David also left but Baltimore. But after a career in the Navy and as a national coffee executive, he eventually decided to come back home. Part of the draw was that his mother was ill and needed him. David bathed her, cosseted her and shepherded her through her final days. She died before his eyes, but he keeps her vision alive in his present endeavors. David's store is like a mini Walmart, with all manner of merchandise stowed, hung and shelved.

"I want sunflower seeds, said an importunate customer. "We got 'em," David said, breaking off a conversation to root around in the stockroom. Moments later, the customer left satisfied.

Outside his store, groups of dull-eyed men and boys cluster on steps, around a mailbox and in the alleyways that interrupt the grim lines of row houses. David planted flowers outside his store and told me about how, after someone stole some of them, he roamed the neighborhood to retrieve the bright bits of color. David and his partner live above the store. He believes in the community and raves about how the coming of the Red Line train will help revitalize West Baltimore.

David's youngest sibling is also a successful city merchant, albeit in a world light-years removed from the narrow streets of West Baltimore.

Kevin Brown co-owns two restaurants, SNAC (Station North Arts Cafe) and Nancy by SNAC, at the thriving corner of North Charles Street and North Avenue. Their clientele ranges from city officials to office workers to the students who enjoy the re-invigorated atmosphere of the burgeoning Maryland Institute College of Arts.

A former television personality, arts writer and city official, Kevin's exuberance informs and meshes with the arty world of North Charles street. On the day I visited him, the corner was a-bustle as students prepared for the annual Baltimore Film Festival. Meanwhile, on David's corner, passersby prepared for another Friday.

Both the brothers came home again. David, who sits on several neighborhood boards, works to educate residents about the dangers of drugs and to nurture young people who want more than red bricks and black asphalt. Kevin feeds a different dynamic, the downtown north area that has come to connote the new Baltimore. His ubiquitous Facebook posts and clever merchandising support and endorse the flourishing Station North scene. Kevin and David Brown represent two Baltimores, each as separate as strangers yet as close as family.

I'm not invested enough in my native city to speak about disinvestment, nor am I smart enough to tell city leaders how money could be redistributed equally, so that David's corner sparkles the way Kevin's shines. But I can say it loud, I'm proud of the Browns. They're making things happen, one brother at a time.

James Abraham, a native of Baltimore, is a former journalist who runs a small press in Southwest Florida. His email is book-broker@hotmail.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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