Columbus, Ohio USA
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How Larry Brown helped shape the Short North
Honored with 2004 Community Leadership Award
By Karen Edwards
Editor's Note: Lawrence Glenn Brown passed away on May 30, 2008, at the Ohio State University Hospital East after a ten-month hospitalization. He had been suffering from illness for a number of years.
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It meant taking a risk. After all, in the late 1970s, Italian Village, the Short North and its environs were not the neighborhoods they are today. Back then, the area was full of rental properties, owned by landlords who were all too obviously "absentee." High Street businesses wore plywood sheets or two-by-fours across their doors and windows. In polite circles, the area was described as, well, "marginal."
"My parents thought I was crazy when I moved here," says Larry Brown.
It took vision to see the area's possibilities. It also took work, and it's for that work - nearly a quarter century of it - that the Short North Neighborhood Foundation (SNNF) recently presented Brown with its most prestigious award, the Community Leadership Award. The ceremony took place last month, May 5, at the Blues Station in downtown Columbus. Brown said he was stunned to be the award's recipient.
"I know a lot of people who have worked just as hard on our neighborhood," says the unassuming Brown.
It would be hard, however, to find anyone who has worked more consistently over such a long period - or with more dedication than Brown. Despite a disability that others might use as reason not to get involved, Brown rolls up his sleeves over and over again, doing whatever needs to be done to move the community forward.
"In the short time I've known Larry Brown, I have found him to be personable and endearing," says Daniel Koch, OD, president of the SNNF. "Larry is good people, plain and simple."
He's also one of the reasons the Short North/Italian Village area has shaped up the way it has.
Fighting a fast-food giant
For Brown, it started with McDonald's. It was the 1980s. People were slowly moving into the area, renovating and improving properties, prying boards off those High Street businesses and filling the spaces with art. Of course, McDonald's - always able to recognize a good location when it sees it - wanted to stake a claim in Columbus' newest urban renewal area, and picked the corner of First and High for its next set of golden arches. Unwittingly, it had also picked a fight with Larry Brown.
Although still new to the neighborhood, Brown, a former chef and food-service worker, quickly joined a neighborhood group that chose to take on the fast-food giant. Their goal was simple - to keep First and High just as it was. No demolished buildings. No golden arches. Obviously, the group was successful - and the effort helped convince Brown that, through active involvement, neighbors can make a difference - and a big one - in their community.
By now, Brown had earned a reputation as someone who would get involved; someone who wasn't afraid to roll up his sleeves and go to work. Shortly after his fight to save First and High, his neighbors asked him to fill a position on the Italian Village Commission, the group that's charged with preserving Italian Village's unique character. As it turned out, Brown's lifelong interest in local history and preservation made him the perfect man for the job.
Brown still sits on the commission, still sorts through homeowner's home-improvement requests with other commission members. It's not always an easy job - you try explaining to a homeowner who wants to reduce his maintenance chores that vinyl siding isn't really an option. But the city has codes and guidelines to follow and it's the commissioners' job to see that those are met.
"Some people ask me, 'Are you still on that commission? When are you going to leave?'" says Brown. "I don't know when I'll leave. I still like the work."
Butterflies and weeds
But it's not the only work Brown enjoys. He also has an ongoing commitment with the Martha Walker Garden Club. Several years ago, one of the garden club's projects resulted in a butterfly garden at the Second Avenue School on Italian Village's northern boundaries. Brown helped plant the garden and does his fair share in maintaining it during the summer when teachers and children have their own gardens to work and play in.
"Once each summer, the garden club will have a party at the garden. We'll get together and take care of what needs to be done," says Brown.
But Brown can often be found in the garden alone, pulling a stray weed, deadheading a spent bloom. "I only live a few blocks from the school," he says, "so it's easy for me to walk over there and keep it up."
Brown's "cap-ital" idea
Perhaps one of Brown's greatest neighborhood achievements was his work with the city over the I-670 project.
"At the time I became involved, ODOT (Ohio Department of Transportation) did not want to put up a retaining wall as they prepared to work on the I-670 interchange," says Brown. Without a retaining wall, however, High Street stood to lose several of its buildings.
Brown fought for that retaining wall.
"I didn't want to lose a single building," he says. He talked to ODOT about building a cap over the bridge, something that would link the Short North and downtown in a visually and architecturally interesting way.
Of course, people were interested in the prospect - a cap spanning the bridge that would house shops and restaurants and even night spots. Interesting, yes. Affordable, no. Who would pay for such an innovation? Why not put the money for a cap into the city's bond package, Brown suggested. It worked. The cap is nearing completion (it's due to open at the end of this summer), and is already gathering attention from all over the country.
Of course, it isn't all work and no play for Larry Brown.
There are plenty of parties in the Short North area - and Brown doesn't miss many of them. Whether it's the Martha Walker work-and-social outing at the Second Avenue School garden in the summer; the Italian Village Society's annual December potluck - where, for years, Brown brought the turkey and all the trimmings; or the Greek Orthodox Cathedral's first Mardi Gras celebration (Brown showed up in glittery attire and a proud-as-a-peacock plume) - you can count on Brown's presence and celebratory mindset to be there.
After all, if you've worked as hard as Larry Brown has over the past 25 years, your neighborhood is something to celebrate with others.
"This is a great area in which to work, play and shop," he says.
But it doesn't stay that way without community involvement.
The Short North needs you
There are lots of ways to become involved in the Short North area, Brown points out.
"Come to one of our social meetings, join the Friends of Goodale Park, or the Martha Walker Garden Club," he suggests. Brown understands all too well how difficult it is today to find time, how everyone juggles schedules that resemble battle plans.
"But it's their neighborhood," says Brown. "Their voice is needed."
Neighborhoods don't improve and progress on their own. It takes vision, leadership, even a little risk. And, of course, people like Larry Brown.
The Short North Neighborhood Foundation has an endowment fund that is dedicated to preserving the vitality of the Short North beyond our lifetimes. If you would like to make a donation to the SNNF Endowment Fund, in honor of Larry Brown, please send your checks to: SNNF, 930 North High Street, Columbus, Ohio 43201. Visit www.snnf.org
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