Genevieve Brown, a South Carolina native who became a community development leader in a blighted area of the Bronx, spoke to students, faculty and staff at Erskine College Feb. 25 as part of Erskine’s observance of Black History Month.
Brown grew up on her parents’ Anderson farm in a devoutly Christian home and moved to New York City in 1954, at first living in Harlem with her aunt and uncle.
Later, she moved to the Charlotte Street area of the Bronx and began to experience the difficulties of a changing neighborhood where daily crimes of assault, drug-dealing, and arson threatened to overwhelm the residents.
She was troubled by the deterioration she saw and determined to do something about it, emboldened by her faith in God. “My parents taught me that one person can make a difference,” she said.
“It is possible to draw strength and courage from an inner source,” she said, adding that in order to effect change, one must “recognize what needs to be changed” and “develop the self-discipline” to act on that knowledge.
The change Brown was seeking did not come about magically, or even quickly. She and other residents picked up trash themselves—sanitation workers did not want to come into the area. They tackled the problem of rampant arson by asking the fire marshall to stake out the area.
“I slept with my shoes by my bed many nights,” she said, when the mayhem of arson was at its peak in her neighborhood.
Brown organized a tenant association in her own building to pressure the landlord to improve the building. Other efforts included a voter registration drive, a block association that partnered with police, and a day care center.
But in order to address the enormous problems of the neighborhood, no one organization was enough. The key was cooperation, and this cooperation led to a successful community venture.
When the Mid-Bronx Desperadoes, as they styled themselves, began the paperwork process to organize officially, authorities at first rejected the name, which sounded like the name of a gang.
Now known as MBD Community Housing Corporation, the group was led by Brown and four other women, along with the Rev. William J. Smith and a coalition of nine faith-based and other organizations.
Perhaps the most unlikely success in the transformation of the Charlotte Street area was the construction of 89 single-family homes known as Charlotte Gardens.
“One person can make a difference,” Brown told her Erskine audience. “You can make a difference.”
For a series of compelling vignettes in which Brown tells her story, see the “Makers” video series here.