The power of one 

No one likes a nudge, a busybody, a snoop -- particularly if they live next door or down the block.

Nobody wants to be a nudge, either -- or a busybody, a snoop, a meddler.

A noisy neighbor? Turn up the sound machine. A drug deal on your block? Close your curtains; lock your doors.

A corner mechanic, overstepping his bounds, with too many cars on the lot taking up too much room? Bitch and moan to a neighbor.

The easy way out. That’s what we want. It’s safer, easier, less complicated.

Somehow Naomi Brown never got that message. Brown works for the city. She’s a neighborhood services coordinator.

She’s a nudge. She’s a meddler.

Back in the late ‘70’s, when she moved from Brooklyn to her mother’s house on St. Helena’s Island to care for an aging great-aunt who reared her, Brown found work as a nurse’s assistant. She loved the profession.

Not to become a nurse -- “I saw what they did. They were robots, pill-givers. They did paperwork” -- but to do what she did best: Confront the doctor on behalf of the patient.

“In one case, when a doctor said in front of the woman, a stroke victim, ‘She’s not going to ever get better,’ I got mad and started working with her,” Brown says.

“Six months later, when the doctor saw she could sit up in a chair and talk and he said, ‘What happened here?’ I said, ‘God didn’t give up on her. You did.’ I saw a need for compassion. I was determined to make her better.”

But 20 years in health care was enough. When Brown left, she took the only job she could find. She became a housekeeper at one of Hilton Head’s inns. After five months, they made her the supervisor. She oversaw 30 people. It wasn’t a title she sought.

“For the longest time we were working six days a week. Finally I said, ‘We need to work five days a week with two days off. That’s only fair,’” she says.

“So that’s what happened. Until a new boss came in and changed it. Then he reduced the staff. That wasn’t right. These people were getting on a bus from all over Carolina at four in the morning for this job,” says Brown.

“So I said, ‘I’m leaving. I want my check right now. It’s wrong what you’re doing. I told my husband I’d eat peanut butter and jelly before going back. I started here eating peanut butter and jelly. I’ll finish that way,” she says.

“The next day the supervisor made me executive housekeeper. He liked how I stood up and spoke my mind. But I said, ‘If my slip is hanging, you better tell me. If I fail, you better give me my job back.’”

As a child, Brown, now 59, moved back and forth between the North and the South, school with relatives in New York, summers with her mother in South Carolina.

“I was born out of wedlock,” she said. “Back then that meant something. The family had standards; they felt shame. My mother was only 17, so my great-aunt raised me. She was very strict. She had a strong sense of right and wrong.”

While working as the executive housekeeper, Brown started commuting from Savannah, seeing after another great-aunt.

“I refused to let them take her to a nursing home,” she said.

After awhile, “tired of the foolishness of the work arena,” tired of the drive back and forth, she quit and relocated to her aunt’s house in Savannah’s Midtown.

“That’s when I started walking the streets. You see so much more when you walk. That’s when I realized how much the neighborhood had changed. The white people had gone and no one was keeping up the properties. There was debris, trash, abandoned automobiles. You had people afraid to go outside. They were in prison,” she says.

“There were other people hanging out on corners in what must have been invisible bus stops. I thought, ‘What’s wrong with these people? They done lost their minds.’ I became a villain, a community villain. I went to Mayor Rousakis and he said, ‘Aren’t you afraid?’ I said, ‘Everyone’s gotta die sometime.’

“I became a single vigilante. I learned the shifts of the police officers, who to call and when. Once I was driving by 38th and Habersham and I saw this group of people and I said, ‘Why you here? Let’s step on the green and have it out.’ My old tomboy girl ways from Carolina came back. The guy said, ‘Miss, you crazy,’ but they moved away.”

Eventually, someone from the city of Savannah, who saw her skills as a liaison, a communicator, an activist, was smart enough to offer her a job.

By now, Brown knows the drill with neighborhoods. She knows what happens when landlords -- who buy houses for investment -- move out of town and give their properties to real estate companies to manage.

She can predict what happens when tenants are not screened or held accountable, when the property is not visited, monitored or maintained.

She’s seen the rats, then the snakes -- and the drug dealers -- from houses that are boarded up for years. She’s watched one or two abandoned cars on a street -- or at a mechanic’s garage -- become six or seven, then 10 and 11.

“I’ve seen how someone who owns property in Midtown and on the Southside keeps up their houses,” she said. “You wouldn’t know it was the same landlord.”

As part of her job, she works closely with the city’s 15 property maintenance inspectors. Which means she knows how stretched the inspectors are.

She also knows something else: the power of personal involvement. As she once did (and still does), so can others.

Individual citizens, Brown says, can do the research to find out who owns the derelict buildings. Then they can make phone calls, write letters and -- if the offender is legally cited -- show up at Monday afternoon’s Recorder’s Court to testify.

They can become what Brown has been most of her life -- an activist, a nudge, a meddler. Sometimes that’s the only way things get done.


To report abandoned and/or derelict vehicles, unsafe buildings,

unkempt lots, call the city's property maintenance division, 651-6770.


Jane Fishman writes a weekly column for ConnectSavannah. She can be

reached at gofish5@earthlink.net.

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Connect Today 10.21.2016

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