Bronx 'Renaissance Man’ and Activist Ozzie Brown Remembered

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Ozzie Brown (left) and Paul Foster share a laugh at last month's Community Board 7 meeting. (Photo courtesy CB7)

By Alex Kratz

Ozzie Brown, a colorful, loquacious and dedicated member of Community Board 7 who was also active in the civil rights movement and an advocate for diabetes awareness, died last week after a battle with cancer. He was 67 years old.

Locally, Brown was best known for the active role he took as a member of the community board. But Brown was much more than that, a “true Renaissance Man,” said former Bronx Borough President Adolf Carrion, one of Brown’s best friends.

“Ozzie was a worldly person,” Carrion said. “He brought a mix of experiences that many people would be surprised to hear about. He was a musician, a promoter of music, a philosopher, a lover of the arts.”

Carrion, who met Brown when the two lived in the same Fordham Hill building in the early 1990s (Brown lived there until his death), said their families were close and they spent many vacations together over the years. As borough president, Carrion appointed him to a Harlem River redevelopment task force and later to Community Board 7.

“I knew he was the right man for the job,” Carrion said, “because he cared about the community, about the people of the Bronx who had been marginalized.”

Brown earned a reputation for offering extended, and often eloquent, speeches during board meetings and hearings. In recent years, he was in the middle of the board’s efforts to expand its role in the community and played a crucial role in shepherding several land use projects, including the re-zoning of Webster Avenue. (Brown said he envisioned the industrialized strip as a bustling commercial and residential area full of “cultural” destinations like galleries, restaurants and bookstores.)Over the past couple of years, Brown was instrumental in the board’s efforts to develop new leadership. Those efforts came to fruition earlier this year, when the board voted to install new people to chair each of its committees.

Greg Faulkner, the former chairman of Community Board 7 who is now chief of staff for Councilman Fernando Cabrera, said he, Brown and current board chairman Paul Foster “made a commitment that we would not stay too long.”

Foster said developing youth leadership was important to Brown. “He was about showing young people that you have to get involved,” Foster said.
Despite his penchant for lengthy monologues, Brown did not voluntarily offer up details about his own life, which, by all accounts, included deep bonds with famous and powerful people.

Born in Jamaica on April 21, 1944, Brown came to the United States as a young man. He joined the Marines and served in the Vietnam War. In the 1970s, Brown worked in the film and television industry. Later, he worked as a contractor in the construction industry. (Carrion called him a “craftsman” who did “beautiful, high-end work.”)

While his credits include a few smaller films and television productions, the biggest film Brown worked on was the stellar documentary, “When We Were Kings,” which chronicled the epic 1974 heavyweight championship boxing match in Zaire between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali.

His star-crossed history was on display in the summer of 2009 when Peter Yarrow, the musician (of Peter, Paul and Mary fame), peace activist and Brown’s good friend, showed up to offer his support and guitar-playing skills at a hearing on the redevelopment of the Kingsbridge Armory.

Brown’s vision for the vacant Armory, which the city wanted to turn into a shopping mall, included space for a “Peace Atrium” that would educate the public about notable peace leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi. According to Faulkner, Yarrow offered up his services unsolicited. Brown simply told him what was going on and Yarrow offered to help his friend in any way he could, Faulkner said. When the City Council killed the Armory project, Carrion said Brown was upset and felt it was “a missed opportunity for the Bronx.”

In 2008, Brown’s friendship with Carrion was tested, Faulkner said, when the board was looking to hire a new district manager. At many boards, the district manager’s job is filled through political channels. But Faulkner had said publicly he would resign before giving in to political pressure. Despite his connection to Carrion, whose office was applying some “political heat,” Faulkner said Brown never wavered in his commitment to the board and its right to hire its own district manager.

“That’s a tribute to Ozzie,” Faulkner said.

Faulkner and Foster both said they will miss Brown’s optimism. “He always had a positive point of view,” Foster said.

“Ozzie was like The Encourager,” Faulkner said. Whenever Faulkner would screw up or get discouraged, he said Brown would find the silver lining. “He would call you, randomly, and always upbeat, just to let you know how important you are and to give you encouragement,” he said.

Brown is survived by his wife, Donna Anaman, as well as his sons, Hasan, Malik, and Ishaaq.

In an e-mail, Anaman wrote, “Ozzie Brown was a ‘rare’ individual and irreplaceable. My son [Malik] is fortunate to have had an exceptional dad who poured his whole life into him and I consider myself fortunate to have been loved deeply by him the last 20 years. He was my cheerleader and my biggest fan. I am filled with gratitude for the many wonderful memories we created together and will miss him terribly.”

[Editor's note: A version of this article appears in the latest edition of the Norwood News, which is out on streets now. Ozzie Brown's laid to rest at Woodlawn Cemetary earlier today.]