Talking Midtown with Downtown Kevin Brown

An interview with a local writer and entrepreneur by Chaney Giordano

 

Being born and raised in Baltimore City, one could argue that Baltimore has shaped who Kevin Brown is. I’d like to argue that, in his 56 years, it was Brown that shaped Baltimore. From working for the Department of Housing, to writing for The Baltimore Sun, to the two popular cafés he now owns and operates, Brown has left his stamp on Baltimore. His passion for the arts has inspired him to support local artists and strive to foster a more open and artistic community. Recently, Brown sat down with me at his café, Nancy by SNAC. As he wound down from a busy lunch rush, we talked and he allowed me a glimpse into the life of “Downtown” Kevin Brown.

 

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 So you go by Downtown Kevin Brown, has that always been a nickname of yours?

 Well I used to work downtown. I used to have what I called a “suit job.” I worked downtown so the name Downtown stuck. And now I’m in midtown, but people still call me Downtown.

What was the suit job? 

I was Director of Communications and Protocol for Baltimore City Department of Housing, Community Development, and the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. I was too much work.

And now you have SNAC and Nancy instead. What was your goal in starting them? 

To not be in an office everyday, 70 hours a week. And now I’m in a kitchen 70 hours a week. It makes all the difference. No, really, I always wanted to do my own thing, and after 22 years in the workforce it was time to do something different. I like to cook and I like to entertain, so it was a great marriage of those two things.

Watching you here, you treat all of your customers like your friends and family.

Oh absolutely! I know everybody’s name that walks in the door. That’s important – that’s part of our brand. People can go anywhere and spend money, but when people come into your place, the least you can do is acknowledge them and try to be a part of their experience, and let them be a part of your experience. They may not get that anywhere else in their day – a “hi,” “good morning,” “what’s up,” “how’s your kids.” That’s the brand at the end of the day.

Can you hold on one second, I have to go ring someone up.

*hurries to the cash register to personally ring up a large party that’s heading out*

Sorry about that.

No problem, I was just looking around at the artwork you have hanging up in here. It’s very cool and eclectic.

It’s all mine here, not at SNAC.

This is all your original artwork?

Oh no, I bought it. I didn’t make it. I can’t pain at all. I can buy it. But when I opened this restaurant I didn’t want to have a second art gallery. So, I just decked it out in my own personal collection. I think it’s easier – I don’t have to deal with two gallery directors, I only have to deal with one. And we try keep the artwork at Station North, where we actually got our bones and actually got started. We’ve actually represented about 114 artists in the last 10 years that we’ve been there, and that’s about $44,000 back into the local economy to local artists. We only show local artists. If you’re from D.C. or Virginia or Delaware or somewhere, we pretty much tell you to go shit in your hat. But we will always show local artists because they sometimes don’t have somewhere to show their work, and we want to be that place.

You’re incredibly involved in the Baltimore arts scene, so how do you think the Baltimore arts scene is doing?

I think the arts scene is burgeoning. It’s always had a lot of action going on, but now there’s traction. For the first time, I’m seeing traction, things getting done – projects getting done, things coming to completion, people’s dreams coming true. No more sitting around twiddling their thumbs – can you excuse me for a second?

*hurries over to a favorite customer*

Aren’t you forgetting something?

*they hug and joke for a few minutes*

Sorry! Where did we leave off?

I was just going to ask you, with the success of SNAC and Nancy, do you have plans to expand any further?

I’m looking to open up a third place, but a bar with food. That’s my next plan. I’ve been doing breakfast and lunch for 10 years, I think we’ve got the egg sandwich and the coffee down.

Looking to move onto dinner?

Well, not so much dinner but a bar, with some food. You know, not a $9 draft, I don’t know what that is. But you know –

*a woman walks up and asks when he’ll be ready to meet*

Sorry I’ll be there in 10 minutes, you’re over in the conference room right?

*she confirms*

Sorry, I’ve just got a thousand things going on today. I’m interviewing in two places! But, I’ll talk to you soon.

*Another customer stops to say goodbye and how much she loves the place*

Oh thank you. Is this your first time here, Charlotte?! I know you’ve been around the corner. Well we’re going to bring back our Friday night dinner parties, too. Alright, love you! Thanks, Charlotte.

I’m back, I’m so sorry.

That’s okay! So, tell me more about your plans for your third place.

Well it’s really a testament to a place where writers can go and reflect and have a good strong drink, and have a cultural exchange. What we try to do here at Station North is provide a cultural canopy for the neighborhood, a place where people can be themselves – black, white, young, old, straight, gay, intergenerational – come and be yourself, be involved. This is not an internet café, so I don’t want a lot of this going on.

*taps on the table as if it’s a keyboard*

I think a café is about interacting, people talking, ear-hustling. You know, if I’m walking past a table and I hear something, I’m going to be in that conversation. If you’re talking about Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton or whatever, I’m going to jump into that. I think people don’t really expect that kind of exchange, but it’s so much needed because we’re tied into our social media. And all of the connectivity that that really doesn’t give us. Our passion is to hearken back to people really talking to each other, face to face, and saying “hey, how’s that hotdog you’re eating?” Even if you don’t know that person.

So you’re really trying to create a cultural environment. Is that why you started the James Baldwin Literary Society?

I started that because I got the opportunity as a very young child to meet James Baldwin, who was my hero, my mentor. He was someone who I could identify with – he was black, I’m black, he was poor, I was poor, he’s gay, I’m gay. And a large family, he had a family of I think 11, I’m the youngest of 17 children. So we identify on a lot of different platforms. So, when I got the opportunity to meet him, it was transformative for me in my life and at that time. I was going into a career in writing, actually poetry, and my poetry stank so bad! And the man told me I wouldn’t write poetry. You have a gift for the narrative, so maybe you’d be a better storyteller. So I turned to playwriting in my early 20s because of that remark and that energy that came my way. But it really was transformative for me to meet someone like that and to spend really quality time with a literary icon, it was life-changing.

So that’s why I started the James Baldwin Literary Society, because everybody has a society, but there wasn’t one. There was a Zora Neal Hurston Society, a Toni Morrison Society, but there was no James Baldwin Society. And I thought, this man has said too much, done too much, been too many places, talked about America’s condition – good, bad, or otherwise – that he really needs a place and a pantheon of great writers. And nobody asked me, but I’m not that person anyway. I don’t wait until people ask me. I’ve got a passion. I go, and I do it.

Did you know that you are mentioned on James Baldwin’s Wikipedia page?

No, you’re kidding me. I’m not a social savvy guy. That cracks me up! It was almost 30 years ago!

His sister lives here in Baltimore, and she embraces the society as well. So that’s a good thing, that the family enjoys that someone is holding up his name. And more people should be reading him, especially in these turbulent times of racism across the country. It’s really a good time to read Baldwin and find out what he said. One of his favorite quotes for me is “All men are brothers,” because he didn’t see the color line. He just figured one day we’re all going to get this thing together because we’re all here on the same planet, black and white together. We’re still moving towards that, hopefully.

What kinds of events and activities do you do as a society?

We have events four times per year. We celebrate his birthday, which is August 2, we celebrate the day of his death, which is December 1. We celebrate November 11, in 1948 that was the day he left America for Paris, and we celebrate the anniversary of one of his books every year. Sometimes we’ll do a women’s history month event for the women in his life, like Lorraine Hansberry was very critical in his life, as was Betsy Smith. And his books, when they have a benchmark anniversary, whether it’s the 50th anniversary of Giovanni’s Room or the 45th anniversary of Go Tell It on the Mountain, we feel it’s important to revisit that language and that book and we’ll have a social event around that book.

You’re very involved in the arts and culture in Baltimore, how about politics?

I’ve had a little dibble and dabble in politics. I appreciate the political scene, but our politicians have to be more aware of what the artists in the community’s needs are. That’s a building block that’s been ignored for way too long. And in this city, it’s probably 10 to 20,000 people. That could really change an election, and I’m glad to know that this year’s candidates are really looking at that voters block, taking the artists out of their studios to vote. It’s going to be a hell of a change for the cultural tapestry of this community, and all communities across the city. It could make a big, big difference.

I also heard you say that you hate poetry, but you told me you used to write it. So tell me about your relationship with poetry.

Yes! Well, when I met James Baldwin at the age of 21 or 22, and I said “Oh, Mr. Baldwin!” and I turned into this fan, “I write poetry, would you please look at my poetry?!” So I scribbled up some poetry and I gave it to him and he looked at it and he flipped through it, and he looked at me and said “This is awful.” This is a true story! So when someone like James Baldwin tells you that your poetry is awful, not to depress me or make me feel bad or denigrate my efforts, but he found that I had a greater voice in the narrative. He said, “you know, you’re a great storyteller. Maybe your focus should be that.” And it really just right-tracked me to write plays, and I’ve written 7 plays in my entire life, and I need to write more. But it showed me where my strengths and energies were, and they weren’t in poetry at all.

I believe in stream of consciousness, but poetry is a line and measure thing at the end of the day. It’s not necessarily this stream of consciousness thing that it’s become. I think there’s more structure and discipline to poetry than any other writing form, and I’m just not good at it.

You’ve done a ton of creative writing –

 Tons, I was also a reporter.

I was just about to ask you about that.

Yeah, I was the Features reporter for the Baltimore Sun. I covered parties and nightclubs. I covered bands in the 80’s, hip-hop, club openings. I was a great opportunity for me to actually get out and see the city as a young person who, as a young person, sequestered. My mom kept me in private school up until college. And then I broke out! So it gave me a platform to go and see different things and different cultures.

Were you always in Baltimore?

Born and raised here, my whole 56 years. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I love this town.

Have you done much travelling?

Oh, everywhere, but it’s always right back here. Never been to L.A.!

Is that on your list?

Not really. I’d like to go to Seattle, Washington probably. My mom and dad were there when they had no kids. My mother always said it was the happiest time of her life, but she didn’t have 17 kids yet either!

Last question: what’s your favorite thing to eat here at Nancy? 

Here, I’ve got to say I like the Grilled Chicken Panini. It’s delicious, it’s my favorite sandwich.

This was fabulous, I’m sorry it was so rushed.

It gave me a really good look at who you are, seeing you rush around the café.

Like a damn crazy man.

Next time you’re on North Avenue, stop in to Nancy. Say hi to Kevin, who will be sure to greet you like a long-lost friend. Bring a copy of your favorite James Baldwin novel, and be sure to try the Grilled Chicken Panini.

 

Chaney Giordano is a Baltimore-based writer, traveler, beachgoer, outdoors lover, and adventure seeker.

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