From the windows of the barbershop he has owned for nearly 30 years, Don Harkins has watched Brown Street evolve. He has seen the street change slowly from a neighborhood full of homes with boarded up windows and people sitting outside drinking to a neighborhood with new homes and people jogging and riding bikes.

Harkins bought the Man’s Image barbershop in 1977. He has been cutting hair there six days a week ever since. Back in the late 1980s, Harkins said Brown Street had a much different look than it does today. He said at one point, when he looked out of his window, all he could see were buildings that had their windows boarded up.

Over the years, Brown Street has earned the reputation of a troubled neighborhood. Tales of drugs being sold in the streets, people being harassed, rampant crime and vandalism and even killings were commonplace. Thanks in part to a group of neighbors who formed a community watch group to try and take back their neighborhood, Brown Street is slowly shedding its negative reputation and becoming a place where people want to live. And while the neighborhood is still challenged by some problems with violence and drugs, some people there have a sense that it has turned a corner.

The neighborhood is commonly known as “Frenchtown,” which harkens back to the days when the population was primarily made up of Franco-Americans who had moved to Westbrook to work at the paper mill at the end of the street. In fact, at the end of the street with the mill still looming in the background, a row of identically designed houses still stand, a holdover from the days when the mill was the primary employer in the city.

As the mill downsized, and workers started to move out of the neighborhood, Brown Street began another transition, into a neighborhood with a rough reputation. Stevan Morrow, a member of the Frenchtown Community Association, said when he first arrived, people were afraid to walk the street at night.

“That’s changed dramatically,” he said. “People are jogging by and riding their bikes by, pushing baby carriages. It’s a whole different feel.”

Cleaning up

Morrow has owned a building in neighborhood since 1985 and has lived there for eight years. He also runs his construction business out of his three-decker building located almost directly across the street from Olivia’s store.

Morrow said he didn’t have a good impression of the neighborhood when he first moved there after his divorce. He said he could remember looking out of his window at night and seeing cars parked three abreast in the street and people selling drugs openly out of the trunks.

In 1988, Morrow, along with other residents formed the community watch group that would eventually became the Frenchtown Community Association.

Cindy Murphy, who is a member of the association, said even though the neighborhood is better than it was, the group is still keeping a watchful eye out for any trouble and alerting police whenever they see a problem.

Police Chief Paul McCarthy said, while the neighborhood still has some problems with crime, he believes Brown Street has seen a significant improvement since the residents started taking interest in what was going on there.

Brown Street has now evolved to the point where Morrow can safely leave his boat outside and pay a little more attention to the landscaping of his property. He said there were times he was reluctant to put flowers and other things outside because he knew they would be kicked over and destroyed almost as soon as he put them out.

Ann Peoples, who represents the neighborhood on the city council, credits the people of the community association with playing a large part in the turnaround. She said she felt the association has done some remarkable things in the neighborhood.

One of the ongoing projects for the community association is the annual neighborhood clean-up. The first one was held about six years ago. Volunteers spent two days going through the neighborhood, hauling out trash and even abandoned cars, all in an effort to make their neighborhood more livable. Morrow said once the first cleanup was complete it was easy to see the improvement in the neighborhood.

As the neighborhood has evolved, Morrow said the annual cleanups have become a community-building event. “The cleanups have become more symbolic,” he said.

Peoples said she believes Frenchtown is becoming a desirable neighborhood again. “I’ve always had a fondness for this neighborhood, even when I lived on the other side of the river,” she said. “I’ve always thought it had a huge amount of potential.”

While Peoples feels the neighborhood always had potential, it wasn’t able to realize that potential for many years because of the problems there.

Former bar blamed

When pressed for the source of the problems, many Brown Street residents point to the former Andy’s Tavern. Both Morrow and Murphy said the Frenchtown Community Association was formed because residents wanted to do something about Andy’s Tavern. That tavern, which is now under new ownership and has been rechristened the Skybox, was a center of controversy in the neighborhood for many years.

During the years Andy’s was open, residents filed constant complaints with the police about fights spilling out of the bar and onto the street, vandalism, and rowdy customers disturbing the neighborhood.

One of the more serious incidents linked to Andy’s came in April 1997, when Jeffrey Young, 33, of Brown Street, died after being injured in a fight outside the bar.

Young had been drinking inside the bar since 10 a.m. on the day of the fight, according to accounts published at the time. Young had a confrontation at around 3 p.m. with Albert Rogers Jr., 33, of River Road, Windham. Witnesses said Young started the fight with Rogers inside the bar before the fight moved outside. Witnesses told police Rogers slammed Young’s head on the sidewalk several times during the fight. Young was taken to Maine Medical Center where he later died of his injuries.

In an agreement with the District Attorney’s office, Rogers pled guilty to charges of aggravated assault in June 1998. He was sentenced to one year in prison.

The bar hasn’t had as many problems since it came under new ownership just over a year ago. While they still are not completely happy with the bar, Morrow and Murphy readily admit the new owners have been proactive about curbing problems there.

Murphy said the new owners have tried to work with the neighbors. “One of their workers keeps in touch with us to let us know things that are going on in the neighborhood,” she said.

Ellen Dore, the owner of Skybox, did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

Taking a break at his shop, Harkins said he felt while there were problems at Andy’s, some of that reputation was undeserved. “Andy’s Tavern has taken the unnecessary rap for a lot of events that have taken place outside of the tavern,” he said. “A lot of the problems that existed in the neighborhood as far as vandalism, drinking and rowdiness didn’t come out of Andy’s Tavern. It was alcohol that was purchased (at other stores). In the summer months, they hung around on the walls and on their porches. Now, there’s a drastic change in that. I don’t see that anymore.”

McCarthy said police have far fewer problems with the bar since it has been under new ownership. He said police have seen a marked reduction in calls to the bar under the new owners.

Violence still a problem

In July, Douglas Wilcox, 34, of Glenwood Avenue, died after being injured in a fight that began at the corner of Brown and North streets and ended in front of the Skybox. Police said the Skybox was not connected to the fight.

Three men, Wade DePalma, 19, of Bridge Street, Nicholas Lavigne, 19, of Pierce Street and Alexander Layug, 18, of Massachusetts Avenue, Portland, are awaiting trial on manslaughter charges in connection with Wilcox’s death.

Because of incidents like these, some people still feel the neighborhood has ways to go before it can completely shed its past. Alisha Ramsey, 16, who just recently moved from Brown Street to Scarborough, said she still thought the neighborhood was a dangerous place despite the gains it has made.

As she sat in Olivia’s Store one afternoon, Ramsey said, when she lived on Brown Street, there was no way she would consider walking through the neighborhood at night. Even during the day, Ramsey remembered having some problems. She recalled an incident where she was walking home from the park one afternoon when a man on a bike began to chase her. Ramsey said she still doesn’t know why the man chased her, since she had not seen or spoken to him before.

Ramsey’s mother, Julie Pace, said one of the main reasons she left Westbrook for Scarborough was because she wanted to get her daughter off Brown Street. She said she saw evidence that drugs were still being used and sold in the neighborhood, and there were a couple of incidents where men were making inappropriate gestures and comments to her daughter as she was walking on the street.

Ramsey’s friend, 16-year-old Olivia Brown, whose mother, Patty Brown, owns Olivia’s, said she agrees with her friend that Brown Street is still not a safe neighborhood, especially for a young girl, especially at night.

Patty Brown said she has seen a lot of change in the neighborhood, with a lot of longtime residents getting out. She admitted that many of the troublemakers have also left, but she feels there is still trouble there. “A lot of the bad people have moved out, but nothing better has moved into the neighborhood,” she said.

Peoples said she is not surprised to hear the neighborhood still hasn’t fully shed its troubled reputation. Sitting in her kitchen just off Brown Street, Peoples said people will see what they want to see. “If you’re going out looking for trouble, you’re going to find trouble,” she said.

New homeowners

One agency has seen some good in Brown Street and has worked to bring more new homeowners into the neighborhood. Over the past few years, PROP, the non-profit Peoples Regional Opportunity Program, has built several condominium units designed to create more affordable housing.

Walking through the neighborhood one sunny afternoon it is easy to see how happy PROP Executive Director Grant Lee is with the results. He said the 13 new condos, some in newly built homes and some in rehabbed homes, have given people a stake in the neighborhood.

Steven Bacon is one of those new homeowners. He and his wife, Libby, have lived in their King Street condo for just over a year, and they couldn’t be happier with their home. “It’s awesome,” he said.

Having heard about the neighborhood’s reputation, Bacon said he called the police department and even visited Brown Street to talk to people before moving in. He said he did that to get a complete picture of the neighborhood before moving there.

For the most part, Bacon is happy with the neighborhood, though he said he still has some problems with rowdiness. “We’ve just got some obnoxious drunk people yelling at night,” he said.

Peoples said homeowners like Bacon will continue to play a large role in Brown Street’s continuing transition. “What we’re getting right now are the urban pioneers,” said Peoples. “And they are the ones who kind of help the neighborhood pull itself up.”

While there have been people moving into the neighborhood, one longtime neighbor has moved out, at least temporarily. Last year, the Westbrook Catholic Community decided to consolidate Westbrook’s three parishes into one. As a result, St. Hyacinth’s, the large church that has anchored the neighborhood for years, has been dormant.

Murphy said the church has been a key element of the neighborhood, even for people who weren’t Catholic. She said people would look forward to the annual church fair, and the church’s thrift shop was a welcome place to shop for residents who weren’t financially well off.

While St. Hyacinth’s has been used for major occasions like Christmas and Easter masses, the diocese has not decided if the church will be used for the new parish, or sold. Murphy said she hoped the church would stay in the neighborhood.

While Brown Street still has some challenges ahead of it, Morrow said he didn’t think it was too early to consider the effort to revitalize the neighborhood a success. “The flavor of this neighborhood now as opposed to eight years ago, you just can’t imagine,” he said. “I would call it a success story absolutely.”

Harkins said the success of the neighborhood should be credited to the people that live there. “It’s a whole different type of people here now,” he said. “There are good people here.”

(There is a vertical version of this picture in the folder as well) Steven and Libby Bacon moved into their new condo on King Street just over a year ago. Steven Bacon said other than having some problems with people being loud on the street, he and his wife are happy with the neighborhood.Don Harkins of the Man’s Image cuts the hair of Sam Simonson of Brook Street on afternoon. Harkins, who has owned the Brown Street barbershop since 1977 said he has seen the neighborhood change a great deal over the years.Barber Don Harkins inside his Brown Street shop.(there is an alternative Brown Street sign picture in the folder, I thought this one was better lit) Brown Street is a neighborhood working to shed its bad reputation.Formed in 1988 as a community watch group, the Frenchtown Neighborhood Association has worked hard to turn the neighborhood around. Hanging out at Olivia’s on Brown Street, Olivia Brown (left) and Alisha Ramsey (right) both 16, said despite the stories that the neighborhood has improved, they both feel Brown is still a dangerous place.PROP, the People’s Regional Opportunity Program has been one of the leaders in building affordable housing to the Brown Street neighborhood. The agency has constructed new condos and now is still building new housing in the neighborhood.When the mill was in full operation, Brown Street was the home to many of the mill workers and their families. Here, with the mill still visable in the background, a group of identically designed houses from that era still stand.St. Hyacinth’s Church, a longtime cornerstone of the Brown Street neighborhood has stood vacant for almost a year while the diocese decides its fate.

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