May 29, 2007

‘I like Portland’: Jerry Brinson leads efforts for change in his adopted neighborhood

When Jerry Brinson, his wife and oldest son moved to the Portland neighborhood from East St. Catherine Street 21 years ago, Brinson knew Portland was close-knit. What he didn’t quite realize then was that he would eventually become active in keeping the community together.For example, he took over the Portland Little League in 1997. By the time he handed over the reigns this year, participation had grown from 150 kids to almost 400, and the number of full, paid league sponsors had increased from 12 to 54, with each donating $250 a year.Brinson is an electrician and had no aspirations toward political activism.“He was frustrated and he wanted things better for his kids and for other kids,” says Molly Leonard, a lifetime Portland resident and president of Louisville Metro’s 1st Division Police Auxiliary.She knew Brinson was a neighborhood asset and convinced him to get involved in other programs after he left the Little League. Her method may have been unorthodox, but it worked. When he was nominated for vice president at a 1st Division Police Auxiliary meeting, he was, let’s say, less than thrilled.“I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa,’ and Molly picked up the gavel and said, ‘Say one more goddamn thing and I’ll hit you over the head,” Brinson says. “She taught me everything I know.”The auxiliary, which Leonard and 10 other Portland residents started 31 years ago, is the only one of its kind in Louisville, and remains a major force for change in the neighborhood. The group helped create countless programs, including the annual Christmas party, the Staples for Seniors program and the Kid’s Cafe.And while a Christmas party may not seem revolutionary, a child who wouldn’t otherwise get a gift or see Santa Claus might disagree. The party also does more than provide presents to those who wouldn’t receive them; it helps the neighborhood residents, and particularly children, see the police in a different light.“Kids see cops as more of a person than someone that takes mom and dad to jail,” says Lt. Chuck McEvoy, a former major of the 1st Division who recently retired after more than 30 years with the department. “The auxiliary is instrumental.”Leonard agrees. “The main thing is to get the youth involved to where they won’t be afraid of police officers,” she says. “It’s vital for kids to know the police are there to help, not hinder.”The first Christmas party drew 40 children; last year almost 2,000 came to the 1st Division Police Station, standing in a line that wove out the door and wrapped around the building onto the sidewalk.“It lets you know how much need there is and that the need continues to grow,” Leonard says. “We give out fruit and candy, books, presents — anything we can get donated is what we give.”Brinson’s focus has recently widened. At one auxiliary meeting, he declared, “Enough about the kids. … What about the elderly? Here it is Christmas time, and a lot of elderly don’t get anything either.”So the auxiliary, with Brinson at the lead, created the Staples for Seniors program to take care of people who can still cook and take care of themselves but aren’t on assistance or able to get groceries.The first year he solicited $1,100 worth of Kroger gift cards through donations, handing them out in $50 increments to elderly Portland residents. The program has since been expanded county-wide, to all police substations. Now police officers deliver food to the elderly once a month.“It allows officers to check on the welfare of the residents and feed us information about the community, and it enhances their way of life,” says McEvoy, the former lieutenant. “It was an idea hatched in Portland.”And many of the ideas hatched in Portland these days come from Jerry Brinson and Molly Leonard, who realize the stigma Portland faces but keep pushing for positive change.“There is a lot of bias in the community, a lot of discrimination — people born and raised with a redneck attitude that won’t get rid of it,” Leonard notes.But she sees things improving, because the children are learning differently. “Nobody ever said anything good was easy,” she says. “There’s always going to be bumps in the road, but you have to keep going.”When the Mayor’s office considered closing fire stations in Portland, Clifton and Old Louisville, Brinson rallied the neighborhood to prevent it. He made yard signs and T-shirts that let residents, and politicians, know exactly how he and others felt about the situation, and that Portland couldn’t afford to lose a fire station. Sitting on the advisory committee, he realized he wasn’t alone.“Out of the 50 people on the committee, 49 were against what he (Mayor Abramson) was trying to do,” Brinson says. “The people got together, and everybody said, ‘You don’t need to do this.”The Mayor ultimately decided against closing the stations, though there is still talk of combining the Portland station and the one at 12th and Jefferson streets.Brinson will surely be at the forefront of that fight, and if he has anything to say about it, he’ll make sure Portland retains what he believes it needs.It is not easy to hold down a full-time job and work as a full-time community activist, but giving a shit isn’t for sissies. Portland is Brinson’s neighborhood now, and he’s invested.“I like it here,” he says. “I like Portland.” Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com