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'Greatest cleanup in West End history': Louisville organizer spearheads holiday restoration

Louisville Courier-Journal logo Louisville Courier-Journal 11/26/2020 Andre Toran, Louisville Courier Journal
a man standing in front of a crowd: Fonz, center, is the founder/president of the Mopar Muscle Car Club in Louisville, Ky. on Nov. 8, 2020. He is organizing members to participate in a mass cleanup in the West End on the weekend following Thanksgiving. © Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal Fonz, center, is the founder/president of the Mopar Muscle Car Club in Louisville, Ky. on Nov. 8, 2020. He is organizing members to participate in a mass cleanup in the West End on the weekend following Thanksgiving.

A group of local car club leaders shuffled into Louisville Mopar Muscle Car Club’s clubhouse and took their seats around a 15-foot table. Two tiny lights and a space heater illuminated a portion of the dark, cold room. Faces once concealed behind masks emerged for small talk but disappeared again as smoke from cigarettes and Black & Milds fill the air. 

In the background, LaFon Brown, 41, better known as Fonz and president of Louisville Mopar Muscle Car Club, frantically moved from one place to another to let more people inside the building.

Finally, he stopped. It was time for business.

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Fonz is planning what he describes as “The Greatest Cleanup in West End History” and has called on local car club members to help him with his efforts Nov. 28. 

a person standing in front of a crowd: Fonz, center, is the founder/president of the Mopar Muscle Car Club in Louisville, Ky. on Nov. 8, 2020. He is organizing members to participate in a mass cleanup in the West End on the weekend following Thanksgiving. © Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal Fonz, center, is the founder/president of the Mopar Muscle Car Club in Louisville, Ky. on Nov. 8, 2020. He is organizing members to participate in a mass cleanup in the West End on the weekend following Thanksgiving.

Since Fonz founded his club in 2016,  he has turned into a super-citizen of sorts in the West End community — a reality that hasn't always been the case.

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His club and others have come together to conduct shoe drives, charity basketball events and COVID-19 relief deliveries. But as he rode from event to event, Fonz became increasingly disgusted with the shape of his community: decrepit and abandoned properties, trash heaps, tires and broken glass scattered everywhere.  

“We are going to put pressure on some of these politicians and council people,” Fonz said. “Like I told Barbara Sexton from the Fourth District, ‘We can’t stop people from shooting each other, but one thing we can do is make sure these kids have a better environment to look at and be around.'”

Local government hasn’t done enough to address the problems, Fonz said. There’s no re-purposing of the abandoned buildings, and trash builds up in lots and on side streets quicker than the city picks it up, he said.

So during this Thanksgiving season, he has two cleanup objectives: to give back to his community and pressure politicians to address an issue that has persisted under their watch. 

“We can’t keep sitting here waiting for people to do stuff for us,” Fonz said. “If someone like me with no political power can make some noise like this, imagine what those with some can do.”

a car parked in a parking lot: Muscle car club members are coming together to participate in a mass cleanup in the West End on the weekend following Thanksgiving in Louisville, Ky. Nov. 8, 2020. © Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal Muscle car club members are coming together to participate in a mass cleanup in the West End on the weekend following Thanksgiving in Louisville, Ky. Nov. 8, 2020.

When cleanup day comes, members from car clubs such as Louisville Mopar Muscle Car Club, Untamed Mopar, No Limit Mopar, Mopar Savages, Derby City Mopar, Crown Vic Boys and Mobb Ties will fill their trunks full of gloves, garbage bags and other supplies to hand out.

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The streets they visit will be based on a list of volunteers who reached out pre-cleanup, making it possible for the cleaning to reach across all nine of the West End neighborhoods and include several parts —Sheppard Park, California Park, Shawnee Park and Victory Park.

Fonz said he is working with Councilwoman Barbara Sexton Smith, D-4th District, to get city waste management on board and to waive the dump cost.  

To assist in the cleanup, Fonz is recruiting what he calls “Block Generals,” people who live on each block who will be responsible for recruiting more people from that section of the neighborhood to assist. This will be done through social media and word of mouth, he said.

Fonz expects close to 100 muscle cars to fill the West End and invites people with pickup trucks to volunteer to collect trash and help take it to dump sites.

But this vision wouldn’t be possible if not for Derby Day 2009 and the moment that transformed Fonz from a man bleeding out in the same streets he vows to clean to a man running after change. 

a man wearing a hat: Louisville Mopar Muscle Car Club president LaFon 'Fonz' Brown will spearhead 'The Greatest Cleanup in West End History' on Thanksgiving weekend. © Joe Louis, JL Photography/Contributed Louisville Mopar Muscle Car Club president LaFon 'Fonz' Brown will spearhead 'The Greatest Cleanup in West End History' on Thanksgiving weekend.

On May 2, 2009, Fonz lay sprawled out on the asphalt near the intersection of Market and 15th streets. Blood spilled out of his body, painting the yellow street lines. 

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Then 30, he had been shot three times: twice in the hip and once in his right femur, which broke in three places. He was robbed. Set up, he says. 

“It hurt so bad you can’t even cry,” he remembers. “Especially when your leg is laying across your lap like your belt.”

For years, Fonz had hustled his mixtapes, burning 100 CDs a night, and sold marijuana as a temporary way to make money, but a music career was his long-term plan. 

Today, Fonz admits his lifestyle, though it profited him at the time, is something he isn’t proud of. He was a part of an urban problem that persists, he says.   

After life-saving surgery, he spent 18 months in rehab learning how to walk again and fixated on how he could change his community.

“Sitting still,” he said, “opened my eyes to a whole lot.”

He sees the Derby Day shooting as a “gift.” It’s why he and his club organizes these charity events.

“He understands the problem,” says Dave Christopher, founder of AMPED, a mentoring through music program in West Louisville. “He understands how it was broken, and he knows how to fix it. He lives it every day. He’s uniquely qualified.”

Expectations for Saturday are high, and many believe the cleanup work Fonz is spearheading will be more than cosmetic.

a group of people posing for the camera: Fonz, center, is the founder/president of the Mopar Muscle Car Club in Louisville, Ky. on Nov. 8, 2020. He is organizing members to participate in a mass cleanup in the West End on the weekend following Thanksgiving. © Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal Fonz, center, is the founder/president of the Mopar Muscle Car Club in Louisville, Ky. on Nov. 8, 2020. He is organizing members to participate in a mass cleanup in the West End on the weekend following Thanksgiving.

“Think of how you could change a whole generation of children in West Louisville,” Sexton Smith said. “If we just focused on the greatest cleanup of all time.”

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The project could create a “snowball effect” of change,  starting with a cleanup effort, rippling to improving how people view themselves and then inspiring residents to see a better way, Fonz said. . Just as years of poverty can snowball into higher rates of crime. 

Fonz  thinks a facelift for the community will help because of the pride he expects the event to foster.

And if the community breaks down, well, he says, they’ll clean it up again. 

“My grandmother used to tell me stories about the West End,” said Fonz, who looked out the passenger side window of a car passing abandoned houses and lots with knee-high grass littered with broken bottles and tread-bare tires.

“She said it used to be beautiful, and the people were proud and affluent. … They think we want to leave. But, no, we just want better.”  

For more information on the cleanup, contact Fonz Brown on Facebook or text 502-314-3859. 

Contact Andre Toran at atoran@gannett.com or follow on Twitter @andretoran. 

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: 'Greatest cleanup in West End history': Louisville organizer spearheads holiday restoration

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