BROCKTON — Standing in his barbershop on Main Street in Brockton’s historic, if somewhat deserted, downtown, Shane Owens sighed and shrugged his shoulders as he considered the latest news to befall his working-class hometown.
The city was rocked by back-to-back murders last week. Lee Harmon, a 74-year-old pastor, was beaten to death with a hammer while riding his bike to visit his daughter Tuesday night. Jeffrey Cicerano was stabbed to death the next day.
“It’s too bad that I feel like I’m not surprised when I hear about things like that,” the 31-year-old said while running an electric shaver through a patron’s hair. “It’s not like we live in the suburbs where nothing much happens. This is Brockton.”
They call it the City of Champions. Murals and statues honor the city’s sporting legends, including undefeated heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano. But it is hard to escape the fact that Brockton is no longer what it once was, before manufacturing jobs fled for cheaper states and countries.
Old brick storefronts sit boarded up and empty in much of downtown while scaffolding wraps other buildings. One shuttered shop has faded photos posted showing the Brockton of old: a bustling downtown in 1939 with workers standing around the Brockton Enterprise building to read the latest bulletins on Germany’s invasion of Poland.
Like many manufacturing cities, Brockton saw crime rise when industry left. But not everyone is giving up on the city just yet. The city has attracted diverse new residents in the last few decades.
The schools were reason enough for Carol Lopez to move to Brockton from Dorchester 13 years ago with her husband and children.
Taking a break from gardening in her front lawn Thursday afternoon, just a few blocks from where Harmon was killed, the 43-year-old mother of four said the city may get a bad rap from people in other parts of the state, but they do not know the Brockton she does.
She has steady work as a counselor with disabled patients at a state clinic, while her husband works at an auto shop in the city and their children are honor students in the city’s public schools. Even if she won the lottery, she would not move, she said.
It is exactly what she wanted after moving to the United States from Trinidad, she said.
“Whenever anybody says bad stuff about Brockton, I always get angry,” she said with a chuckle, as her husband and two of her sons helped out on their lawn. “I absolutely love Brockton.”
She said the crime that happens does not often strike in her neighborhood. So she simply ignores it.
“Of course bad stuff happens, but crime can happen anywhere,” she said. “Where can you run to? You just have to live your life.”
A few blocks away, Thomas Fairclough was leaving a supermarket on Main Street after getting off work. He has lived in the city for 10 years and has worked at a moving company for the last four.
‘Whenever anybody says bad stuff about Brockton, I always get angry. I absolutely love Brockton. Of course bad stuff happens, but crime can happen anywhere.’
It is good honest work, he said, the kind of work most people in the city still do.
“It’s a good city, with good people. There are some bad people, like anywhere. You just have to learn how to deal with it,” the 33-year-old said, pausing for a moment. “But what happened to [Harmon], there is no excusing that. That is a shame.”
The city has built momentum in the last 10 years with millions in new redevelopment money coming into downtown and the school system. In May, US News & World Report named Brockton High School one of the country’s best high schools for the fourth year in a row.
But Mayor Linda M. Balzotti, a lifelong resident, said the violence can be “maddening and frustrating beyond comprehension.”
“There are a great number of hard-working people here who want to raise kids. It’s not just a bunch of criminals running around here,” she said in an interview last week. “It is just a shame that this is the way we get portrayed.”
Balzotti said that of the nine homicides in the city so far this year, police have arrested or issued warrants for suspects in eight of them. But this is the reality: Even though it is only August, the city has had three more murders than in all of last year.
Residents remembered that last Thursday night, when they lined up in a cramped school cafeteria and, one after another, in voices frustrated and angry, demanded answers from city leaders — as well as one another.
Most of the 300 gathered there thanked city and law enforcement officials for their work to curtail crime, yet they seemed overwhelmed by the violence that had struck the city.
They shared stories of random gunfire piercing the night and abandoned houses overrun with gang members. Outside, 48-year-old Joel Hampton said he was exhausted.
Harmon, the man lethally bludgeoned with a hammer, was like an uncle to him, Hampton said, as he was growing up in Brockton, offering advice and help.
Hampton said he became addicted to drugs while growing up, a habit that led to dealing drugs and, later, a four-year stay in jail.
Now, he said, he is clean and off the streets. But the violence of the street still follows him.
Two weeks ago, his close friend Charles Springer was shot and killed.
“We can have these meetings forever,” he said. “We will just be back here next year with the same meeting. I guarantee you nothing is going to change. The only thing that is going to change is more bodies. I’m frustrated. I can’t even cry anymore.”
For all the bad press, the Rev. Patricia Hayes said she sees a bright future for Brockton. She has been senior pastor at Christ Congregational Church for the past seven years, and she has watched Brockton become more diverse and inclusive, welcoming new residents from across the Caribbean.
It is a strength for the city, she said.
“There are lots of good people working all the time,” she said at the church. “So it’s not like a place of apathy or despair. It’s a place of effort and good folks.”
Her church hosted an interfaith gathering with other city congregations Sunday to celebrate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
The event was planned before the recent spate of violence, she said, but it may have been just what Brockton needs right now.Javier Panzar can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jpanzar.