Danny Barber is a big man to be pounding the pavement around the public housing projects in the South Bronx where he grew up.
Weighing in at a self-described 320 pounds, the 41-year-old Bronx community organizer worked the grounds of five public houses one warm September afternoon, drumming up interest in a youth event.
For the last eight years, the tenant president said he has ignored his high blood pressure and heart condition in order to help make the Melrose houses safer for kids. On this day, he was rallying residents to attend a youth anti-violence event he helped organize along with seven other local tenant association presidents and a Queens non-profit called Life Camp, Inc.
But lately, his frustration over the neighborhood’s rising rate of violence has given way to despair. Six shootings erupted around the Jackson houses in one-month over the summer, he noted. And on September 10, the day before the anti-violence rally, a 24-year-old was murdered three blocks from his complex in broad daylight.
“I would like to be able to care about, once again, where I live,” said Barber, as he juggled multiple cell phone lines with the grace of a veteran secretary. “Just to see all the killing stop.”
The spike in gun violence coincided with a decline in his tenants’ involvement in the community—causing Barber to lose some faith in his neighborhood. At times, he said, he thinks about walking away, but has decided instead to dedicate his time to organizing events like the youth rally.
Organizers hoped to bring at least 20 kids from each of the eight local housing developments to attend anti-violence and team-building workshops, encouraged by performances by local artists and prize giveaways such as laptops and iPods. Instead of the anticipated 160 youth, by 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 11, only 15 kids and some of their parents climbed on the bus reserved for three of the complexes. About 50 kids altogether came to participate in the morning’s workshops.
Barber placed blame for the low turnout on the recent violence, and in particular, on the murder just the day before. “The series of events leading up the rally had an effect on the turnout,” he said. “People are scared to leave their building. They’re scared to participate in activities.”
Even so, Barber found a silver lining, claiming the smaller group allowed for a richer experience, with the most faithful children, teenagers and parents in attendance.
“Danny Barber is like a mentor to me. That’s my father,” said Brandon Hernandez, 21, who has lived in the Jackson houses for a decade. “He inspired me to go back to school and do the right thing,” Hernandez’ father bounced in and out of prison when he was growing up. “He likes to see kids better themselves,” he said, “and progress.”
Barber began helping people in need at a young age. At age 7, Danny attended programs at the Salvation Army, where he remembers bringing beef soup and ravioli to the prostitutes of Hunts Point and singing in a choir that toured the United States and Canada. He credited his time at the Salvation Army with defining his giving nature.
After high school, he started losing his way, passing up college scholarships.
“I chose not to go because I chose to be a knuckle head and hang out with people on corners and do wrong things in my life,” Barber said. “But I still worked. Through everything I still held a job.”
For the next 18 years, Barber worked at the Salvation Army, beginning as a janitor at the age of 15 and working his way up to assistant to the managing director, where he helped oversee a $150,000 yearly budget.
On November 18, 1998, Barber’s life changed suddenly when he suffered a minor heart attack. His doctor determined that he couldn’t work, and he started collecting about $1,000 a month in disability benefits.
Barber prides himself on using his power to be a pest to the numerous elected officials and governmental workers on behalf of his residents. He educates residents about their rights, and said his biggest hope is that those he helps pay it forward.
His activism in the area has one community organization, Nos Quedamos, chasing him to sit on its board of directors.
“We want Danny on our board, because he has a pulse on the community,” said Sandra Quilico, Nos Quedamos’s chief operating officer. “He knows everything that’s going on and can bring to our attention issues of the community that need focusing on.”
After a year of saying no, Barber finally filed an application. He said he chose to because it will increase his involvement in the area and act as a way to restore some faith in his community.
“I get discouraged, but I’m not going nowhere,” Barber said. “This is where I am meant to be.”