A Guardian of the Real

By James Boo
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In Mexico City people know the name, “Super Barrio.” Equal parts political activist, folk legend and bona fide luchador, this masked avenger of the poor was the first great banner bearer of what has become a veritable subculture: that of the real life superhero. Send the term through Google, and you’ll come across galleries, networks and Myspace pages devoted to everyday citizens who adopt costumed identities in their quest to make our world a better place. Super Barrio, Captain Jackson, Citizen Prime: These are a few of the names that ring out in contemporary superheroism.
On an icy, blustery weeknight in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, the only man who can hear that ringing is walking ten paces in front of me, clad in sleek black and red leather and scanning the premises for signs of unlawful activity. His name is Dark Guardian, and he is not a folk legend. Even in his relatively subdued superhero outfit, the Guardian attracts bewildered glances from nearby students from New York University.
“I try to go out about once a week,” the muscular, deliberate Guardian explains as a matter of fact, impervious to civilian doubt. “Some nights I’ll focus on patrolling. Somenights I’ll focus on homeless outreach. I like to mix it up.” After a few uneventful circles around the perimeter of the park, he points out that the winter freeze often pushes drug dealers off of their warm weather corners in this part of town. Had he come across an offender, the Guardian would have confronted the dealer with a threat to call the police.
This is not the lucha libre. Dark Guardian is not about masks, capes or dramatic flair. As the silent gloom of an urban February sends shivers through the city, we hop into his ride, a black Mazda four-door with matching red console and “I <3 Jesus” tags hanging from the rear-view. Our hero pops in an old Linkin Park disc, turns on his portable GPS navigator and cruises uptown for the next part of his beat.
“I don’t get a good feeling when I see police, to be honest,” he admits as we head towards a church that he tends to stop by when patrolling the city. “I know a lot of people don’t. I think they need more- I don’t know how to describe it, but just that rapport with people. As far as fighting crime, stopping crimes, I think they’re doing a really great job. But I feel like the connection with people isn’t there.”
When the Guardian pops his trunk to reveal a case of 12 oz. water bottles and a box of generic chocolate chip granola bars, he’s working to build the connection he feels the city has allowed to slip through its cracks. He strides up to the front steps of the church, where homeless New Yorkers huddle under the eaves of God for a night’s rest, off of public property and away from the reaches of the police, who would rather they find their way to one of the city’s homeless shelters.
The Department of Homeless Services wants little to do with the Guardian’s efforts. “They basically want people to get so desperate that they have to become a part of the system,” he laments, the tail end of a Brooklyn accent flickering through his plainspoken words. The homeless “just don’t want to go there. They’re afraid if they go there, they’re gonna get robbed, they’re gonna get jumped.”
He shakes his head at the reality of the situation. “They’re like, ‘You stay a night there!’ They’d rather be out on the streets. It’s gotta suck to be out on the streets… on a night like this? It’s miserable.” Placing a small action of compassion over the “it takes a system” mentality of his city hall counterparts, the Guardian asks the group of squatters on the church steps if they need any water or food. They welcome the gesture, shaking his hand, joking about his outfit and asking where his motorcycle is. He smiles, tosses granola bars to the men wrapped up in blankets, makes a second trip to his car for more water bottles, following through on a routine he’s been refining over six years of activity as a real life superhero.
Notwithstanding his Hollywood grade outfit, this is usually as glamorous as Dark Guardian’s career gets. “doing little things,” he emphasizes, is the key to his hobby heroism. “It’s those little things, and it’s about getting everyday people involved in doing something.” With no legend to his name, the Guardian thus bears the spirit of Super Barrio, keeping an eye on his neighborhood and using his martial arts training and steeled composure to protect the innocent when necessary, but most of all existing as a public embodiment of the values he hopes to inspire in others. It’s as highly visible role models that America’s costumed heroes envision themselves as a complement to law enforcement and public service. From raising money for youth charities to organizing local service programs to giving out directions in Times Square (the sole duty of New York City’s “Direction Man”), they are at once marvel and mundane. Most harbor no illusions of infiltrating criminal organizations or sweeping away the multi-generational roots of crime and poverty, electing instead to send vibrant messages of community, responsibility and connection to those who would rather step aside than try to save what�s around them every day.
“I grew up in Brooklyn and have a seen a neighborhood turn bad,” the Guardian recalls of his hometown, Canarsie. “I have seen what desperation and crime can do to a community. I’m not axin’ regular people to tell a drug dealer to get the Hell out… but it really is everybody’s problem, the crime, and if everybody started to pitch in a little bit, give back, do something… we’d live in a better place.”
When midnight strikes the heart of New York City, it’s difficult to envision Dark Guardian creating the better place he describes in his interviews, talk show appearances and daily interactions with New York’s citizens. He is, however, surely a hero, and this is certainly real life.
You can find out more about Dark Guardian and other real life superheroes at reallifesuperheroes.org.