By Ariella Cohen
It was a warmish spring night and Dark Guardian had on his trademark chest-hugging motorcycle armor and bulletproof vest. His face shining under the streetlamps, the 24-year-old strode purposefully across Manhattan’s Washington Square Park. When he reached his target — a burly man he believed to be a drug dealer — he stopped and ordered the man to leave the park. “I got you on video. I got you on audio selling drugs,” barked
Dark Guardian, one of a growing movement of American city-dwellers occupying territory once reserved for comic-book creatures. Dark Guardian, real name Chris Pollak, is a real-life superhero. Taking to the streets in homespun hero garb to fight crime, help the homeless or do other kinds of community service, he and other self-proclaimed “reals” are popping up in cities from New York to Fairbanks, Alaska, where spandex-clad Raven and her caped sidekick, Winter Knight, keep watch over dark, icy streets. Raven says she chooses to engage with her community under an alias rather than her own identity as a 26-year-old writer because it allows her to more comfortably traverse unfamiliar neighborhoods. “When I’m in character I don’t feel socially awkward in these places that would make me feel uncomfortable in my other life,” she says.
The superheroes say their ultimate intent is to encourage people to do what Raven did: abandon their everyday routines to do good in their communities. “We are drawing attention to the fact that regular people can become superheroes. You don’t have to be endowed with special powers to save the world,” says Chaim Lazaros, 24, an independent filmmaker who co-founded an organization called Superheroes Anonymous in 2007. Lazaros’ activities mainly consist of handing out food to homeless New Yorkers while dressed in the black mask and top hat of his alias, Life Laz. He estimates there are some 250 superheroes practicing in the U.S.
One of the most revered superheroes, Superbarrio, defends Mexico City in bullfighter-red tights and a matching wrestler’s mask. His chubby physique has become an unlikely sex symbol. But while Superbarrio has succeeded in making Mexicans feel safer, some have questioned whether taking law enforcement into one’s own hands could lead to vigilantism.
The anonymity is another red flag, says Renia Ehrenfeucht, author of Sidewalks: Conflict and Negotiation Over Public Space and an assistant professor of planning and urban studies at University of New Orleans. “Why not go into the streets as yourself,” she asks, “and participate in the community as a person from within it rather some masked figure from outside?”
Public safety officials, citing both physical safety and civil liberties concerns, have said they would prefer if amateur avengers left the work to professionals. That night in Washington Square Park, Dark Guardian succeeded in convincing the alleged dealer to leave without violence. The departure, however, didn’t come without a few threats and a hurried 911 call from the superhero.
Recently the New York Police Department reached out to Pollak to talk to him about a video they had seen of the park confrontation. “They were like, ‘We respect what you do, but these guys have been arrested 20 or 30 times. They carry guns,’” he recalls. “They’d rather me not do what I am doing.” Still, the Dark Guardian lives on. “There is a hero in everyone,” he says. “We are just getting the message out.”