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G-Sync: Danny B and Me

Danny B.

If we only observed the press headlines or the names that dot the buildings high above our heads, then it would be daunting to think any of us below could make a difference in the course of a city. That is, until we get to the life of Danny B - our city's bartender and quiet placemaker.
Sometimes the best heroes in life are those who do not wear form-fitting spandex and a cape. Sometimes a hero is divinely human, level, consistent and exhibits moments of flair. Every generation has its heroes and one of mine, Danny Barron, passed away last week.
His is not a man many would recognize by name, but I can guarantee you that if you were a part of Grand Rapids' post-late-80s slow climb to the rapidly expanding city we have witnessed these last few years, then you probably encountered him if you were a part of the city's nightlife culture.
He was, in so many ways, the city's bartender. This fact is easily backed up; everyone from co-workers to the patrons of places where Danny worked have posted tributes and shared their stories. Many lovingly crafted stories were posted on the Facebook tribute page, hastily put together by his friends – many of whom now call other cities their home and some of whom, like me, because of Danny B's welcoming spirit still call Grand Rapids our home. 
A few days after the news of Danny's passing, I found myself in the basement of my home, sifting through boxes stacked high with photographs and ephemera that never made it into that photo album I promised someday to make. 
Danny and I began our friendship as co-workers at the Woodland Mall Friday's restaurant. At that point in our city's history, it was a place where everyone seemed to congregate -- which, to those in the industry, meant great tips.
I was a server and Danny a bartender – a hilariously comical bartender. If you have ever been in the restaurant industry, then you easily know how quickly your funny bone can be 86'd as you turn table after table.
But Danny was funny.  Even when things were tense, he found a way to listen and then, when appropriate, explode with laughter. It was the kind that rolled throughout the room, forcing you to drop your burden and break through to the other side of your table drama.
Later, after I left the industry, I continued to visit Danny, who had relocated to Fridays' downtown location on Monroe Avenue. Danny's move to working downtown came as the city was just beginning to experience a new wave of local urban adventurers seeking more entertainment options. That earlier time was also a period when our downtown hotels were flush with "Accidental Tourists" -- a term coined after the book of the same name to describe those people seeking the safe harbor of familiarity, often business folks traveling from city to city. Many of these folks often found themselves seated at Friday's bar with Danny as their bartender.
I adopted a new pattern of meeting friends at Danny's bar each and every Sunday to enjoy a lunch, read the New York Times, which Danny purchased with his own money and shared freely with the folks like me who simply wanted to have a spot to chill for a few hours while deepening friendships and making new acquaintances along the way.
In Good Magazine's 2010 article Placemaking 101, they recommended employing triangulation – a process where the placement of external stimulus creates a creative collision or linkage between people within a space, thus allowing even strangers the ability to strike up dialogue. This arrangement of space allows people to naturally speak to each other rather than, say, having all the seating a room face a television.
Danny's new downtown bar, with its theatre-in-the-round style, allowed him to stand center stage like a conductor, thus offering him opportunity to introduce people to one another no matter where they were seated. Performing in this new downtown space, he helped launch many new friendships that I can gratefully say would not have happened without his introductions.
As I look back, I realize he was practicing the art of placemaking, but at the time we did not have a word for it, much less understand how it would factor into the future of our city.
This ever-evolving space in our downtown created the critical first steps some needed to feel comfortable re-entering the city. For all the knocks chains sometimes take for entering the independent landscape of our downtowns – a space typically reserved in our minds solely for the independent and local business – places like Friday's in those early days provided that much-need catalyst of low risk based on familiarity.
Blind exploration of a new space does not always happen at the same time within the population, but it does happen over time in big and small steps on a timetable I am not sure how to begin to even quantify. 
Turning back to my box of photos, a bittersweet smile fills my face. 
As I look beyond the recognizable faces that pepper this photo collection, I notice the sudden appearance of "another one" I did not notice at the time but which becomes perfectly clear now: the city as a younger version of itself.
I think we often forget that the city is growing up as well. It changes over time, and everyone has a different photo of that first encounter. I am publishing one of my earliest here this week, a shot where I playfully climb the Calder downtown as two friends look on, patiently waiting for me to return to the ground.
People who adopt a city as their home don't always notice the changes over time, but we tend to focus on the human changes, which come so much faster. That is why it will be hard to say good-bye to Danny, since he left us far too soon. But his mission should be one that we all can take to heart in the years ahead: we must be a community that continues to be welcoming to the diverse people who venture here.
Danny B. understood this mission and quietly practiced it. On Sunday, July 20 at 3 p.m., organizers of the Danny B Facebook page welcome those who remember him to celebrate at Grand Rapids' RIverside Park that spirit that still is alive today in so many who were touched by his life.
Danny Barron's placemaking activities are common by today's standard as we look in the pages of The Atlantic Cities and Good Magazine, but what he started organically here in a era without the Internet (much less local digital boards to weigh out merits of an activity like The Salon) was truly remarkable, especially to those of us who felt awkward, odd, or just plain strangers in the city. But we, the living and welcoming, have become the living reminders of his legacy in our city.
It is fitting to host this send-off in Riverside Park. I know Danny enjoyed this space in our city for a host of reasons attending many of the events held there throughout his life in our city. (Those attending the memorial serivce will also be migrating to the Westside's Anchor Bar -- another favorite spot of Danny's.) But the real draw for so many will be the chance to meet up again with all the others whose lives and stories with or about Danny span generations and a host of other worlds that Danny inhabited while with us.
As I reflect on Danny, his life, and our city, I truly do believe that
The Future (still) Needs All of Us.
Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor
Editor's Note: Thank you to all the friends of Danny Barron who assisted with images this week. If you are just learning of Danny's passing, please note that the memorial service is Sunday, July 20 at 3 p.m. at the Riverside Park bandshell in Grand Rapids' Creston neighborhood. Organizers are asking that due to construction on Monroe NW to please allow extra time.
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