Sunday, February 11, 2007

Darren Walker

The New York Times* referred to him as the “sherpa for the rich and powerful .... People curious but wary about trekking to the unfamiliar terrain of Harlem alone.”

That official recognition of Mr. Walker came about when he was the number 2 man of the non-profit development arm of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem – the Abbyssinian Development Corporation, as it is known. Their big annual fund-raiser, where they honor a member of the community, is a breakfast held every early June. It had started out several years ago, a gathering of maybe a hundred, in a tent set up in an abandoned lot across from the church.

By the dawning of the new century, Darren Walker had come along and transformed it something enormous – 700 people – one of the Must Attends of New York’s rich, prominent and powerful (read: political). In 2001, a socially prominent billionaire businessman named Michael Bloomberg, having decided to run for the office of Mayor of New York, made the trek to the breakfast in Harlem as the first official event in his campaign.

Mr. Walker hails from the tiny town of Goose Creek, Texas where he was raised by his mother who worked as a nurse to support him and his three sisters. Goose Creek, which came with its own chapter of the KKK nevertheless provided the young boy with, in the Times’ words, “the armor to guard against the bitterness about racism.” That’s how he handles adversity. That’s his god-given (like his mama) wisdom. He told the Times: "My mama brought me up to never feel a sense of entitlement," he said, adding that as a child he was imbued with "old-fashioned black churchwomen values."

He shares his life with SoHo gallery owner David Beitzel and their dog Beulah (named after his mom). He is, in the words of his friend Jonathan Capehart, “a real Texan — grand in spirit and generosity and desire and willingness to help people.”

A couple of years ago, Holly Peterson, a journalist and socialite here in New York invited me to a cocktail party she and her husband Rick Kimball were giving at their apartment along with Laura and Will Zeckendorf and Michael and Tara Rockefeller “for Darren Walker.” He was being feted for his new appointment as a director of the Rockefeller Foundation. I didn’t know Darren Walker but Ms. Peterson was so enthusiastic about how terrific he was and how everyone loved him and how such an appointment was major in anyone’s life that I really should come and meet him. And so I did.

Michael Rockefeller and Will Zeckendorf toast Darren Walker on account of his new appointment as director of the Rockefeller Foundation.  
I wrote the following in the Diary about that evening:

“From the moment I entered the Peterson/Kimball apartment, I knew I’d come to a good place. The decibel level from the cocktail crowd was energizing in itself. Like bees around a hive. Workabees.

Mr. Walker, it turns out, I’ve met before (and had forgotten — typical) but only in passing. An ebullient personality; garrulous, gregarious, effervescent, all those words. A natty dresser, and a very very popular fellow, just as Ms. Peterson described. Fondness for Walker filled the room. I talked to two women, Rachel Hovnanian and Tara Rockefeller who’ve known him for years. Rachel’s known him since high school and went to the University of Texas with him.

Mr. Walker has been very successful in his young life. (He’s now forty-three.) After UTexas he went to their law school. Then he came here to New York, got into a law firm and then decided to go into the investment banking business, where he was an “associate for capital markets,” which means: trader. Evidently he made a pile of money (as those men and women often do) and invested himself in the higher New York life. He got involved in numerous philanthropies and cultural activities, including the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, the Children’s Storefront of Harlem and the New York City Ballet.

Somewhere along the line he decided he’d had enough and put Wall Street aside to sign on with the Abyssinian Development Corporation, a community organization in the City which focuses on affordable housing and commercial business development in Harlem.

He managed a number of departments and projects including the building and rehab of more than 1000 rental apartments, condos and brownstones in Harlem. He also oversaw the agreement that led to the construction of Harlem’s first full-service supermarket. He also negotiated the contract to build the first public school constructed in Harlem in two decades. He’s one of those guys who gets things done and makes a better world from it.

He appears unassuming about all his success, but instead lends his efforts to people and “good works,” as Michael Rockefeller pointed out in a little speech about Darren Walker and his new job. Michael also pointed out that the Rockefeller Foundation, which was created by the first John D. almost a century ago, is no longer related to the family (it is what is called a “professional foundation”), and that now through his friend Darren, the family would somehow be brought closer to the Foundation once again.

There were many present at this reception who devote some if not all of their working hours to projects to improve the community. When you are personally aware of such people, doubts and fears can begin to dissolve (or at least diminish) in their optimism. They are smart and ambitious people. It is awe-inspiring.

One of the things that continually amazes me about New York life is the diversity; layer upon layer. The crowd of friends and wellwishers at Darren Walker’s party was a sea of fresh, handsome, goodlooking faces; prosperous and enthusiastic individuals, thirty-, forty-somethings. This is the generation that is changing the City now. They come from every corner of the social terra firma. They are the real new society. I mean in the Mrs. Astor/historical sense. They are elite, make no mistake. They are also thoroughly multi-ethnic and inter-racial. That is the face of the future. Make no mistake about that also. But they are not elitist in presentation or in their objectives. They are chockfull of leadership, apparently unfettered by dogma, and very impressive. Darren Walker is one of these men, at least among his peers, he is. And the c.v. to back it up. But the proof was in his presence in those rooms high above Park Avenue. Everyone was very glad to be there.”

Darren Walker is one of those fascinating individuals whose prominence both exceeds and defies celebrity. He has myriad friends and acquaintances from all walks of life – politics, fashion, media, arts and culture. He’s so well-known by the cognoscenti that it’s tantamount, in such lofty circles, to being famous, which he is not. Yet. From his perch as director of the Working Communities Division of the Rockefeller Foundation, he is spreading that grace and influence – brilliant optimism and good will – further afield beyond New York.

* Lynda Richardson, February 2001