by Jack Carenza
Brooklyn native Josh Barker is no stranger to ambitious projects. His growth mindset story begins in East New York, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, known equally for its vibrant counterculture and incorrigible crime rate, its development potential, and debilitating poverty percentages. According to NYU’s Furman Center: “Median household income in 2019 was $46,780, about 34% less than citywide median household income ($70,590). The poverty rate in East New York/Starrett City was 23.3% in 2019 compared to 16.0% citywide.” These statistics, and the actual experience of living within them were kindling for the brightest kind of flame – one that burnt with urgency to not only do better for himself, but for the greater community.
In many ways, Josh used his time as a business owner in these contradictory streets as formative. It started with a barbershop – Josh was no barber himself, but already had a keen eye for business. Initially, he capitalized on the space by selling clothing, sneakers, and hip-hop mixtapes to local patrons, while relationship building with people of all walks of life. His good nature and entrepreneurial spirit were magnetic – the shop flourished, and with its success came new opportunities to enrich the lives of East New Yorkers. He created local basketball tournaments, opportunities for apprentice barbers to hone their craft, a hub for artists to display their art, both visual and auditory. Josh’s barbershop had become so much more than a place for a haircut and a polite conversation. It was a community pillar. At that point, the clientele became a bit more decorated. Brooklyn rapper, AZ, best known for being a close associate and collaborator with hip-hop legend Nas was a regular. And Josh connected with a young patron named Avery Jones over their mutual love for skateboarding. More on Avery to follow.
Keep in mind, this was a neighborhood that desperately needed a glimmer of possibility. On top of the poverty and crime, drug use, gang activity and limited low-incoming housing continued to take a toll on Josh’s neighbors. It would have been easy to shrug off these conditions from his position of modest success, but Josh saw an opportunity to make a real, lasting change. Josh began working for a nonprofit organization in East New York, focused on procuring a Community Benefits Agreements (CBA). A CBA is a contract signed by developers and community organizations (like the one Josh worked for) that ensure the developer will offer certain conveniences and improvements to the local population and/or neighborhood. The benefits of a CBA can lift large numbers of inhabitants out of poverty, generate local support, guarantee local employment, and directly combat gentrification. Josh used this opportunity to work with entrepreneurs, small businesses, and city agencies to help the progress of East New York… And then, he set eyes on Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Five years ago, Josh Barker decided to relocate to Harrisburg, bringing his experiences from New York City in a toolbox brimming with implements of community development. In a recent conversation with Josh, he mentioned how much Harrisburg reminded him of his early days in East New York,
“I’ve been boots on the ground since I’ve gotten here. There are areas with heavy crime, lots of drugs, and baggage. The people in those circumstances don’t expect a way out. Rather than tell them how, I’d like to show them.”
Harrisburg’s crime rate is certainly worrisome – as reported by city-data.com, the crime rate in Harrisburg is 1.5 times greater than the U.S. Average per capita, higher than 92.3% of U.S. cities. However, for Josh, this is hardly a new predicament. As any good community builder knows, you must start with a foundation. Josh has done that with no hesitation since moving to Harrisburg.
To start his foundation in Harrisburg, Josh found a home for his family in Uptown Harrisburg, which needed work and wasn’t the most desirable area in Harrisburg, but he saw the vision of what it could be. Besides, he was able to pay just $50,000 for the home, which was a far cry from the $700,000 price tag that it would have cost him to purchase the building in East New York that housed his barbershop. This is part of the value that he saw in Harrisburg. He renovated the home himself, with help from a few friends from Brooklyn, and now the home is worth 3 times what he paid for it. Where others saw a house that was in disrepair, Josh saw a house that could be turned into a gem, in a neighborhood that is sure to improve.
Since being in Harrisburg Josh has earned his contractor’s license and built a strong relationship with Pastor Joshua Robertson of The Rock Church in Allison Hill. More than anything, Josh understands that the relationship building aspect of what he does is most important – change cannot happen without having the trust of the right people. As that trust has grown, so has his impact;
“We’ve (The Rock Church) opened a learning center for children in the area, within the church. We are currently trying to purchase space so that our impact can grow. I’m also a part of an investment group, which purchased an empty lot that we’re looking to develop into quality affordable housing, which is much needed in the area.”
Understanding Josh’s history in East New York should provide a beacon of hope for the people of Harrisburg. We know that our city has its issues with crime, drugs, and poverty that are reminiscent, but the potential of this place is enormous, and with the proper support, the impact Josh can impart is limitless.
Oh, and remember young Avery Jones from the barbershop days? Avery grew up with a name you might be familiar with, and recently became Harrisburg’s newest small business and property owner: independent hip-hop icon Kota the Friend. It was the recommendation of an old friend, Josh Barker that prompted Kota to purchase property in Midtown, Harrisburg on Reily Street, develop a storefront there for his fltbys streetwear brand, and host his Flight Night music festival in this city.
Josh Barker has a vision to be a part of the revitalization of Harrisburg. He’s approached it with experience, compassion, and hard work. His efforts have now attracted others like Kota the Friend to view Harrisburg as a home away from home. The changes necessary to paint a brighter future for ALL people in Harrisburg won’t come easily but the groundwork is in place to make Josh’s dream a reality.