The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The future of urbanism according to the 27-year-old mayor of Ithaca

Svante Myrick is 27, but he’s going into his fourth year as the mayor of Ithaca, a city whose prosperity defies the woes blanketing the rest of upstate New York. (Jeff Guo/Washington Post)

When — at 24 — Svante Myrick became the mayor of Ithaca, N.Y., there loomed the unavoidable comparison to that other oddly-named, biracial politician raised by a single white mother.

In high school, Myrick’s grandmother had given him a copy of “Dreams from My Father,” which he devoured with an eerie sense of déjà lu.

“It was like reading my diary with wisdom inserted in,” he told the Syracuse Post-Standard after his election in 2011.

Upon taking office, Myrick was profiled on “Rock Center with Brian Williams” in a segment that highlighted his hard-knock upbringing. His father struggled with drug addiction. His mother worked three jobs to raise him and his siblings. Early on, the family slipped in and out of homelessness for a while.

Now 27, Myrick, a Cornell graduate, is entering the final year of his term a six-year veteran of city politics.

Ithaca’s prosperity defies the woes blanketing the rest of upstate New York. In 2013, the New York Times ran an admiring story on the college town. Having Cornell in its back yard helps, of course; but the Times also credited Myrick for his leadership and his idealism.

At the National Opportunity Summit, a conference about youth unemployment Thursday in D.C., Myrick joined the mayors of Philadelphia and Birmingham in a discussion about extending opportunity to those systematically starved of it.

“In many of our neighborhoods, our young people die from a lack of exposure to what the world is beyond the three blocks around their house,” said Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia.

Nutter talked about the importance of giving young people early work experience, to teach them skills and to teach them how to dream bigger.

Myrick added that workforce training was equally important, and that cities could do better at connecting their own citizens to the companies who need workers.

“For young people, particularly people who are not succeeding in schools, they need to see a clear bright line between that employment training program and a job at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

In Ithaca this past year, Myrick opened a hospitality training program in preparation for several hotels being built downtown. “We could say, that building you’re seeing being erected is going to need 40 people to work there. And we’re going to give you a certificate that will prepare you on day one to walk in and ask for a job,” he said.

Thursday, Myrick sat down to chat about the future of cities. He has a politician’s polish, but few of the hammy tendencies. In speeches, and especially in conversation, he turns the volume down to signal that the topic is serious.

Myrick has a millennial’s vision of city life: walkable and dense. (Thursday, he sported a black Jawbone fitness tracker.) He believes that environmentalism implies urbanism and vice versa. As mayor he oversaw rezoning efforts to attract more and higher development downtown. He takes the bus often and regards parking lots as a blight.

When asked three years ago, Myrick told “Rock Center” that New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker (D) was his role model. Booker later invited him to visit; they have each other’s numbers now. Myrick says he’ll text Booker for advice when he’s having problems.

As his term wraps up at the end of the year, Myrick won’t say where he’s headed next. He’s having a lot of fun as mayor, but politicians are supposed to keep their options open, you know?

This interview has been edited and condensed.

On why urbanism isn’t just another hipster fad:

Our generation is flooding back into cities. They realize they’d rather walk to work. How many people do you know who are eager to live in a suburb? They want to be close to the coffee shop, close to the office. They want to live around the corner from the new Ethiopian restaurant.

Here’s why I think this is a permanent shift. I think what we went through over the last 50 years was the temporary shift.

Because if you study human behavior before that, for like ever, this was the way people lived quite very happily. And healthily. And in some places in the world it’s the way they still live — in Europe, in cities that we admire and love and go to on vacations.

Rome and Paris and London: These are human-scale cities. Cities that are full of people and places instead of parking spaces.

On the importance of morale, and moral authority:

I think maybe the largest lesson I’ve learned is about credibility. Moral authority is very powerful. The willingness to walk the walk is the key to success in government, generally, and especially at the local level.

I mean this quite literally.

Right away after I was elected I did a few things. I sold my car about four years ago. I walk to work. I walk a mile to city hall and a mile back. I’ll take the bus if it’s cold.

People seeing me on the bus — it matters. People seeing me walk with my backpack back and forth to city hall — that makes a difference.

I have a parking space that’s reserved for me, a parking space right in front of city hall. There’s a big sign. It’s like the best parking space in the city. It’s right there.

We took some benches from one of our city parks and took a tree that had to be cut down. We sliced it into rings and hollowed it out and planted flowers and soil. And we added a sign that said “AND FRIENDS.” So it says “RESERVED FOR MAYOR AND FRIENDS.”

We turned it into the smallest park into the city of Ithaca. It’s really so small.

We’ve done so many things since then. We’ve led New York state in job growth over the last three years, month over month over month. Now we have the lowest unemployment rate in all of New York state. We’ve lowered our expenses, increased our revenue, cut taxes. All big shifts.

But if you will believe it, if you go to Ithaca right now, and you’re like, “What do you think about the mayor?” They would say: “The parking space guy! Oh I like that parking space.”

It’s a symbol, but it’s an important symbol. It meant that I was going to be walking the walk.

If I was going to be asking people to think about their cars differently and the way they move around the city differently, I had to find a way to show that I was all in on this idea. I wasn’t going to ask them to do something I wasn’t willing to do myself.

And that just gave us a shot of morale.

The recession has lingered inside governments longer than it has in the private sector. Back in 2011 it was still a dark time, and we’d been in this culture for years of no new projects. There was no possibility.

And then to see something quirky and whimsical, and admittedly a bit silly — but something new. It just made people feel like even though these were hard times, they weren’t the end times.

On how they pumped up Ithaca’s downtown by zoning for density:

We’ve added housing, we built hotels. We had a $3 million structural budget deficit when I took office. Closed it. Not only did we close it, but my first budget had the lowest tax increase in 13 years. The next year had an even lower tax increase than that. This last year’s budget, we actually cut taxes.

Part of it was we changed zoning. We did what [New York City] mayor Bill de Blasio is talking about now in New York City, which is incentive-based smart growth — dense zoning to allow for taller building in the core. We let them build taller. You can eliminate the minimum parking requirements, which is something we did in downtown and Collegetown.

From the 1950s till now, we’ve been demolishing people spaces in place of parking spaces. So in between every building you had a parking lot, then a bigger parking lot, then a bigger parking lot.

Now if you want to go to the grocery store you have to drive, it’s too far to walk. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you densify, you can walk, you can take mass transit. You can get around cleaner and safer. You have a more vibrant city. The property values in that city are higher because a parking lot doesn’t generate a lot of revenue, but a hotel generates quite a bit. It increases the employment prospects.

That helped with our budget woes because we changed the zoning, we incentivized all the smart growth. We got building permits; those are expensive. People putting in building permits, paying more in property taxes, that helped. We also streamlined our government quite a bit — fewer managers, more frontline personnel.

Why cities can’t continue relying on the property tax to pay for civic life:

Our funding models at the local level are 100 years old, or older. And they’re out of date. It was just property taxes, which made sense 100 years ago because if you owned the general store in Ithaca, N.Y., you lived in Ithaca, N.Y. You lived on the other side of town, you would tax where the store was and where you lived, and between those two, you’d pay for your impact on the social compact.

Now you can own Wal-Marts in every community in the country, take all of that wealth and bring it back to one community in Arkansas.

Now how are we going to repave all the roads that lead to Wal-Mart? How are we going to protect the roads leading to and from Walmart with the police department, with the fire department, when really all the wealth that’s generated there isn’t in the community?

And then what are you going to do when Lowe’s pops up next to it, and McDonalds, and one after another? The wealth that’s being generated is being siphoned up out and over into someplace else.

Then to make it even worse, with the advent of highways and automobiles, it’s now easier than ever to live just outside the city in the suburbs, in a lower tax district.

Drive in, take advantage of everything there is to do in a city, work there, go to school there, shop there dine there. Then you go back to your low-tax suburb where you sleep at night.

Our funding system was never set up to deal with that. That’s why you now have all sorts of  tolls when you come and out of New York City. You gotta pay like $30 worth of tolls because you’re trying to figure out how do you run a city where you have four times as many people using it as there are actually paying for it.

It’s an extremely outdated funding model that’s made us all have to get creative.

On the difference between members of Congress and mayors:

You can go to Congress, spend two years, point fingers at the other party calling them knuckleheads.

Then you come home, and you say to your constituents: “Can you believe those knuckleheads in the other party didn’t let me get anything done? Send me back to Congress and I’ll kick their ass and get things done.”

And you go back to Congress, and you call them knuckleheads, and nothing ever happens.

If you do that as mayor, you’ll be out faster than — because people are watching. They’re right there. They see you in the grocery store. The people you’re working with are their neighbors. So if you call them knuckleheads, and you don’t get anything done, they’ll hold you accountable, fast.

On companies who demand tax breaks before they will come to town:

This race to the bottom is what you get. Our funding system has just not caught up with this threat to the survival of local government services. The social contract has always been, and should be: You create jobs, God bless you, and thank you for doing it. You also pay taxes.

You benefit in a community from the social safety net. You benefit from the networks of streets and roads, parking garages, police and fire. You pay for those things.

You hire people, that’s great. but you still pay for the fabric of government. Otherwise what you’re doing is you are forcing your employees to pay for all the things that you are refusing to pay for.

Why is that unfair? Because the six members of the Walton family are among the top 10 richest Americans. The thousands of people who work for them make minimum wage. They are essentially forcing their minimum wage employees to subsidize the operation of their companies by paying for the government that the business rightly should be supporting.

This is another thing. If you can’t afford to pay your employees enough so they don’t need government assistance, then you are asking the people of this country to subsidize your company. It’s corporate welfare.

So we try to combat that where we can.

On why hydraulic fracturing is not the answer to the problems plaguing upstate New York:

We have to go back to a model that is slower, yes, but steadier, definitely — instead of swinging for the fences with a short-term solution like fracking, which is going to bring you jobs for the next 10 years, maybe.

By definition, they’re not making natural gas as fast as you are drilling it. You will drill it, it will be empty, and it will be gone. And when it’s gone, so will the industry.

And what will you be left with? You will be left with hills that are dotted with drill pads. Water that’s contaminated. Roads that have just been demolished by trucks and trucks and trucks, and no tax base to rebuild any of this stuff.

We are in the forever business. Government’s in the forever business. I can’t just plan for next Tuesday or for the next four years or even for the next 10.

You have to plan as if you are a steward for something that will last hundreds of years after you.

On why environmental conservation is crucial for the future of towns, and the lingering effects of industrial pollution:

This was a mistake we made, especially upstate. It happened in Ithaca. We had Morse Chain and the Ithaca Gun Company, making chains that go in engines, and rifles.

They would test-fire the rifles by shooting these lead bullets into the waterfall. Just into the back of the waterfall, which ran down through the city. And these carcinogens they would dump down the drains, literally in the drain. The same way you would flush shampoo.

And they knew. It’s not like they didn’t know this stuff was bad for you. We just decided we wanted the jobs and the industry more than a clean environment.

So where are we now? The industry’s gone because that’s the nature of these things. They’re fleeting. But what’s left are these contaminated sites all over.

You have factories that take millions to remediate. You have to dig up soils 20, 30 feet underground and essentially pull the whole tops off hills. You have to replace it with fresh clean soil before you can put anything at all there. Before you can put apartments and condos. You’re left with a cost that was bigger than your gain.

On how local agriculture could save the state’s ailing towns — just as his own hometown was saved:

I think we need to focus on agriculture. Now what happened with agriculture? That, too, got globalized. While IBM was searching for the lowest cost place, so was everybody else.

But we can’t assume that it will always make financial sense. It’s never made environmental sense for us to get all of our oranges from California, all of our asparagus from 3,000 miles away. It’s never made environmental sense.

We can’t assume it will always make financial sense either.

As fossil fuels diminish, the cost of transportation will rise. The economies that will be successful are economies where populations of people have access to agricultural products that are close by. Cities that are ringed by rural land that can feed them.

That can be happening in upstate New York. There are 8 million in the city itself, 20 million in the greater metro area. Those folks have to be fed. Again, before the 1950s, that’s the way it worked. Towns like mine were built because we grew hops. We grew hops that people drank in their beers.

I grew up in one of those communities. Earlville, population 800. It’s a joke, but I don’t think it’s a joke that we have more cows than people.

It’s central New York, right on the county line between Chenango and Madison. It’s tiny, it’s rural. We would say that my house was the black neighborhood.

My community was saved. When I left home in 2005 to go to college, the cheese houses were going under; the dairy farms were going under. Just a couple years after that, a small company named Chobani opened up.

You wouldn’t believe it. You go home, they can’t get cows fast enough because it takes thee gallons of milk to make one gallon of this greek yogurt.

So it’s funny. The future looks like the past.

On his job training program for hotel workers, and being prepared for the needs of local industries:

We can recognize situations on the ground. We saw that after we changed the zoning we were going to have new hotels built. They’re in the ground being built as we speak.

So we knew that we had jobs coming, and they were good paying jobs, a lot of them. Many of them were above a living wage, much less a minimum wage.

We started a job training program specifically for hospitality. We hired a director, and the director worked with professors at Cornell to create a curriculum. Existing hotels agreed to both hire from the pool of people that we trained and to provide tips.

We focused on young people between the ages for 18 and 30, who either hadn’t finished high school or college, or they’d been arrested once before, or maybe were single parents. We focused on the most vulnerable population, the people who were least likely to get those jobs, to raise their chances of climbing the ladders when the hotels were opened.

On becoming mayor at the age of 24:

It’s been a steep learning curve. I hear that’s true for all mayors, that there’s nothing that can prepare you for the job except the job itself. Even being on the city council I was aware of the shape of the responsibilities — but not the size of them.

Your first name becomes mayor. It’s not a job you go to; it’s a job that you are. You wake up in the morning, and you’re the mayor. When you’re brushing your teeth, you’re the mayor. You’re trying to have dinner with a friend, and you’re the mayor.

You can’t ever forget it because it’s more than just a job. It’s who you are now.