Not too long ago, someone in the Ithaca City Hall elevator mistook an employee’s teenage son for the city’s new mayor – 20-something Svante Myrick.
“When I heard about it, I said, ‘Come on, I don’t look that young,’” recalls Myrick. “But my coworker said I missed the point. Young black men are mistaken for many things. People may even cross the street to avoid them. But they aren’t mistaken for the mayor of a city very often. The boy’s mother said it gave her son a different perspective. It changed him. That’s what really makes all of this worthwhile for me.”
Myrick is Ithaca’s youngest mayor ever, and the first African-American to be elected to the post. The Democrat was 24 when he won a November 2011 five-way race where he easily beat all of his opponents in every district in this city of 30,000.
Onward and upward
The novelty of his youth wore off quickly when his competence started to impress. Under Myrick’s leadership in 2012, the city refinanced its debt, streamlined its departments and adopted a retirement incentive plan that allowed the closure of a $3 million budget gap for 2013 – and without layoffs. The tax levy increased just 2.74 percent, the lowest since 2000.
His seven trips to Washington, D.C., and four visits to Albany secured millions of dollars for infrastructure improvements, including a $6 million upgrading of the Ithaca Commons that will replace the 100-year-old utilities underneath. The hope is that improved amenities along with an updated tax abatement plan will draw new businesses and entice those here to stay and expand.
“For years, our grant applications were denied, and the money went to larger cities,” says Myrick, tenacious about ending the trend. “It was Auburn’s mayor, Michael Quill, who told me it’s best to get in the car and go talk about a project face-to-face. I will go anywhere to pick up a check.”
Mi casa es su casa
He took on quality of life issues, creating a public park out of his unneeded parking space – adorned with tree stumps, flowers and benches – where he regularly converses with his constituents. He relies on his bicycle and public transportation to get from place to place.
He turned his Facebook page into an instant communications tool, encouraging a dialog with residents on everything from potholes to environmental sustainability. He even used it to ask if anyone needed help digging out after a snowstorm (he shoveled Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton’s driveway), and to seek advice on whether to throw candy during his first parade as mayor – the overwhelming answer was “yes.”
After being contacted by the family of Corporal Christ-opher Bordoni, a U.S. Marine from Ithaca who died last spring of injuries he sustained in Afghanistan, Myrick organized a grassroots fundraising effort that restored the Ithaca Community Fireworks. It was a tradition that went back decades, but had been missing the past few years. Bordoni loved the Independence Day tradition.
“It was incredible,” admits Myrick. “Kids were coming up to me, handing me money.” On the night of the fireworks, more than 15,000 people filled Stewart and Cass Parks to watch.
But Myrick’s favorite accomplishment so far has been “21 Boxes.” Ithaca’s Public Art Commission convinced the city to allow 21 of its drab, gray electrical boxes to be transformed into canvasses for the city’s artists. The boxes now display murals, brightening up the streetscape.
“The murals and turning the parking space into a park, I think, creates a sense of wonder,” he explains. “It’s a way to shift what people think of our city into a more positive light.”
1% inspiration, 99% perspiration
After growing up in Earlville, on the Chenango-Madison County line, Myrick went to Cornell University in 2005, and made Ithaca his city. A teacher at Sherburne-Earlville High School saw Myrick’s potential, and encouraged him to go to the Ivy League school. Through scholarships, financial aid and student loans, Myrick made it happen.
He credits mentors at home and in Ithaca for pushing him to achieve. He watched his mother, a single parent of four, work several jobs so he and his siblings would have every opportunity. At one point, the family lived in homeless shelters before moving near his grandparents in Earlville.
He said the support he got motivated him to become involved in a Cornell program that matched college students with children who needed tutors. That led him to join the board of REACH, Raising Education Attainment Challenge. He was also a founding member of the Ithaca Youth Council. It helped him get to know local residents and city officials, including Gayraud Townsend, a city councilor elected while still a student at Cornell.
Townsend decided not to run again, and he and Nate Shinagawa, a young man on the Tompkins County Legislature, told Myrick he’d be a perfect replacement. He was 19 at the time, in his junior year of college. The next thing he knew, he had won the seat as the city’s Fourth Ward alderman.
“I was motivated. I wanted to do it, and I wanted to do my best for the city,” says Myrick about his decision to enter politics. “Then, when I ran for mayor, what I lacked in experience I think I made up in ignorance. I didn’t really think about others who might have been at it longer. But that’s the beauty of democracy – it’s the power of the people to decide.”
Myrick says one of his mentors and role models – Newark, New Jersey, Mayor Cory Booker – gave him some sage advice: “Good mayors borrow ideas. Great mayors steal them.”
“I don’t know how many favors I have left,” says Myrick about approaching the mayor’s role by discussing its duties with whomever he thought could help him. “I asked a lot of questions of a lot of people. I talked to the HR department at Cornell about a retirement incentive. I had public brainstorming sessions.”
His friend and former city council member Michele Courtney Berry says it’s all worked well for Myrick – and for Ithaca. “Svante is a tremendously adroit, fair and conscientious leader,” she says. “I am always impressed by his thoughtful responses and high levels of engagement and perception.”
A small town kinda guy
Myrick’s future political aspirations aren’t out of the question, but they are certainly on the back burner after watching his friend Shinagawa lose his bid for a congressional seat in what Myrick described as “an ugly race.”
“It’s a greater feeling here, that we’re all pulling together,” he says. “In Congress, they hurl insults and blame the other guy when things don’t get done, and then go back home to their districts. You can’t do that here because you’ll go to the grocery store at the end of the day, and see the other guy, or see his neighbor.”
Walking down the streets he’s seen repaved, past the potholes now filled in gives him a great sense of satisfaction, he says.
“I want to thank him,” says Ithaca resident Michael Bennett, a retiree who spends time volunteering for various nonprofits in the area. “I think he’s done all right. Look at what he’s accomplished his first year. I can’t wait to see what he does next.”
by Louise Hoffman Broach