Like the gorges that run through the city, the fissures in Ithaca’s political landscape sometimes seem insurmountably wide.
In one part of the city, academia churns along in state-of-the-art research labs, professors’ pay rises and Cornell plans multi-million-dollar new buildings. In another, the city’s poverty level remains more than three times the statewide rate, and residents of the Jungle — a homeless encampment near the railroad tracks — plead to simply be left alone.
On East Hill and in Collegetown, drunk, oblivious students leave remnants of their revelry strewn across city streets. Permanent residents renew their gripes, demanding reform notwithstanding the city’s economic dependence on the students.
And, despite its noted 1960s-inspired brand of liberalism and fealty to diversity, the city finds itself periodically roiled by racial disputes. A shooting, an incident of bias at the local high school, or the administrative transfer of a University department can all trigger demonstrations of the continued distrust between the city and its sizable African-American population.
It is hard to figure out where, precisely, to place Mayor-elect Svante Myrick ’09 — a biracial, formerly homeless, 24-year-old Cornell alumnus — in the variegated City of Ithaca he will soon lead. But, on Wednesday, after capturing more than 50 percent of the vote and winning every city ward, Myrick credited much of his success to the congruence between his life story and Ithaca’s heterogenous nature.
“I don’t think it’s just coincidence that the city embraced me or that I embraced the city. If I hadn’t lived the life — racially, economically, culturally — that made me a good fit for this job, I never would’ve thought to run for [mayor], and the voters never would’ve thought to elect me,” Myrick said. “I’ve lived a life of paradoxes; I’ve definitely experienced things from many perspectives, and I think that's helped bridge the divides [in Ithaca].”
Still, for some, it will take Myrick's administration to prove where he stands.
"I don't think we can understand this young man yet … it’s going to be some time before we can put the election in context," said Ithaca College Prof. Sean Eversely Bradwell, culture, race and ethnicity. "Now, with that said, people should be judged for their actions, and we’ll know quickly where his loyalties lie by how his administration runs the city.”
Atop the Hill, in the Jungle
Myrick attended Cornell, received his Ivy League diploma and, until midway through the campaign, was on the University payroll. Yet, despite Cornell’s sometimes inimical relationship with the city, Myrick said he was successful at disabusing the perception of being an elitist — in part because of his personal background.
“Cornell is so dominant in Ithaca that people feel like it’s the unarguable king … There’s a great resentment that Cornell takes up so much of the tax base but doesn’t pay taxes — and I feel like that’s a pretty strong sentiment across the board,” said Pete Meyers, head of the Tompkins County Workers’ Center.
Meyers said that while this distrust sometimes makes Ithacans wary of politicians from Cornell, Myrick’s life story makes Meyers optimistic that Myrick will not be beholden to moneyed interests.
“I’m hopeful that [Myrick] has experience with [workers’] issues that most other people running for political office simply don’t have,” Meyers said, citing the fact that Myrick’s mother, Leslie, worked as a housekeeper. “[Myrick] has shown to me, at least, that he’s willing to engage with issues that are important to the Workers’ Center.”
On Wednesday, Myrick spoke of being raised by a single mother, of his father with drug abuse problems and a childhood of “growing up in poverty.”
“I think growing up in poverty and then going to a University where you’re surrounded by wealth and affluence … let me see the compound relationships on both sides,” Myrick said.
That experience, he said, makes him exceptionally able to understand the town-gown relationship.
Throughout a sometimes heated campaign, the main criticism levied against Myrick — implicitly and explicitly — was that he was more a student than a member of the community.
There’s a lot to confirm the caricature. Myrick lives in the heart of Collegetown, can often be seen around the bars and once stopped a mayoral debate to take a camera phone photograph for his mother.
“The [Ithaca] community has reason to be skeptical of folks coming off the hills because, historically, these folks haven't always acted with the best interest of the community in mind,” Prof. Eversely Bradwell said. “Because of this and because of his age, I think Svante has had to overcome a great deal of skepticism,”
Independence candidate Alderperson J.R. Clairborne (D - 2nd Ward) held a press conference in October to accuse an unnamed competitor of “marshaling an army of students” — an accusation viewed by some as a thinly veiled criticism of Myrick.
One of Myrick’s opponent in the Democratic primary, Tompkins County Legislator Pam Mackesey ’89, also attempted to draw attention to Myrick’s connections to Cornell alumni.
“If the people who vote for [Myrick] don’t have a stake in the community and the people who are fundraising for him don’t have a stake in the community, I do think it makes his candidacy one step back from being in the middle of the city and our culture here,” she told The Sun in early September.
But attempts to cast Myrick as an unqualified student fell short, said Director of The History Center in Tompkins County Scott Callan, in part because his youth proved as much an asset as a liability.
“I thought his relative newness and freshness was one of the biggest selling points,” Callan said.
Callan recalled an analogy for politics in the City of Ithaca, in which the “rapidly changing, transitory element” — college students — form the “always changing froth” at the top. Myrick was able to capture the froth and the “entrenched population that’s always moving a little slowly,” Callan said.
“I think what attracted people to Myrick was either that you were in his cohort, a colleague of his or in your mid 20s, or you are perhaps some of the longer-term folks, who saw in him the same sense of liberalism that they brought with them when they settled in the area in the 60s and 70s,” Callan said.
While he was running for Common Council as a student, Myrick said he already felt like he belonged to more than just the University.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve gotten to a point where I feel like I’m more than a Cornell student — I’m an Ithacan,” Myrick told The Sun in an interview in 2007.
In 2007, Ithaca High School’s handling of a racial harassment complaint was denounced by minority students and community leaders, sparking a debate and garnering national media coverage. In 2010, black resident Shawn Greenwood was shot by Bryan Bangs, a white police officer, setting off a barrage of race-based accusations against the Ithaca Police Department and Mayor Carolyn Peterson.
“Racism still exists in Ithaca … the incidents that percolate every couple years and are just the most visible manifestations of underlying problem,” Myrick said Wednesday.
Ithaca historian Carol Kammen said that the election results indicate that “we are judging people by who they are and not color or race.”
“I don’t think race entered into anyone’s consideration of whether to vote for [Myrick] or not,” Kammen said.
Myrick said cultivating relationships with the city’s African-American community — such as his positions on community center boards and with the Greater Ithaca Activities Center — aided his candidacy, citing his broad electoral success.
“As much as there’s been racial tension there’s also been impressive racial success — there is a long history of black folks doing remarkable things in Ithaca, and maybe Svante is adding onto that remarkable legacy,” Prof. Eversely Bradwell said.
Myrick said he hopes to “elevate the discussion to overarching goals — not denigrating one constituency at the cost of another,” adding that he believes this contributed to his electoral success.
“I think Svante was engaging with different sides on the Shawn Greenwood issue and tried to engage both points of view,” Meyers, of the workers center, said. “If he does that on a lot of issues, that could be really powerful.”