At 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 15, the beats of De La Soul quietly filled the mayor’s office as the mayor of the City of Ithaca, Svante Myrick, alternately reviewe emails on the computer at his desk and perused the screens of his two smart phones. As the mayor picked up one of his phones he explained jokingly that at the inauguration his team tried to get him off his phones while the NBC crew was present. It’s a problem, he says as he continues to look at the screen.
An American flag stands in one corner of the office. A smart board takes up another — “I’m a visual thinker,” the mayor explained later. Windows make up two of the walls, giving views of the roof of the library, the Holiday Inn, and Green Street stretching west towards Meadow Street.
The walls are mostly bare. An Ithaca College pennant hangs low on one wall. On the opposite wall a map of Cornell’s campus from the 1920s hangs between a photo of “Seniors for Svante” and a framed letter addressed to the mayor from students at New Roots Charter School.
Only a few lights are on. “I’m not a morning person,” he says.
While walking to the Ithaca Carshare car parked on Green Street, Myrick again remarked — “I’m useless before 10 a.m.”
Once in the car, he tucks his CTB takeaway cup in the cup holder, moving a left-behind water bottle to the back seat.
“I love driving,” he says as he pulls onto Green Street, “I miss my car.”
Stopped at a light on Seneca, a jeep full of New England Patriot fans — windows down and music blaring — wave at the mayor. He gives them a thumbs up and a smile, but then turns and says, “That’s great, but I can’t approve of them being Patriots fans.”
The mayor pulls into the Boynton Middle School parking lot just before 9 a.m., where he is scheduled to read a proclamation for the day’s celebration of Black History Month.
“Middle School is rough,” he remarks, watching as students arrive in the gym for the assembly, “They were some of my least favorite years.”
Dressed in scuffed black shoes, dark slacks, light blue shirt and navy tie, the mayor returns to his phone when not greeting people.
But when it comes time for him to speak, the phones get put away, and he makes his way to the podium to deliver his first proclamation as mayor.
As mayor, he explained to the students before him, you get to proclaim things and no one can fight you on it.
“It may surprise some of you to learn that I was born right here in this building in 2005,” he began before giving the proclamation, “For those math whizzes out there, it doesn't mean that I am six or seven years old. I was born in 1987 in Florida. I was physically born. But the part of me that would go on and become mayor, Svante Myrick[,] the public servant, was born right here in Boynton Middle School when, as a freshman at Cornell University, I came down here for the first time to tutor. And I ended up coming for three days a week for three straight years. And a part of me was ignited that I had never known before, a part of me that now has a passion for public service.”
After reading the proclamation that declared the day Black History Day at Boynton, the Mayor returned to his seat and carefully documented the student performances and the keynote speech of ICSD Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown with his phone.
Around 10, as the story of Harriet Tubman began to be dramatized, he rose to leave the gym.
“It’s a great piece,” he said, “I’ve seen it — but it’s long.”
Parking the car back on Green Street takes a few tries.
“Flubbed that one,” mutters Myrick after the first failed parking job.
“I shouldn’t be using the force,” he jokes, “I should be using my mirrors.”
That’s what his driving teacher told him, he explained, when he was getting certified for driving vans with the Learning Web.
After parking the car he heads into the pharmacy across the street to buy a sympathy card for the family of the paramedic, originally from Ithaca, who died in Virginia. While paying for the card, Myrick chats with a TCAT driver drinking coffee who remarked that he didn’t see Myrick that morning on the bus.
After dropping the card off to be mailed by the City Clerk’s Office, Myrick heads back up to his office on the fourth floor, taking the stairs at a half run.
Annie Sherman, the executive assistant to the mayor who also served under former Mayor Carolyn Peterson, is in. After greeting her, the mayor picks up three message slips that are pinned to a filing cabinet by a magnet and heads into his office. He needs to decide where to hang a painting, Sherman reminds him.
“Annie, how do the phones work?” calls Myrick as he attempts to return the calls he missed while at Boynton. “Never mind, thank you,” he says a moment later. But he ends up returning calls on his cell phone, walking around the office as he talks. He tests a location for the painting he is supposed to decide a place for.
Finishing his calls, he begins to update Facebook and Twitter with the photos he took at Boynton by 10:45 a.m. Music is turned on again quietly, using Grooveshark. This time, jazz quietly sets the tone for his emailing.
“Sometimes I feel like an air traffic controller,” he said, as he returned to alternately using his landline, email and smart phones. During the campaign, he explained, he made the goal to stay in touch with constituents “religiously” through social media, returning phone calls, meeting with anyone who wants to meet with him. He emphasized that it isn’t a chore, but that he is always getting interesting feedback. Just the previous night he said he got tweets from residents about hot trucks and backyard chickens.
At 11:15, the City Attorney Ari Lavine stops in for a confidential meeting. The mayor joked earlier that the City Attorney has better views from his office and that if the attorney ever takes a day off, that he would steal his office.
After the meeting, around 11:30, the mayor signs letters to Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, asking Congress to reconsider the cuts to youth services.
“It’s not just humanitarian,” said Myrick, “it's good investing — when you have one teacher who can change the lives of a dozen youth in a year.”
He also takes a folder full of applications for city boards and committees to review.
“We pretty much hit the ground running thanks to Annie,” said Myrick of how he’s settled in, “She’s made sure that the place doesn’t fall apart. Thanks to Ari Lavine, the City Attorney — so bright and quirky. He’s made sure that we haven’t lost a step. And all the city staff. I mean, we’ve got department heads who collectively have hundreds of years of experience here in city hall. And they too have made sure that the wheels haven’t fallen off. And also former mayor Peterson spent hours and hours with me over the two months, really three months — October, November and December — to make sure that I knew everything I needed to. So there really wasn’t — we didn’t get settled in we sort of just hit the ground running. In fact I haven’t even, I think you can tell the office isn’t quite settled in. It’s a little bare here.”
He said the campaign itself was good preparation for the hours he works — 14, 15, 16 hour days that usually begin at 8:30 a.m. Today is a light day, he explained, with three speaking engagements and only a few meetings. Usually the average is 8-10 meetings and one speaking engagement a day.
“I’m surprised every day,” said Myrick when asked if has been surprised by anything since he took office, “but that’s just sort of the nature of the work. When you look at your inbox, you get a hundred-plus emails a day, but each of them is about something wildly different than the last.”
Three to four hours are spent a day just answering email.
“You get it in spots where you can and then whatever you don’t get to, you do that night. And whatever you don’t get to that night, you do on Saturday and Sunday,” he added with a laugh.
A cup of green tea is usually within reach to help him through the day.
“I’m torn between Collegetown Bagels and Gimme Coffee,” he admits, “I go back and forth, really depending on where I am. I’ll hit the CTB in Collegetown and downtown and the Gimme here on State Street, or Seneca street quite a lot.They get upset if they see me in CTB with a Gimme cup or vice versa.”
The mayor grabs lunch while at his 12’o’clock speaking engagement with the Rotary Club at the Holiday Inn, sampling baked potatoes, soup and chicken pot pie, accompanied by several glasses of iced tea.
In his speech, he emphasizes the necessity for changing how stories are told to young people in order to increase youth volunteerism — touching on how Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are portrayed as great men on their own, but that the reality is that one individual alone is not enough to perpetrate change.
“What’s the story we have of George Washington,” said Myrick, “The Father of the nation, the brave soldier who — what’s the famous painting — him crossing the Delaware. Look at that painting again. He’s the only guy in the boat not doing any work. It’s freezing. Everyone else in the boat is rowing and this guy is just standing up — he’s going to tip the boat.”
“Those stories are not as nice,” he continued, “but I think it’s important that we tell them for a couple of different reasons. It’s important that we recognize that one individual alone — one Abraham Lincoln or George Washington or Dr. King alone is not enough to change our society. We have to tell a real story, because so long as we believe that each individual has the power to change their community alone — what we’ll do is we’ll wait. We’ll wait for another great individual to come along. We’ll wait for another Lincoln, we’ll wait for another Barack Obama.”
To bring his point home, Myrick told two versions of his own life.
“They both begin with a young man being born into homelessness,” he said, “Father dependent on drugs, mother worked two jobs, but still living in homeless shelters, hotels and cars. And it ends with that same boy being elected mayor, the youngest mayor in New York State history. So how do we get there. In the first story, the story where individuals are all that matter, the story where you yourself struggling for excellence is all that it takes to succeed. And in that story — I’m awesome.”
In the story Myrick outsmarts classmates, the SAT, and quickly ends up at Cornell and on City Council.
“I decided to run for mayor and through sheer force of personality and charisma — boom I’m elected,” he joked. “That story is seductive, and I want to believe that story, I do. I would like to believe that I was smarter than my classmates, I would like to believe that I’m more motivated, more energetic, more charismatic — but it truly is a different story,” he said, “The truth is my mother worked extraordinarily hard. This is somebody with just a high school education, so she never had more than a minimum wage job. So what she did is worked two or three jobs to get us into an apartment. “
Myrick illustrated how everyone around him, family, teachers, bus drivers, guidance counselors, grant programs for tuition, former city alderman Gayraud Townsend and Nathan Shinagawa, and his campaign volunteers all helped him get to the position occupies now.
“The work that I myself could do would not have gotten me here,” said Myrick, “And that story — when I look back at all the people, the program, the services that I depended and relied on to get to where I was — I don’t think so highly of myself. I see how many people I owe, and I see where in this continuing story I must now fit in. My job is not now to excel at the expense of others, my job now is to cross over and join that other side.”
Following his speech, Myrick answered questions from rotary members ranging from the city’s stance on fracking to a Rotary member’s inquiry after how Myrick’s mother is doing these days.
The engagement runs over, and Myrick walks brusquely back to City Hall (again taking the stairs a couple at a time) for a rushed meeting with the Engineering Department on 2012 construction projects at 1:40, a meeting with the DEC at 2 p.m. regarding dredging for the city, followed by another confidential meeting with the city attorney.
By 3:30 the mayor is back in his office emailing. Music plays again, and the mayor unconsciously nods his head slightly to the sounds. Playing music helps him stay in the zone, he says, and he is open to jazz, blues, hip hop — “you name it.”
From 4-5 p.m. the mayor meets with Schelley Michell-Nunn, the City’s Human Resources Director.
Afterwards, Sherman checks in with the mayor.
“You OK?” she asks, “You look tired.”
“I’m OK,” the mayor responds before dramatically collapsing his head onto his desk.
He eats a chocolate before walking over to the Finger Lakes Wine Center where he is scheduled to read a second proclamation on the day, this one for the Tompkins County Bar Association’s 100th Anniversary.
While mingling with the bar association members, Myrick points out his hometown of Earlville, NY, on the giant map painted on the wine center’s wall. Myrick said he hasn’t been back to Earlville for more than two weeks since he arrived for the pre-freshman program at Cornell in 2005.
“It’s a tiny town of 800 people an hour and half from here,” said Myrick of Earlville, “It’s on Route 12; it’s a little canal town. Very small. We actually had the largest school district in the state in terms of area. I think it was 10 different municipalities all went to the same school. We graduated with about 100 people.”
Myrick is the younger-middle child, with two older brothers and a younger sister.
“When I was out campaigning, knocking on doors, I’d get a kick out of it just because I’d be astonished when anybody wanted to talk to me,” he said, “The lower-middle kid, nobody wants to. The older brothers don’t want to talk to you, your little sister doesn’t want to talk to you. There’s four of you — and it was just my mom. So I was the kid that was chatting away and no one was listening. So I just became kind of quiet.”
“It wasn’t the easiest way to grow up,” he continued, “I mean. We didn’t have a lot, but it was a small town, not a lot of people did. My mom worked extremely hard to make sure that we could keep a roof over our heads and my grandparents helped out a tremendous amount. They lived in Earlville. My mom was born in Earlville, which is why we came back there.”
Myrick’s siblings and mother were present for his inauguration.
“Both my brothers, and actually my sister, are extremely good athletes,” he said of his siblings, “I mean, talking varsity four year starters and breaking records in basketball and football and track. And I was short and chubby and had asthma. And I loved reading books [laughs]. So I didn’t quite fit in. I still played sports, but I didn’t start all the time and I certainly didn’t break any records. So my kind of niche became, especially after I grew out of my kind of knucklehead phases in elementary and middle school, my niche became doing well in school.”
While majoring in communications at Cornell with the goal to become a journalist, Myrick admits to not being the best student.
“I was a little busy,” he said, “because I had three jobs and did all this extracurricular stuff.”
The three jobs included tutoring, running Cooperative Extension’s anti-tobacco program Reality Check, and working as a bouncer at a bar in Collegetown. Extra-curriculars included working at the Cornell Sun, working as a Leadership Circle person at the Public Service Center, running the tutoring center where he tutored, and serving as vice president of his fraternity and vice president of the interfraternity council.
“So classes kind of came in a… how do I say this?” said Myrick, “So there were my jobs, and then my extracurriculars, academics and social life. And academics and social life battled for the third spot,” he laughed. “Sometimes one would take the lead, sometimes the other.”
When asked what he does now in his free time, Myrick responds with a look as if to say, “Are you kidding?”
He says that people almost always ask him if he’s getting sleep.
“It’s about the only thing I am doing,” he said, with his head hitting the pillow between 12-1, waking up at 7 a.m.
When not sleeping, he reads.
“I’m back to clocking about two books a month,” he says, a pace he kept up in middle school. “Of course, books were easier to read back then,” he says with smile.
After reading his proclamation that declared February 15, 2012, the 100th Anniversary of the Tompkins County Bar Association, it was back to City Hall for the 6 p.m. meeting of the Government Performance and Accountability Committee. Arriving a few minutes late after stopping in his office to check his email, the mayor settled in for the meeting. After the meeting ended at 8 p.m., he said he would be spending another couple hours in his office answering emails, and updating Facebook and Twitter with his day’s events.
Earlier, before he headed down to the GPA meeting, Myrick took a moment to look out the window when he was lowering the shades on the windows.
“I feel like I’m looking at a to-do list,” he said, referring to his views of the police department, the Holiday Inn, Clinton Street Bridge, and Emerson up on the hill. A moment later, and it was back downstairs to the next meeting.