Turning Parking into Park in Ithaca, New York
Svante Myrick, the newly elected mayor of Ithaca, N.Y., a city that some 30,000 people call home, has made a splash in the news in several ways. First, at just 24 years old, he is the youngest mayor ever elected in the city of Ithaca. Myrick took over City Hall on January 1, 2012 after he won the election on November 8 with 54% of the vote, winning 18 out of 18 districts in a landslide, according to Syracuse.com. A recent Cornell graduate, he will now lead a city that is surrounded by several of the country’s best educated communities, such as Cayuga Heights, East Ithaca, Northeast Ithaca, and Lansing, as reported in a previous GeoCurrents post. But Myrick himself does not come from a well-educated, well-off family. Nor is he white, as are 74% of the city’s residents. Rather, Myrick is biracial: his mother is white and his father is African American. Myrick’s father struggled with drug addiction and faded from his life when he was six years old, Myrick said. He was raised primarily by his mother and grandparents in Earlville, N.Y., a tiny town with just one stoplight. He and his three siblings were the only black kids in the town. The family was at times homeless, living in a car or in shelters. Growing up poor has shaped Myrick’s political beliefs: he supports local food banks and free lunch programs, saying that they were the reason his family got by. But his biggest political inspiration has been another biracial politician—Barack Obama, to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance. “Well, if this, you know, guy with that name and those ears can do it, then a guy with this name and these ears can do it,” Myrick said.
As a mayor of Ithaca, Svante Myrick will now oversee a $61 million budget, a shrinking tax base, and exploding health care costs. He will also face the daunting reality that 44% percent of the residents in his city live under the federal poverty rate. Ithaca is also dealing with a severe housing shortage, due in part to restrictions imposed by deals between the City and Cornell University. Transportation option is another issue that Myrick wants to address. On his campaign website, he wrote:
“The answer to too many cars is not necessarily more parking spaces … We can change traffic patterns and parking behaviors by providing alternative methods of transportation which are more affordable, reliable and convenient.”
Myrick’s first step has been to give up his car and to join the estimated 15% of his city’s residents who walk to work (as I did for two years that I worked at Cornell). Since he would not be needing the prime downtown parking spot reserved for his exclusive use, Myrick began to “turn the Mayor’s parking space into a park space”, as he put it on his Facebook page. This move is certain to win him additional support from the residents of Ithaca, one of the most environmentally-minded cities in the country. While many Cornell employees prefer—or are forced by cost considerations—to live in rural areas and therefore consider personal cars a must, the city itself, and especially the downtown area, is well served by a public transportation system. It is operated by Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT) and includes 39 routes, many running seven days a week. Since July 2008, a non-profit called Ithaca Carshare, the first locally run carsharing organization in New York State, has supplemented the bus service.
Deep concerns about the environment—unsurprising for a city whose slogan is “Ithaca is gorges”*—are part of the overall culturally liberal worldview that Ithaca is known for. It is considered one of the most gay-friendly American cities. In 2009 it was listed as one of the “Best Vegan Towns to Live In” by VegNews Magazine. Ithaca’s iconic Moosewood Restaurant, founded in 1973 and known for its vegetarian cooking, won a James Beard Foundation “American Classic” Award in 2000.
* This pun plays on the many scenic gorges situated in and around the city.
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