He used to be homeless. Now he's a mayor. And he's only 28.
When you walk into the office of the 28-year-old mayor of Ithaca, New York, you get an instant taste of what it means to have a young person running your city.
An LED display mounted above the couch in his office flashes text messages that are sent directly to the mayor, Svante Myrick. The messages aren’t censored and are posted instantly for anyone within eyesight to read.
"Could you please pave James St.? The holes are really bad!" read one recent message. "Think about a bike system like citi bikes for Ithaca! Could promote green transport," another suggested.
Not all of them are so serious: "Stop staring at this sign and get back to work!"
The board is an installation created by local artist Blake Fall-Conroy, and all of the texts can also be read online. "It was always about open communication, by anyone at any time, about anything, whether that's good or bad," said Fall-Conroy.
Myrick came of age in the time of smartphones and Snapchat, so this sort of innovation fits him perfectly.
"It’s a new public square," Myrick said in an interview with Upworthy. "Some people feel very comfortable calling my office or writing a letter. Other people use Twitter and Facebook. It means more people have my ear. And, the more constituents you hear from, the better job you can do."
Myrick was elected mayor of Ithaca in 2011, making him the youngest mayor in the city’s history and the first African-American to hold the office.
One of his earliest decisions as mayor went viral. After selling his car, he put benches and planters in his mayoral parking spot and changed the sign to read "Reserved for Mayor and Friends." The day the sign was installed, someone snapped a picture of it, and by that evening, it appeared in an article on The Huffington Post. Four years later, some people still refer to him as "the parking space guy."
Myrick hoped the gesture would signal that positive change was coming, that how the streets and sidewalks were treated would be improved. The idea reflects his vision of a more dense, more walkable city.
It’s a vision he shares with his generation. More young people are living in cities than 35 years ago, and most choose urban neighborhoods where they can walk or take public transportation. They want to be close to coffee shops, their offices, and restaurants. When surveyed, they say they want a home where they can feel like a part of a community and have a positive impact.
His youth helps him connect with young people in Ithaca, a college town characterized by the presence of Cornell University and Ithaca College, but he’s also very different from some of those constituents.
One of the things that sets Myrick apart from many of his peers is his childhood, which was spent in the throes of poverty.
After he was born, his mother came home from the hospital to find a red eviction notice tacked to the door. The family slipped in and out of homelessness, living in shelters and spending a few nights sleeping in the car.
Eventually they moved to the one-stoplight town of Earlville, New York, to be close to Myrick’s grandparents.
Myrick’s mother worked several jobs to raise him and his three siblings. Each month, she would write on the back of an envelope what she had made and what the bills were. Then the children would add what they wanted and together they would decide how to spend her paychecks.
"She brought us right into the household decision-making," Myrick said. "This is what we have and what we want. We could decide, 'This is the third notice from the gas company so we should pay that over the phone bill because they only sent one.'"
Growing up in poverty also sparked Myrick’s interest and passion for government.
Because his family relied on food stamps, free lunches, and other social programs, he became aware of what government was and why it was important at an early age. It’s also why he became a Democrat.
He explained his path to the party during a 2014 award acceptance speech at the JFK Library in Boston. "We are successful when we take care of each other, when we look out for each other," he said. To Myrick, the Democrats best embodied that message.
After learning of Myrick’s high SAT scores, one of his high school teachers encouraged him to take advanced placement classes and to consider Cornell. He was accepted in 2005.
He worked four jobs to help pay for college, including one gig as an assistant to a council member on Ithaca's city council. After the member announced he would be retiring, he encouraged Myrick to run for his seat, which he won in 2008, during his junior year of college.
On the council, Myrick focused on youth engagement and education but also discovered a passion for urban planning.
He admits it sounds boring, but he believes zoning dictates much of our lives — where people live, where they go to school, what kind of commute they’ll have. He created a new platform for his city council re-election and realized it was full of things only a mayor could do. So he ran for mayor in 2011.
After an aggressive campaign and lots of door-knocking, Myrick won the mayor’s seat.
In his first term, he closed a $3 million structural budget deficit, the largest the city had ever faced. He worked to rebuild the downtown pedestrian shopping area known as "the Commons" and fought to rezone the city to make it more walkable and include more mixed-use housing.
When Myrick first ran for mayor, people were skeptical about the impact he could have.
"I had people tell me at the door they weren’t voting for me because I was too young," he said. "They assume you don’t have a deep Rolodex, that you’re immature."
This past fall, Myrick won a second term with 89% of the vote.
The young mayor is frequently compared to President Barack Obama.
Both are biracial men raised by single white mothers. Like Obama, Myrick is considered a rising star in politics. As you might imagine, he’s frequently asked about his plan for the future.
"I don’t know what comes next," said Myrick. "I’m excited to do this for four more years. You become qualified to run for state offices at 30. I still have a couple of years to think about it."
As for the comparisons to the president, Myrick is flattered. He says Obama is an "inspiration," and Myrick aspires to achieve the commander-in-chief’s cool, calm demeanor. While he respects Obama deeply, Myrick says his personality more closely mirrors another top-ranking Democrat.
"I’m more Joe Biden," he says. "I grew up in a place like Scranton, hardscrabble, rural, fairly conservative."
Perhaps most importantly in the political space, Myrick also shares the vice president’s notorious loquaciousness: "If you get me talking, it’s hard to get me to stop."