Melissa Harris-Perry: I am Melissa Harris-Perry. This is The Takeaway.
Earlier this month, I traveled to York, Pennsylvania as a guest of the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission and the YWCA of York. I spoke on the lovely campus of York College and decided to stick around this historic city for a tour and talk as part of our ongoing series 23 Mayors in 2023. I was scheduled to meet the mayor for coffee at the historic Yorktown Hotel spanning 14 stories. The hotel is designed in ornate renaissance revival style, boasting signature column, soaring ceilings, original terrazzo flooring, and stunning murals.
Over the decades, the hotel is welcomed to presidents and first ladies from both parties and some legendary entertainers, including Lucille Ball, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra.
Frank Sinatra: [singing] You are all I long for, all I worship and adore
Jack Kay: They raised the money to build it in 1925 in one week.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is Jack K of York's Economic Alliance and Industrial Development Authority. When I arrived, I found Jack standing with the mayor in the Yorktown Hotel lobby. Jack took the opportunity to tell me a bit about the origins of this landmark.
Jack: They did this goofy approach of going around in teams and just asking people for money to be able to fund it and to motivate them, the team that raised the most money got to carry around a stuffed Pygmy goat.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That explains this stuffed Pygmy goat I'd noticed the night before. It occupies a well-preserved place of honor over the bar in the main hotel lobby. It's undoubtedly a mark of simpler times that the quirky incentive of carrying around a stuffed goat could move a city to raise funds for a major development project in just a week. You never know, maybe our member stations might want to give the stuff goat thing a try in future pledge drives. Of course, that was 100 years ago.
Earlier this year, the York Economic Alliance completed a meticulous six-year renovation of the hotel. Let's just say it took more than the promise of a pygmy goat to make it happen.
Jack: It's about a $54 million project.
Melissa Harris-Perry: With this as our start, I figured I knew where this visit with the mayor was heading. After all his official bio describes him as a local historian and explains that he lives in the oldest owner-occupied home in the city of York. He'd suggested that we meet in this historic hotel, and there's no doubt York is steeped in American history.
During the Revolutionary War, York was the temporary capital of the Continental Congress, and it was in York that our nation's founding fathers first drafted the articles of Confederation. As we took a seat in the cavernous Grand Lobby, I prepared myself to talk about the past.
Mayor Helfrich: My name is Michael Ray Helfrich and I'm the mayor of York, Pennsylvania. The reason why I said that this was the building to meet in because it represents a time period of the Victorian and early 20th century industrial age when York was a real center of wealth creation, where people had ideas and then they took those ideas globally and brought the money back here. The buildings you see around here are a result of that. The beautiful architecture from basically the 1860s through the 1920s is really a result of that investment back into the community by those that were given opportunities by the community.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It became apparent almost immediately that Mayor Helfrich isn't stuck in the past. He's simply rooted there.
Mayor Helfrich: It's when you talk about economic development, that's the difference between job creation and wealth creation. Job creation, it's often people saying, "Hey, bring your Amazon here, bring your company here, and hire my residents." Wealth creation is when you invest in people so that they can bring their ideas to fruition and they make the money and then they love where they came from and reinvest in where they came from.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Today, York is a city of about 44,000 residents, just over half are white, while Latinos comprise about a third of the city, and a quarter of York residents are Black. With a median household income of under $40,000, York's poverty rate is a staggering 29%, and alongside poverty is crime. In York, the rate of violent crime is twice the national average. Property crime hovers at double the state average. When it comes to gun violence, York has ranked at the top of similarly sized cities. Mayor Helfrich didn't want to hide from these realities. He wanted to discuss them.
Mayor Helfrich: York is a place of second chances and third chances and fourth chances. While we can be a little bit rough and blue-collar around here, we can tell if people are really trying to change themselves, improve themselves, so York gave me a chance. This isn't, I guess, the best thing to put on the resume, but I'm the only mayor in Pennsylvania that has felonies.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In 1991, Helfrich, who was then 21, pleaded guilty to criminal conspiracy to commit possession with intent to distribute after being arrested along with a man in possession of LSD and psychedelic drugs. He served 45 days in York County Prison. The felony convictions became public during his campaign for York City Council back in 2011. You see, Pennsylvania law bans anyone from holding office if they have been, "Convicted of embezzlement of public monies, bribery, perjury, or other infamous crimes."
After considering a challenge brought by several other elected officials, a Pennsylvania judge ruled that Helfrich had never been convicted of an infamous crime and could remain on the city council,
Mayor Helfrich: Who knew that 20 years later, I was going to be asked to be involved in a government. Then I had to go through a bunch of lawsuits and cases and stuff like that to be approved, to be an elected official. Then I got elected mayor. The York has given me a second chance.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Not everyone celebrates Helfrich's election as a second chance triumph. He was first elected mayor in 2017 by defeating a two-term incumbent Kim Bracey. Bracey, a York native, and Air Force veteran, a mom, and an active community member was the first Black woman elected mayor of York.
Bracey: It was as if a Jedi nightlight years from the future whispered in our ears. May one York be with you. May one future York swim in your restless, unrelenting souls. In that spirit tonight, we envision daring promises of the future.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'd actually met Bracey a day before meeting Helfrich. In 2022, she was named CEO of the York, YWCA and yes, that's the organization that brought me to York as the Women's History Month Speaker. Awkward. Now, knowing how the war on drugs has derailed the lives of so many, I celebrate second-chance narratives. At the same time learning the story of Helfrich's defeat of bracey, I couldn't help but to think of the pioneering research of the late Devah Pager whose work demonstrated empirically that employers were more likely to hire a white candidate with felony convictions than a Black candidate without a criminal record.
One thing is for certain, Mayor Helfrich does his homework. Before we met, he listened to previous segments of our 23 Mayors series and noticed a question I always ask. Tell me, someone who's not famous, but who really captures the spirit of Louisville.
Speaker 6: Tell me a Madison story, a person here who you think captures some aspect of what makes Madison great.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Tell me about someone, a [unintelligible 00:08:34] who in some way really captures the spirit of Helena. The mayor did something entirely unique.
Mayor Helfrich: In anticipation of your question about who best represents York, this is Tiff Lowe and she is the city's project manager for our group Violence Intervention Initiative.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's right. He didn't just tell me about someone who best represents the spirit of York, he brought her along to the interview.
Tiff Lowe: First and foremost, I had to thank the mayor over the phone when he called me with this morning. I'm very humble. When you have a mayor like we have that understands the second chances, it makes it much easier, I should say, to do this work.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This work that Tiffany does is hands-on frontline community-based violence disruption through the Group Violence Intervention or GVI program. When the city experiences violence, Tiffany and her team respond personally and immediately. This sustained genuine long-term relationships with folks living in communities most affected by gun violence. Although GVI is housed in York's Public Safety Division, it doesn't look sound or operate like policing in most cities.
Tiff Lowe: Well, I didn't have a felony, but I've been to jail a few times, so for me to be in this role, technically, I shouldn't be, but when you have someone that understands that piece that, "Hey, maybe at 20 years old, her mind was not fully functional," because mine wasn't. He understand, but also understanding that people can change.
I know what a second chance can do for a person because I am a second chancer. I'm a third, fourth, fifth, so it's like the fact that someone gave me that chance, I don't really know how to explain my gratitude, so I just put my boots on the ground.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There is some evidence that GVI's work has had some success in slowing violence in the city. While the mayor and Tiffany might seem like odd allies, that's not how she sees it.
Tiffany Lowe: We speak a terminology that others will not understand. The mayor can sit here and talk to you about politics and everything else, but he also can speak a terminology with our youth that are going through the judicial system and are out here on the corner selling drugs. He can understand that terminology, and that's very important, I believe, to have someone lead your city that understands your city as opposed to just understanding the politics because it's deeper than politics.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For Tiff, the work she does alongside the mayor is deeply personal.
Tiffany Lowe: I didn't grow up with my parents in the home. My mother in the streets using drugs. My father, God knows where my grandmother raising me. I've been through abuse, I've been through homelessness, I've been through molestation. Everything that I hear when you knock on these doors, every week with these youth, that was me, so when you ask somebody, "What is your why?" I've been through it. Anything about trauma, anything pertaining to trauma, I am that person. Then you look at, well, why did you decide to sell drugs? Trauma.
Why did you decide to rob someone? Trauma. Why, why, why? Trauma, trauma, trauma. My why is because I am them and they are me. You understand? There's nothing I haven't seen, so those cries, those tears I understand, but then I also understand that when I look back, I had a community of people that was right there. They stood right there and they waited for me to get up and they pushed me, but I ran from a lot of them
Melissa Harris-Perry: Before Mayor Helfrich, Tiffany didn't see herself as having a role in the governance of her city, and that's all changed.
Tiffany Lowe: I remember being in that one foot and one foot out place, and didn't care about politics, didn't vote, but when I heard just a bit of his story, that did it for me, because it was just like, "That could be me." You know what I mean? That honestly could be me, so why not give somebody a chance?
Melissa Harris-Perry: That was Tiffany Lowe of the Gun Violence Intervention Program in York, Pennsylvania. We met her through York PA's mayor. Stick with us, because when we get back, I'm going to take a walk around York PA with Mayor Michael Helfrich. It's The Takeaway. I am sorry I got distracted by architecture. It really is beautiful. Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Yes, I was repeatedly distracted by the architecture during my recent conversation with Mayor Michael Helfrich of York, Pennsylvania.
He's the subject of this latest installment of our ongoing series 23 Mayors in 2023. Earlier this month, he and I took a walk through York's historic downtown.
Mayor Helfrich: To start your little tour here. This was the Lafayette Club, which as with traditional cities that meant racist white man club and it's 1830s building. Now, it has been repurposed by York College for the Center for Community Engagement doing a lot with trying to work on problems within the community.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For those like the mayor who are interested in and enchanted by historic architecture, downtown York is a bit of a dreamscape. Take the city's longest block of continuous historic buildings.
Mayor Helfrich: This is 1766 Quaker meetinghouse. The left side 1766, right side 1783 over here. This is about to be our New York County History Center, so they took this old steam plant, and they're turning it into a museum. This row house is here, 1820s. The white one down here is 1780s. The one on the corner, my favorite little pit stop, the first capital dispensing company. I have a deed from that property from 1779.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This kind of historic significance can be a double-edged sword for a struggling city. On the one hand, its undeniable importance to the American story makes it an obvious destination for field trips and scholarly exploration.
Mayor Helfrich: I had met a college professor from Georgetown, who was here taking his class around because we had 13 completely diverse types of architecture in a two-block area.
Melissa Harris-Perry: On the other hand, attracting big dollars from tourism means saying more than history happened here. It requires a convincing argument that here is where it's happening. The tension is readily apparent in how York markets itself to potential tourists.
Speaker 7: Visit downtownyorkpa.com to plan your historically edgy adventure.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Catch that, historically, edgy, but for city residents, the question isn't how to attract more tourists, but how to attract, retain, and create more jobs.
Mayor Helfrich: It's a lot of medium-size employers and even those are coming and going, but yes, we've been a manufacturing, we're Harley Davidson, we're York Barbell, we're York International. These companies have either gone or been combined with other companies, moved out. Dentsply just left here recently. They were one of our last fortune thousand companies here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In 2019, Dentsply one of the country's largest dental equipment makers left York for Charlotte, North Carolina, and late last year, a vendor with Harley Davidson announced the closing of its York County facility. That's going to affect more than 600 warehouse workers. These are tough realities for the mayor. After all, it's hard to be a city of second chances if those seeking a fresh start can't get a new job. For Mayor Helfrich, it means rethinking how York approaches economic development.
Mayor Helfrich: Honestly, I'm here for the people. For decades, if not forever, the theory was that the more you invested in downtown, the more you're going to fix the city and my belief is if you can stop the shootings, you don't need an economic development policy because we are centrally located between Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. We've always been kind of a gateway city.
Melissa Harris-Perry: He took me to a place where I could see local entrepreneurs bringing their ideas to life.
Mayor Helfrich: Now, this is what I want to show you. This is our central market, one of at one time five market buildings around the city, but the inside's even more impressive. The roof was built by Baltimore Ship Builders.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Central Market is a concrete representation of the mayor's theory of economic development.
Mayor Helfrich: York used to have five large market spaces back in the 1800s. Now, we have two remaining Penn Market and the Central Market, and they're really the incubators of the nurturing places for entrepreneurs. You can come in at a very low overhead and really pitch your idea to the community and see how the community supports it
Melissa Harris-Perry: For Helfrich, this is how past and present can fuel a future for York.
Mayor Helfrich: Well, the incredible architecture and really the shoulders on which we stand here in York were created by entrepreneurs who came up with ideas and then their neighbors invested in them and they went global and they made wealth and they brought that wealth back to York City and invested. We're still living off of some of that wealth, and we have still live with that beautiful architecture that was given to us by them. However, we are not doing as much of that anymore.
That's really my strategy for trying to grow out of what have been hard economic times is to really invest in the people so that they can take their ideas, go make millions, go make billions, but bring some of that back to York because that's how we got here where we are today with this beautiful heritage that we have.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The mayor explained that moving from idea to entrepreneur, it requires capital, knowledge, and opportunity. He believes the city can help in providing all these necessary components for success.
Mayor Helfrich: Sometimes I tell people, I love what you're thinking of, but what's your business plan? How is this a business? I am glad that you like cupcakes, but how are cupcakes a business?
Melissa Harris-Perry: We visited Central Market. It's a bustling space in York's historic downtown, where more than 50 local entrepreneurs and artisans share space and sell goods, including a cheery little booth named Cupcakes and More.
Mayor Helfrich: The cupcake lady that I was mentioning over there, she--
Melissa Harris-Perry: Literally?
Mayor Helfrich: Literally, the cupcake lady is over here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: [laughs] I love this. That's the answer to the question, how is this a business?
Mayor Helfrich: Yes, exactly.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There it is, Cupcakes and More.
Mayor Helfrich: A place that you can keep your monthly cost down and you build up your market.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Hi. How are you?
Speaker 8: Good. How are you?
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is beautiful.
Speaker 8: Thank you.
Mayor Helfrich: We were just talking about entrepreneurship and the difference between being a dreamer and a business person, and how do you turn something as simple as cupcakes-- Not that simple, but how do you turn it into a real business instead of just a passion? This is how you do it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes, that sign is great. "Cupcakes are just muffins that believed in miracles." [laughs] Can I get a cupcake while I'm here? I want to buy a cupcake. It was chocolate with vanilla frosting decorated with an elegant blue flower, and I ate it while we kept walking through the market.
Mayor Helfrich: I remember when Catalina started and she was just supplying cupcakes for parties and events and things like that. The next thing I knew, she had a thriving stand in Central Market here in York.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Mayor Helfrich wants to be able to tell more of these stories, and it's part of why he's created community ecosystems.
Mayor Helfrich: I created the community ecosystem initiative where I've assigned, and right now, I only have three. We're about to have five, but I've assigned individuals from the neighborhood to be the ambassadors to the people that otherwise aren't getting the things that they need. Just like Tiff is doing it for folks that may be either victims or causing violence in the city, what about the mom that can't get out of the house because she has kids? What about people with mental or physical illnesses that they can't get--? What about people without cars?
Over time, you've got to build up trust, find out what each person, each family needs, and then you work over here to get the [unintelligible 00:22:33], and you work with the churches and other locations to try and find places, where services can come in maybe once a week.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Right then, one of the Central Market vendors leaned over to thank us for standing near her booth.
Speaker 9: Stay here and talk because you opt our property back.
Melissa Harris-Perry: A great moment, but property values are no laughing matter for the mayor.
Mayor Helfrich: Pennsylvania has a medieval municipal system with 2,500 tiny little governments. Just within York County, we have 72 different governments that are in competition for business and tax revenue. Unfortunately, the taxation system created by Pennsylvania was created when cities, the center of the infrastructure for many counties had the highest valued properties, had the highest income individuals. It's where the businesses were. They were all taxed to support the infrastructure that then supported the entire community.
Now, our cities have reversed, and due to the highway system and the GI Bill, and suburbanization, lots of businesses, lots of higher property values have left our cities, and that left us with the infrastructure that people are still counting on, but without the tax base.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Mayor Helfrich is not planning to seek reelection at the end of this term, but he's clear about what he wants to accomplish now.
Mayor Helfrich: My hope is that over the next 2 years and 10 months that I'm a mayor, I will be able to build that up so that it sustains itself past me. Instead of addressing economic downtown issues, we're actually able to address family, economic, mental, and physical health issues.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Our thanks to Mayor Helfrich and Tiffany Lowe for spending a little time with us here on The Takeaway. You can catch all of our 23 Mayors in 2023 segments on our website at thetakeaway.org.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.