York Charrette or charade?

A gratifying part of doing journalism and history is pulling past research from the file and putting it into play today.
I had researched the York Charrette, a major community forum in 1970, for a paper as an American studies graduate student at Penn State.
The paper compared the York Gazette and Daily’s and The York Dispatch’s coverage of the charrette.
The Gazette was coming at it from the left and the Dispatch from the right. Interestingly, both newspapers, in coverage and in opinions, treated it as a major event which wasn’t perfect but brought forth good things.
I suppose it wasn’t surprising that the newspaper found merit in the eight-day assembly. York was riddled with racial woes and faced a third summer of unrest, unless someone put forth a solution.
My conclusion was that the Dispatch liked the charrette, and the Gazette and Daily liked it a little better.
My York Sunday News piece on the charrette follows:


Consultant Lerona Turner compared the York Charrette to the birth process.
The eight-day event in 1970, she said, could be viewed as conception.
The forum – Time magazine tagged it civic group therapy – linked people of different classes and races to forge a new purpose.
When she returned three months after the April event, she found York in labor.
She would come back again, she said, when the city had delivered.
At the time, some skeptics wondered whether conception ever occurred, much less labor and delivery.
Was it a charrette or a charade? some wondered.
The charrette idea was born again last week when York Mayor John Brenner put forth a settlement in civil litigation brought by the family of Lillie Belle Allen, gunned down in the summer of 1969.
Again, critics emerged.
The charrette was a lot of speech-making, some said, but not much decision-making.
* * *
In the spring of 1970, nothing was coming easy for York, even with a badly needed new administration in operation.
Voters had elected Mayor Eli Eichelberger to replace John L. Snyder, who died in office in late 1969.
Mayor Snyder headed York in two widely spaced administrations – during World War II and the 1960s. He governed, according George Shumway’s official charrette report, “as if the twentieth century had never taken place.”
Race relations deteriorated as the 1960s drew to a close, bottoming out with rioting in the summers of 1968 and 1969. Just months before Snyder’s death, a white police officer, Henry Schaad, and a black woman, Lillie Belle Allen, were killed amid the unrest.
York desperately needed a fresh start for its new administration. But in late March, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by black city residents, who generally maintained that the city had systematically abused minorities.
In early April, city schools closed after three students were stabbed at William Penn High School.
Such strife was not limited to York.
That spring, President Nixon sent a combat force across the Cambodian border, pointing to military escalation in Southeast Asia. Protests increased on U.S. college campuses, including at Kent State University.
There, on May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guardsmen fatally shot four students and wounded six others.
Against such events, organizers pushed forward with the charrette, opening on Sunday, April 19.
Charrette manager William L. Riddick led off with the assertion that the people of York were going to “unzip their city.”
“And in the week that followed,” Shumway wrote, “York really was unzipped a bit.”
The charrette format drew people into tight quarters, filled their agendas with discussion points and put them on deadline to suggest reforms. This would cause participants to break through their facades and deal with the root of problems.
Some believed it worked.
York City Schools implemented a sensitivity training course in one of York’s elementary schools, effective the last day of the charrette. District Attorney Harold Fitzkee promised cards printed in Spanish advising suspects of their rights. Medical workers operated a one-night-a-week community health center with a staff of rotating doctors. Housing officials created a council consisting of residents and pre-existing groups.
Those accomplishments grew directly from the charrette.
Some believed the well-timed charrette helped create a climate of change for the next decade.
Peace was restored at William Penn. No riots erupted in the summer of 1970 or in subsequent summers. The city abolished the use of police dogs in 1973.
Blacks and female representatives gained many firsts in the 1970s and early 1980s: Frederick D. Holliday became the city’s school superintendent, and voters elected Doris Sweeney to the school board.
Elizabeth Marshall became the city’s first elected female mayor. Thomas Chatman became York’s police chief. Roy O. Borom and Wm. Lee Smallwood gained seats on the city council. Bobby Simpson served on York’s chamber of commerce board.
Mattie Chapman earned election as county prothonotary, the county’s first black elected official.
* * *
Meanwhile, restless critics of the charrette took some well-aimed shots.
It took three long years to end the use of police dogs, the most pressing issue raised at the forum.
Some contend it was Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972 that accelerated change in the city.
Further, women did not play a large role in charrette leadership.
And county schools did not send youth representatives, denying that racism was their problem.
The forum’s youth program lacked focus, with some young people attending an off-site showing of a film on revolution in Algeria.
And yes, excessive speechmaking marred the charrette.
* * *
The charrette hit its high point on Friday night. But so came its low point.
That was the time for committees to give final reports from their long week of work, replete with aggressive lists of community reforms.
Next, a reaction panel of prominent decision-makers replied.
“But the reaction panel blew it!” Shumway wrote.
The panel’s noncommittal response stunned the crowd as suggested by a headline in Saturday’s Gazette and Daily: “Officials from City Attending Charrette Make No Promises. Mayor, School Board President Speak, But Crowd Disappointed in Lack of Commitment.”
That disappointment surfaces today.
* * *
Mayoral support wouldn’t be a problem with the proposed charrette of 2006. It was Mayor Brenner who proposed it.
Whether the school board can climb behind the mayor’s proposal remains to be seen.
The same goes for the rest of the county.
If Dallastown and Central school districts pledge to send students, that would show growth over 1970.
Will, say, Windsor Township officials attend? Or those from Red Lion, Dover and other suburban and rural municipalities?
County residents can do it. They became energized after racial disturbances in Hanover in the early 1990s and subsequent KKK visits around the county.
Securing such commitments outside the city could provide an early test about whether or not to launch York Charrette II.
Some believe the charrette came at the right time, ushering in a new decade and restoring a measure of hope.
Perhaps the community should have initiated follow-up forums at the start of subsequent decades.
Perhaps it still can.
But was the 1970 forum a charrette or a charade?
In preparing the official report, Shumway favored the former.
“. . . Charrette didn’t solve all of York’s problems, and wasn’t expected to, but it did make a dent in the armor,” he wrote, “and for York that is saying a good deal.”

YORK CHARRETTE FACTS, 1970

As cities faced racial tension in the 1960s and 1970s, officials looked toward charrettes as tools to pull their communities together. York was a prime candidate for such a forum. According to Time magazine, then-Pennsylvania Gov. Raymond Schafer said York was “one of the most tense communities in Pennsylvania as far as race relations go.”
Charrette, French for “little cart,” is a term drawn from architecture to describe intense last-minute efforts to finish design projects on time, working around-the-clock as deadline approached.
About 30 cities held charrettes before the movement hit York, April 19-27, 1970.
Community Progress Council officials introduced the Charrette process and then stepped aside as a steering panel planned and ran the forum. Outside consultants, led by North Carolinian William L. Riddick, provided guidance.
Audiences at the charrette site, the Bond building, South Queen and East King streets, grew from about 75 to 650 people as the forum built to a Friday night peak.
Breakout sessions during the day focused on health, transportation, education, police-youth relations and other problem topics. The groups came together in an arena session at night to compare notes.
For further reading, see George Shumway’s “Charrette at York, Pa., April 1970,” published in 1973. The book is available at York’s Martin Library and Red Lion’s Kaltreider-Benfer Library.
*Updated, corrected: 4/17/10

About Jim McClure

Editor of the York Daily Record/Sunday News, ydr.com and its many digital products. East Region Editor, Digital First Media. Journalism/history blogger: yorktownsquare.com. Author or co-author of seven York County, Pa., history books.
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