What was the original York Charrette?

Sean Philip Cotter

Forty-six years ago, York City was reeling from escalating racial tensions that had come to a head the previous July, when days of rioting  that included two murders caused the governor to send in the National Guard.

Two participants in the 1970 York Charrette wrote up a working paper about the experience.

In response, many in the community coalesced around an ambitious idea. In April 1970, hours of meetings were held over nine days, attracting experts, city officials and many York residents. They came to call it the York Charrette, a name that's been kicked around in the opening weeks of 2016, as city residents grapple with what they see as escalating youth violence and the issues behind it — issues, some locals say, which are merely modern iterations of those discussed 46 years ago.

A couple of participants of the original charrette later published an account of it in a behavioral science paper for the state Department of Health. Ira E. Harrison, a public health behavioral scientist, and Norma Broward, a registered nurse and state public health educator, were new to the York area when they took part in the meetings.

A Charrette poster from 1970 focuses on the relationship between the local youth and law enforcement.

First they explained the "the Charrette Idea." They described it as "a process of presenting community problems, then reaching solutions through ... problem-solving sessions involving people of every economic, social and racial element within a community."

In York City, the focus ended up on housing, health, employment, annexation of surrounding municipalities and, as much conversation is about today, youth.

The authors said a primary concern was whether people of all walks of life would actually show up. This ended up not being an issue, they wrote, noting a range of people voiced their opinions. That didn't mean folks always understood where others were coming from or what they wanted. That actually ended up being one of the biggest obstacles to getting anything done — but everyone was there, and they were talking.

"At first it was chaotic, then people calmed down," said former York-area activist Bobby Brunner. Now 53 and living in Atlanta, Brunner was a child when the York Charrette took place.

Louis Woodyard Jr., who now works with youth at the Voni Grimes Gym in York City, was a senior at William Penn Senior High School. "I was involved with a group of civic-minded young men" who participated in the charrette, he said.

They were among quite a few young people who showed up.

Daily charrette attendance peaked at over 600 people, according to typed recordings of the proceedings.

The summit started out on a Sunday and Monday — April 19 and 20, 1970 — in the Bond building on East King Street, with big "arena" meetings during which anyone was invited to get up and "gripe," according to Harrison and Broward. They could address whatever and whomever they wished.

"Blacks spoke out against whites, 'new' Yorkers spoke out against 'old' Yorkers," and vice versa, the authors wrote. Common concerns quickly became apparent: discrimination, unequal justice and educational systems and the then-recent use of police K-9 units against black people.

The authors focused largely on the health parts of the charrette, as those were the ones they were involved with.

The health meetings were held at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tuesday to Friday of that first week, with a couple later ones on Tuesday. On that Friday, the day with the best average attendance, 20 and 27 people showed up at the morning and afternoon health meetings, respectively, while better-attended meetings on other subjects happened elsewhere.

The authors describe the process as moving slowly at first. The group was scattered, and everyone had different and sometimes opposing complaints. But over the course of several days' meetings, they whittled the health issues down to a few things, including lack of coordination between existing services, drug abuse and treatment, lack of preventative health measures for the poor and a lack of resources for Spanish-speaking people.

They put together a group meant to move on these problems — the "We" group. The primary solution they came up with was the creation of a community health center. And, after another small "health charrette" the next year, The York Health Corp. formed. It remains alive today, now called Family First Health, a community health organization with several offices around the region.  The charrette also spawned the York Area Development Corp. and Housing Council, which were also aimed at ensuring low-income and minority residents had access to resources.

Current York City Council Vice President Michael Helfrich said the charrette defused some of what had been mounting pressure in the city.

"All the parties walked away feeling that that they were heard, and that it made some real progress," he said.