Wilmington Mayor and Highlands’ neighbor, Mike Purzycki, shows no sign of slowing as he rounds the bases on his second term. In this lightly edited transcript of the Mayor’s discussion with Highlands Live co-hosts, Benjamin Wagner and Lindsey DiSabatino, on Wednesday, October 27, he discusses his legacy and hope for progress yet to be made.
Lindsey DiSabatino: We like to start with a sense of your Highlands. How do you start your day? What are some of your favorite parts of the neighborhood?
Mayor Mike Purzycki: I generally get up at 5:30ish. Coffee’s usually ready about 5:41. I typically read the teeny, weeny, tiny, whiny News Journal largely for the obituaries, I’m sorry to say; I like to see that. And then it’s The Times and The Post. And I’m usually reading a book.
I love living in The Highlands, we’re just so blessed to be here. I’ll tell you what, what I think is what is becoming one of my real favorites is the Art Museum. I think they’ve done a wonderful job becoming not only a first class art institution, which I suppose they’ve always been, but how they’ve related to our community writ large is really important.
They have abandoned that kind of – I don’t want to I don’t want to mischaracterize it – but the idea that it was just a cultural center for some of our people and not for everybody. I know that wasn’t intended, but that’s the way it kind of wound up. And today, you get this sense of inclusion. That I think is it’s ennobling. And it’s, it’s really important to a city that is obviously a majority minority.
It’s great living. Most mornings I walk around a walk around Rockford Park, come back and do my push-ups. And now I feel like I’m ready for the for the day.
Benjamin Wagner: How do you think about that time? Your walk around Rockford?
Mayor Purzycki: I’ve never been a walker; I was always looking to do something that more strenuous. Since I had my heart surgery, I had to walk because I couldn’t go do that other stuff yet. And what I what I found about walking was an almost spiritual half hour of my day.
I do use my earphones to listen to music. I listen to the opera. I listen to classical music. And I also listen to Queen. There’s, there’s a fairly good range.
But I’m in another, heavenly place when I go out there. And I like seeing people and I like saying hi. I like to engage with folks. I’m almost disappointed if I don’t see somebody who wants to stop me and talk about something that’s going on. It’s a special time of day for me.
Benjamin: You were drafted to the New York Giants after a luminous football career at UD, and then had to leave on account of injury. That must have massive blow to you and who you thought you were becoming. I wonder if you could talk about what that experience was like, particularly the resilience part of it.
Mayor Purzycki: I always like to say that I wasn’t good enough to play in the NFL, but I was good enough to get there – it’s a fairly small number of folks. You know, just the fact that I signed with the New York Giants when I was out of Delaware.
I played with Dale Schaffner, who’s an All Pro. And I played Fran Tarkenton and Earl Morrall. They’re both NFL Hall of Fame players. They were in the camp at that time. So I had a wonderful experience.
I banged my knee pretty badly, and had to get surgery on it. And I went home, and I’m sitting with my family, and I said to my father, I said, “I really think I should get paid because I got hurt. I didn’t get cut because I wasn’t good enough.” They said, “You’re crazy.” And I said “I really do!” I was a 21 -year-old kid.
So I got on a payphone, threw a bunch of quarters in, called the New York Giants office and asked for Wellington Mara who was the owner of the of the Giants. And dammit, if they didn’t put me through to him! And I’ll never forget it.
He said, “Hello, Mike.” But he said it like we’re all friends. He couldn’t do that today in a million years today; there’d be five agents on either side, you know? And I said, “Mr. Mara, here’s how I feel about it.”
And he says, “Well, why don’t you come on up and talk to me?”
So I got my car, I drove to 10 Columbus Circle in New York City. I went into the New York Giants office, I sat with him for 20 minutes. And he said, “You know, there’s another guy with that same situation, let me think about it. And I’ll get back to you.”
He never called me back.
But I got my check the next week, and the next week and the next week all through. I just think, who was that 21 -year-old who would call who would call Wellington Mara and say, you know, I think I should be paid!?!
Benjamin: Was that assertiveness a new behavior?
Mayor Purzycki: I was disappointed, but I’ve never I’ve never been crushed by disappointments. Just not my nature. I mean, I had tears my eyes as I drove out of the out of Fairfield University when I left the camp. It’s the dramatic scene at the end of the movie is I’m walking out and Aaron Thomas and Fran Tarkenton are walking by, so I flipped them a little wave. And they gave me this wave like ‘Yep, another rookie gets cut. Have a good life.’ It was just so funny.
Benjamin: How do you keep your eyes on the horizon? When folks are pressing you on pothole and petty theft, or worse, really major, major stuff like poverty and crime?
Mayor Purzycki: Yeah, you know, I think you’ve got to get yourself a little emotionally detached from it. Because if I let every, every shooting or every homicide really get to me, I’d end up a basket case in no time.
I remember my first my very first year, I was, I was mayor for well, the table before I was sworn in, we had the three firefighters die over on West Side. And that was tough, because that was my that was my ‘Wow, this is what it’s gonna be like’ moment. In January of that year, we had four homicides, my very first my first month in office. And you know, I just got up one day and said to Betty, “Oh, my god is this what this is going to be like?”
The hardest one was a little boy named Ben and a six-year-old boy, who was shot, he wasn’t killed. But he was basically his life was taken from him because he had brain injury. And I went to visit him in hospital, this is all in the very first month or two of office. And I realized that I cannot let this I cannot get too close because nobody can nobody can endure this on a on a regular basis.
We had this young, 14-year-old killed six months ago and I said to John Rago, who manages not just operations, but communications, I said, “John, I’ve got to go, I’ve got to go talk to people up at that end of town, they’ve got to hear from me, trying to put this into perspective.”
I like to characterize this as my, my best C+ performance in my life, that is that I wasn’t great. But I stood in front of 200 people. And I tried to explain 200 hurting, spirited people who wanted to lash out at somebody, and I was a convenient person to do it to. And they just told me, you know, they just wanted to say, you know, “I don’t want to hear all of your statistics and all the investment you’re going to make. What are you’re going to do to keep these kids from killing each other!?!”
And when it was over, I don’t think I never felt better about being mayor than that night that I stood there and took a bunch of body shots from people who are just angry and want to be angry with somebody. Now, I prepared for that, you know, before we said I never prepared well, I prepared a lot for that. Because it was important to say the right things, at least the best of my ability.
So that gets all the way back to the first part of “How do you manage the highs and the lows?”
You can’t let the lows take you to your knees because they’re just they’re just enervating and exhausting. My job description is to make the city better. And if it doesn’t work, you know, it’s like a coach that only wins two games and he wants to tell you that his completion percentage was great or is theirs defense held the look, you’re two and nine, what do you want to hear about it?
Lindsey: You do have an impressive track record. From riverfront redevelopment to your current term as mayor, you’ve dedicated a significant amount of time and energy revitalizing Wilmington. What are your tactics? How how do you get people in the sandbox together.
Mayor Purzycki: My football coach at Delaware was Dave Nelson before Toby Raymond. And he always he always said to me said, “Don’t forget one thing: You’re never as good as they say you are. And you’re never as bad either.” I try to keep an even keel on all of this.
No matter what I ever do in my life, I think people will know me as the guy who did The Riverfront. But in fairness, I get more credit than I deserve at times and more blame too. That’s just the way it is. But I do think I do think this: Great leaders are always people with commitment and a vision. You really have to be able to see something and believe in it deeply. And that’s infectious. And other people come on board.
The other thing I will tell you and I don’t ever sell this short: I came along with an idea and a belief in something at the same time that the state had a certain amount of prosperity. Joe De Phino and Tom Carper just got infatuated with this project. And he really helped us while we’re floundering at times early. He believed in it, and he funded our aspirations.
And I’ll never forget one day when the when the Chase Center opened up (it was the first USA Riverfront Art Center then), and we had Nicholson Alexandria there from the Hermitage Museum and in St. Petersburg – the most remarkable show that Delaware will ever see. And Tom Carper walked into the building for the first time since, you know, it was a pile of junk. He walked in the building, and he said, “Michael, I don’t know how he did this. And I don’t think I want to know, but I’m glad you did.”
Because it was pretty tricky to get all that done. And working with Reno Pettinaro, one of my heroes. He’s a wonderful, wonderful guy. And, you know, he put up a lot of the money because I think he believed in what I was selling.
Not everything worked. The shops down there just didn’t work. They just limped along until they ran out of fuel because we didn’t have enough people going down there at the time. It took a while and then it started to take off.
When I go there today, it actually impresses me. And by the way, a lot of that credit goes to Megan McGlinchey, who’s my successor and has done a great job down there.
When I look at that bridge across the river going right into the 76ers Fieldhouse, the whole infrastructure that place everything is everything is beautifully maintained. It’s exquisite, and we should be very proud of it as a city. I don’t care who’s I don’t care what city you go to, you know, our riverfront stacks up pretty darn well.
Benjamin: How do you think about your legacy? And which of the city’s challenges do you think will outlast the administration?
Mayor Purzycki: People always associate me with the economic developments taking place down here. But when I talk about the city, I invariably talk about poverty and race and crime and everything that we have to do to understand these things, and to address them as best as possible.
It is America’s deficiency that to this day it doesn’t know how to deal with racial issues. And so, I’ve spoken any number of times about this in front of groups that are frankly, almost, they’re usually far more white than they are black. And, and I talk about race from the perspective of a white mayor, a conspicuously white American, less of a of a mid-majority black city, and what those challenges present.
As far as I’m concerned, my score sheet is on how well I leave our social condition and when I leave where there is less crime, less poverty, and a better relationship between two sides of town that don’t talk to one another. I always say you can’t learn to love somebody from across the street. We have very little of the intimacy and the affection that makes for real strong cultural growth and reconciliation. And that’s kind of where we are.
So, you know, I may be the wrong vessel to do this. But we’re stuck with me. It’s all it’s all we’ve got right now. And I’m doing my very best to try to figure out how to do this.
Chip Rossi called me one day and said, we use, he said, we have this thing called “Courageous Conversations.” And I would like you to speak to our senior management people about being the white mayor of black city. And first I said, “Sure, I’ll do it!” And then I called him back. And I said, “You’re crazy. I’m not doing this because I know how easy it is to step on a landmine when you’re talking about these issues.
Bur I agreed to do it. And it took me probably two or three weeks to prepare a speech that I was willing to give to these folks. And they had about 900 people on this on this call from throughout the company, mid/mid-upper management. And I think I was so happy with the way it worked. Because the whole the thing that’s so effective about my talk, when I talk about the things are examples of how people hear the same thing: how they look at the same thing to two different lenses. And I gave and I gave everybody examples that I’ve experienced down here. And they’re very penetrating examples. They’re things that people never think of. But I tell them anytime you try to use your white middle class brain to understand the black experience in America, you will be wrong.
That’s my scoresheet if I if I did that, well, I would I would feel great about my time here.
Benjamin: You’er directing much of the American rescue plan funding to cleaning up priority neighborhoods like Riverside, where so much great work happening there with Charlie McDowell, Logan Herring, and so many great folks pitching in. I’m interested in your assessment of our neighborhoods participation in making the city a better place. And I’m also interested in how we, as The Highland Community Association, can do a better job making our way towards a healed city.
Mayor Purzycki: Well, I think the best way – and it takes me back to my comment about the Art Museum – the best way is to be welcoming to people. The worst way – and I guess I’ll probably offend somebody – but the kinds of things that are a little patronizing and a little condescending, like, Let’s go clean up somebody else’s neighborhood. That is doesn’t make me very comfortable; people are really giving of themselves, but they’re doing it in a way that is perceived in a very different way.
And so, the flip side of that is to welcome people into your neighborhood, to have events where you are telling people hey, ‘We want you here. You’re welcome here.” That’s really important. Much more important than saying, let’s have a corporate event where a bunch of people run down and clean up a park in a community which the next morning will have syringes and every garbage there anyway.
We have some we have some very good organizations that are doing good work. And they certainly can use help, they can use help from community people who have the means and skills.
This is this is a reach, and I don’t expect that this is necessarily right on point. But I talked today with folks who I think are our experts in this general conversation. And we talked about how important it is that we reach that we reach kids in schools – but not necessarily in the traditional way. Schools have to be more, they have to be more than places of traditional learning. Because many of the kids who are dropping out and doing the wrong things are kids who find the traditional learning experience to be intimidating and degrading. And the way they deal with that, the way they’ve learned to deal is to shut it off. Rather than fail, they say, “I’m not gonna try; if I don’t try, I can’t fail.” And so they’re the kids that we lose.
We may have some educators on the call here tonight, but I really, I really want people to reimagine education. We’ve built society around three basic pillars: family, church, and school. And right now, especially in our poor neighborhoods, we’ve only got one standing. Our families are bare, badly fractured. Churches are empty. And to the extent that they’re not, they’re empty of teenagers. And so the only place we can get to kids is in school. Rather than, rather than the traditional role of school, we have to start thinking about having professionals who deal with them at a level where it’s most needy, where there are deficits and problems, things that a professional can recognize.
Now, how do we how do we convey value to these kids? What is it that we can get them to do in schools, where they just start feeling better about themselves as human beings and not torment them by giving them quadratic equations to learn. Our kids don’t have to be the smartest kids in the world to succeed in life, they just have to learn to feel good about themselves, and exercise their brains learn how to use their minds, because if that tool is sharpened, it’s going to be effective later on in life. They don’t have to be bludgeoned with testing, and test scores.
And I would like to, and I would like to make a pitch. Honestly, I would like to say that one of these days we stopped busing our kids all over the place. I think it has devastated our community, well intentioned as it was. The idea that you take kids from city to nine or ten different schools around the county on a bus forty minutes the other side of the city, in a place where they don’t have friends and infrastructure and social supports, where their parents don’t know anybody – where their parents, by the way, in many cases don’t have a car to get there, to go to the game ,to go see the teachers and do all the things that we’d like them to do.
I’m not saying that these are easy choices. I’m saying we took we made a bad choice. I don’t have to blame anybody, though I kind of blame people for it is that nobody would own this 10 years, 15, 20 years in. And here we are, we’re still in a place where we’re struggling to figure out what we’re doing. But I do know that the kids, kids in the city would be better off in a place where they said, Here’s my identity. Here’s my friends. You know, my parents, my friend’s parents are watching me when my parents aren’t that kind of that kind of infrastructure is not there. And it’s I think it’s hurt us badly. And I hope, I hope that in this term, I’ll be able to talk about it much more. It’s complex. We’ve got these schools, these school boards and these, these school districts that are very territorial by now they figured out how to do it.
We got the charter schools in the vortex, and our public schools are leaking talent because they go to all these other places. And what we left with are the kids who got the biggest problem. So we’re not managing very well.
Lindsey: What is a President Biden’s declaration of a major disaster in Delaware mean for Wilmington?
MayorPurzycki: The folks who were affected by the Brandywine flowing would be the ones that would be eligible for something, as would the folks on the east side who got who got pretty beat up during this thing, you know, six feet of water, and they’re in their houses and basements. But my understanding is that it it’s still an open question, if there’ll be any relief for homeowners or any residential dwelling. That’s not been resolved yet.
Benjamin: What your leadership takeaway is, from this experience of managing the city through a pandemic?
MayorPurzycki: Earlier today, somebody came to me said, “You don’t have the sunny disposition you used to have.” I have a much more optimistic view of the pandemic, all of a sudden. I think that as difficult as it has been, I think, as we work our way through it, we’re going to wind up with a better society or changed society.
I read a book by Scott Galloway called, “Post Corona.” And the thesis of the book is, is that ten years of change got compressed into one year. And you just got to see all the things that are changing, you know? Working remotely. Who would ever who would ever say it’s okay? “Yeah, sure, go work out.” Now suddenly, you tell somebody they got to come to work, they’re probably going to start looking somebody else. And, you know, another employer and so now people are making room for work at home.
We’re having a conversation about is childcare the kind of allowance we ought to be make to our employees? If that’s at all possible, we really wouldn’t have done that before. Telemedicine. It’s not It’s not nonsense anymore. I mean, Hello Doc, you know, here I am. Here’s the rash. What do you think what I what should I do? That stuff we never would have imagined before.
I find it pretty exciting. I kind of like the idea that I like the idea that people who are making next to nothing are now in a position to demand a little bit more money, so they can actually have a summer some decent life. I am not the progressive and liberal end of my party. On some ways, I think I probably am. But this isn’t an ideological, wacky guy, you’re talking to you. I’m just saying people who work hard just ought to have a, they ought to have a halfway decent life. I mean, they just shouldn’t be impoverished despite working as hard as they do. And so, you know, I think making accommodations for all these things is healthy for all of us.
If we can get through the political, you know, earthquake that we’re going through, learn to be a little civil, I think it’s a much better world when we get through this. So, you know, here I am, Mr. Sunny!