Smedes York remembers riding by the all-black elementary school on Oberlin Road as a teenager. The campus was run down and shabby, nothing like the well-kept schools that served white students in Raleigh during segregation.
“I looked over and said to myself, ‘That just doesn’t look equal to me,’ ” York recalled.
York, 73, had a front-seat view of changes in Raleigh over the years. His father built the Cameron Village shopping center and served on the Raleigh school board that pushed for integration.
In 1977, York decided he also wanted to serve Raleigh, and he was elected to the city council. As mayor from 1979 to 1983, he pushed for growth.
York decided to pull together his memories of his beloved city for a new book, “Growing Up With Raleigh.” The author, historian John Lawrence Sharpe, will join York at Quail Ridge Books & Music on Sunday to talk about the self-published book.
It includes interviews with others, including some of York’s friends and former Raleigh City Council members.
York said the time was right to put his reflections into words.
“I just felt like so many things had changed, and frankly, I remembered so many of the details.”
Raleigh’s population was under 148,000 when York became mayor. The city now has more than 400,000, and the York family development business has been part of the commercial and residential growth.
Early on, York envisioned something great for downtown Raleigh. He said he wanted to serve on the city council partly because he felt some members wanted to halt growth.
Throughout the 1970s, he said, city leaders turned their focus to downtown. They knew a city’s core is crucial.
“It has a lot to do with the image of your city,” York said.
Downtown Raleigh didn’t truly flourish until years later. During York’s time in office, the city closed Fayetteville Street to traffic to create a pedestrian mall. The mall was often empty by late afternoon, when state employees headed home. Downtown began to see a rebirth when the city reopened Fayetteville Street to traffic and created the convention center, said Charles Meeker, mayor from 2001 to 2011.
Although York had long before left public office, he was never far away.
“He would call and say, ‘You’re doing exactly the right thing on Fayetteville Street,’ ” Meeker said.
York said he is “more than happy – I’m ecstatic” about the transformation of Raleigh’s downtown, where life no longer ends at 5 p.m. every day.
He’s hopeful for more downtown growth, along with redevelopment of Research Triangle Park. He’s also an advocate for a light rail transit system.
York looks forward to what Raleigh’s continued evolution will bring. But as he promotes the book, he’s taking time to look back.
Basketball was a big part of his life, and he played for Broughton High School and then N.C. State, where he studied civil engineering.
His father was also influential. A section of “Growing Up With Raleigh” features sayings from his dad, like this one: “Don’t worry about the competition. Take care of your own business, and let the competition worry about you.”
York said his favorite part of book is the first chapter, which describes a trip he took when he was 16. He and five friends set out in a 1957 Chevy station wagon on a cross-country tour, stopping in Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco and more.
They were supposed to be gone six weeks, but they returned after five. York was ready to be home.
Years later, he would be ready to come home again after a stint in the Army, serving in Korea for a year.
He grew up with Raleigh, and he had no intention of staying away for long.