by James Rada, Jr. | photography by Will Hutchison
York Mayor Michael Helfrich grew up in West York, but he spent a good portion of his life moving from city to city across the country. However, York called him back in 2001, and he was elected mayor in 2017. In that office, he looks to the present and future of the city, but he also feels connected to its roots through his home, which is the oldest owner-occupied house in the city.
“Thomas Paine stayed here when he came to York to research in April and May of 1778,” said Helfrich. Paine, the political activist and patriot, is most famous for writing “Common Sense”, which advocated independence for the original 13 colonies.
York has been many things over 278 years since the settlement was first laid out: farm town, seat of federal government, industrial giant, dying urban center, and now, resurgent 21st-century city. It’s the home of nearly 44,000 Pennsylvanians as it grows into the 21st century.
Home to mainly Germans and Scots-Irish, York was also known as Yorktown into the 19th century. You can still find some of those early family names among present-day families, and some of the founding families still have descendants among the current residents of York, even if their surnames may have changed over the years because of marriage.
“You can say a York County name, and you automatically know it’s a York County name if you’re from this area,” said June Lloyd, York County History Center librarian emerita.
Perhaps the highlight of York’s history was when it was the capital of the federal government.
“Congress met here for nine months in 1777 and 1778,” Lloyd said. “It is where we got the news of the first major victory of Colonial troops at Saratoga, and the Articles of Confederation were adopted here.”
The Articles of Confederation were the United States’ forerunner to the Constitution. In fact, the first time the words “United States” were used was in the Articles of Confederation, so the first time this country was referred to by its current name was in York. Because of this, some people refer to York as the “First Capital of the United States.”
During the Civil War, York was the largest Northern city occupied by Confederate troops. This happened in late June 1863, when Maj. Gen. Jubal Early took the town and commandeered food, supplies, clothing, shoes, and money from York businesses and citizens.
Helfrich points out that city also has a rich architectural history.
“You can see 13 different types of architecture within a couple blocks,” he said. He added that he knows of a professor from Washington, D.C., who brings his students to study York’s architecture.
York became a city in 1887 as it grew towards its peak population of nearly 60,000 in 1950.
A variety of industries, such as the York Motor Car Co. and the Pfaltzgraff Co., fueled the city’s growth. When the country entered World War II, York industries led the country in showing how they could retool and repurpose their businesses to aid the war effort.
“Then by the 1970s, with the growth of highways, a lot of people moved to the suburbs, taking a lot of our walkable jobs with them,” Helfrich said.
The population fell to just below 41,000 in 2000, but it has once again started growing.
“We are a very historic city that is creating our place in the 21st century,” Helfrich said.
That involves attracting both businesses and families back into the city. The low cost of living (17 percent lower than Philadelphia and 40 percent lower than Washington, D.C.) coupled with amenities that people seek, such as restaurants, arts, cultural venues, create a city where people will live.
However, it is the availability of good jobs that make them want to live here. According to Andrew Staub with Downtown York, the city’s affordable commercial spaces and skilled labor pool attract businesses.
“We have continued to grow our small business community, with more than 150 businesses opening or expanding within the downtown during the last four years,” Staub said. “We would love to see more growth in occupied office space within the downtown. We are seeing this trend grow as business owners realize their employees can have a higher quality of work experience within the downtown.”
Helfrich noted that the city is also working to rebuild neighborhoods hurt when jobs left the city years ago. A third of the city has been placed in federal opportunity zones that encourage major business investments in old, impoverished neighborhoods.
“I want to bring walkable jobs back to York,” Helfrich said.
He believes that as jobs that are close enough for employees to walk to come back to the city, the neighborhoods where the jobs are located will find financial stability, and that will reduce problems like poverty and crime.
“People appreciate a diverse community that shares a quality of life that’s remarkably affordable, close to nature and accessible to nearby Baltimore and Philly,” Staub said. “In one minute, you can be enjoying the historic charm of a walkable city, and the next you can be enjoying a scenic ride on the York County Heritage Rail Trail, which runs through the heart of Downtown York.”
What the Future Holds
“We’re becoming a hot spot for young folks interested in tech manufacturing,” Helfrich said.
While many York business names, such as Harley-Davidson, Dentsply, and York International, are known around the world, York also is home to future large businesses that are only now just developing. Helfrich said that he had spoken with many mayors who lament that their towns help incubate a business, only to have it move on to a big city when the business grows. Helfrich wants York to grow with emerging businesses.
Tourism continues to grow in the city, as well.
“Downtown York’s historic-yet-hip vibe continues to make the city an attractive place to visit,” Staub said. “Not to mention events such as the Olde York Street Fair, Go Green in the City, Yorkfest, Fringe Fest, York City Bike Week, First Friday and more also bring thousands of visitors to the city each year.”
As York continues to grow and evolve, it hasn’t forgotten its roots. Last year, Downtown York launched a new branding campaign for the city that promoted this fact. The brand it came up with: “Historically Edgy.”