Ithaca, New York: Our Kind of Town

A gritty upstate city where the grassroots are green


| May-June 1997



There’s a faintly penciled line of graffiti in the men’s room at the DeWitt Mall in downtown Ithaca, New York, that reads: “Places for graffiti like this provide a forum for people who otherwise might not be able to express themselves!”

You’ve got to love a town where populist values are on display so openly-and so politely-even in the john. For that matter, you’ve got to love a town where a “mall” can be a converted high school, now occupied by a pair of scholarly bookstores (used and new), a shop that sells African drums, a world-famous vegetarian restaurant (Moosewood), and an array of alternative service providers ranging from bodywork to the office of a citywide arts festival. A town where the Chamber of Commerce lets its members pay part of their dues in a colorful local currency adorned not with dead presidents but with local heroes and indigenous animals. A town where the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute puts on an exhibition of Tibetan paintings in an Elks club.

It’s the same story nearly everywhere you go in this college town of 30,000 (plus 20,000 students) at the southern end of Cayuga Lake in south-central New York. From the famous Ithaca Hours alternative currency system, a local form of money that’s accepted by hundreds of merchants, to EcoVillage, a housing community dedicated to practicing the values of environmental sustainability, Ithaca stands as the very model of the word alternative, which here is understood to mean a serious, thoughtful, powerful civic force with many faces and a strong inclination toward social inventiveness. The innovations coming out of Ithaca offer a worthy challenge to what one Ithacan I spoke to called “the business-as-usual crowd.”

And make no mistake, business as usual is part of the Ithaca scene too. There’s a strip-U.S. Highway 13 north of town-with a very unfunky mall (Pyramid) that wouldn’t be out of place in Anysuburb, USA. There’s sprawl, although local activists waged a 14-year struggle that finally stopped plans to put a four-lane highway through the city and fought for three years—successfully—to keep Wal-Mart away. There’s a small ghetto at the south end of Ithaca: “not a dysfunctional neighborhood, but a troubled one,” as another local told me. The Commons—a highly walkable two-block pedestrian mall that forms the core of downtown—has some vacant storefronts amid its lively mix of shops. And Cornell University, the Ivy League behemoth whose vast campus sits astride steep East Hill like a feudal castle compound, is both a powerful force for change (many “alternative” townies are Cornell spouses or alumni) and-as progressives who have fought to unionize the university and make it contribute its fair share to the municipal government will tell you-a bulwark of the status quo.

So, far from being a countercultural Eden where good vibes have solved all urban ills, Ithaca is a work in progress. What’s stunning about the place, though, is the sheer volume and quality of social innovation, pragmatic activism, spiritual seeking, open debate, and homemade and imported cultural fun that goes on here-in an atmosphere of robust local pride.

There’s a lot to be proud of, and to protect. Right in the middle of the Commons is a public sculpture, a big brick circle, around which, at the correct compass points, are many of the names you need to know to orient yourself in the Ithaca landscape: Cornell, of course (to the northeast), and South Hill (where Ithaca College sits), Buttermilk Falls, Inlet Island, West Hill, Cayuga Lake. Ithacans love and take advantage of their lucky perch between the brainpower of Cornell and the beauty of the surrounding hills. “From my house,” boasts Ithaca Hours founder Paul Glover, “I can walk four blocks in one direction and use the Cornell library—one of the biggest collections of information in the world—or go four blocks in the other direction and dive naked into a lake.”