Ithaca, Shmithaca

When you live in a college town, people on the street stay the same age as you get older. I moved to Ithaca to go to college. After graduation, I hung around for the cheap movies, the nearby forests and lakes, and a job at an “alternative” weekly that served students and a growing number of people like me, who chose to live in this beautiful place instead of chasing wealth in a big city. On perfect summer days, we would skinny-dip in the city’s reservoir, cook up a great dinner out of locally-grown ingredients, then dance off the calories in front of a R and B band. Our favorite sport was giving the local authorities a hard time. Our beat-up cars sported the bumper sticker that summed up our philosophy–“Question Authority”–and we hardly noticed as the years went by, because it was all so much fun.

Somewhere in the last two decades, however, my Question Authority friends and I became Ithaca’s authorities. We acquired marriages, mortgages, maternity clothes, and managerial jobs. We organized. We elected a Socialist Mayor and stocked the city council with his allies. When the local Gay and Lesbian Coalition joined the roadside litter collection program and I read their name on a road sign, I knew our victory was complete.

Still, progressive Ithaca is not quite the paradise we hoped for. Ithaca is a thriving city, but it was built on top of a gritty Upstate New York town. We progressives love to talk about the Commons, our downtown pedestrian mall. In the summer, tourists come from all over to buy crafts and designer clothes there. It’s a great place to meet people. Yet the retail anchor of Ithaca is not the Commons, but a discount store one block away. Woolworth’s doesn’t get publicity, but downtown would be dead without it.

Class divisions in Ithaca are extreme but rarely noticed. Just a few miles away from the manicured homes of Cornell University’s top administrators are 14-year-old single mothers living in trailers that have no running water. Medicaid pays for half of the county’s births. Even among the employed, there are clear dividing lines between the progressives–who almost always are connected to Cornell or Ithaca College by job, diploma, or family–and the townies, who are not.

I get pissed off when progressives take Ithaca for granted and ignore its problems. It burns me up when Ithacans blithely walk past crack houses to attend fund-raising vegetarian brunches for Tibetan exiles. I serve on the board of a land trust that has raised more than $160,000 to purchase a biodiversity preserve. It’s a beautiful piece of land in a desperately poor rural township. Some of the people who live next to it, can’t understand why we’re paying so much to keep the place from ever being developed. Rare plants are not their concern. They need jobs. They have a point.

And I’ll admit it embarrasses me a little that so many people here wear tie-dye shirts and funny hats, some wear humorless expressions and attend piss-in-the-wind protests, and some are consumed by their search for inner growth and personal fulfillment. The young ones are nice to have around, but the ones who are on the far side of 30 are troubling. They go from one relationship to the next, dragging their children behind them. They have skills, but can’t hold a job. They are Lost Boys and Girls, and Ithaca is their Never-Never Land.

I do have some sympathy for my old hippie friends, because some of the new things showing up in Ithaca aren’t pretty. Pointing out the old ways is a sure sign that you’re turning into an old crab, but sometime’s you’ve got to do it. Last week, I was nearly sideswiped by a speeding college boy with a buzz cut, driving a brand-new truck–a Range Rover!–with a bumper sticker that said “Mean People Suck.” He never looked back as he recklessly swept through a busy intersection just before the light turned red, talking on a cellular phone the whole time, leaving me fuming and feeling thoroughly puny. Get a cop and arrest that kid before he hurts someone! We have traffic laws for a reason, you know!

Still, I can’t help but say Ithaca is a wonderful place to live. As much as I complain about the city’s shortcomings, I miss it when I leave and I’m always grateful to be back. In fact, the tensions and contradictions of life here are also the things I love the most. Walk into the State Diner in the middle of the night, and you’re likely to see an old geezer smoking cigarettes and drinking black coffee, a dapper-looking police officer, two guys in suits talking real estate, and a graduate student reading Pushkin. Any of them would be happy to chat about what’s been going on around town? How can you beat that?

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