[The following is reprint for Charley’s story in the 2012 Newcomers Guide. Since this writing the Commons has been entirely renovated.]
For those of you who are newly-arrived, it’s probably best that you know right up front that we’re really still figuring out what Ithaca is all about. In Hegelian terms, there’s still a lot of the thesis and antithesis and not a so much of the synthesis going on. Here are some of the more important struggles…
The Commons. The Commons, Ithaca’s signature venue and the heart of our fair city, is riddled with paradoxes. One the one hand you have well-preserved 19th-century buildings. There’s a steadily-shifting kaleidoscope of quirky shops and restaurants, but no anchor store. It’s both a tourist attraction and a magnet for the loud and foul-mouthed.
Is Ithaca Rural or Urban? Yes. Yes, it is. Connecting to other population centers requires a firm commitment and a stout heart. Road connections are generally clear, except from October to May, but overland travel requires a minimum caravan of twenty wagons and an experienced guide. There’s always our regional airport, serviced by three airlines, at least two of which are flirting with bankruptcy at any given time. And five minutes from downtown puts you in open fields.
On the other hand … there’s great coffee, a lot of stores, superior restaurants, art house movies, a very decent music scene, a little blight, racial tension, and a respectable homeless population.
Locavore Lovefest or Big Box Bonanza? Our Farmers’ Market is a destination, yet people flock from surrounding counties to cruise the big stores on Route 13. There are many who won’t eat food produced farther away than you can throw a softball, and others who will purchase nothing that hasn’t traveled in a cargo container across at least one ocean. People walk out of Northside Liquor store with garboons of California wine, even though Ithaca is less than half an hour from a dozen excellent wineries.
Town and Gown. Bud Light is the best-selling beer in town, yet you stand a better than even chance of standing next to someone who actively celebrated the discovery of the Higgs boson when filling up at the Hess station. We’re known as America’s Most enlightened City (Utne Reader), one of the ten Lesbian friendliest cities in the USA (Girlfriends Magazine), the ‘greenest city’ in the country (Country Home Magazine) and one America’s five best mountain biking towns (Bike Magazine), but if it weren’t for the colleges, we’d be less famous than Watkins Glen.
There’s More… Ithaca’s located on the south end of Cayuga Lake, yet there’s no real waterfront!
Ithaca was recently selected by the American Institute for Economic Research as America’s No. 1 college town … even though bars close at 1 a.m.!
Aurora Street is known for its al fresco dining in a climate where a parka is recommended eight months of the year!
Ithaca prides itself on being the first home to the film industry, yet no A-list movie star has spent more than 12 hours in town since Lionel Barrymore stayed overnight in the drunk tank in 1920!
We pride ourselves on being all about the environment, but the city is riddled with superfund sites.
It’s an architecturally diverse city for its size, with a lot of public spaces, but by far the coolest places within city limits are breathtakingly primeval and natural — the gorges.
It’s a lot to take in, right after arriving. Probably an early priority should be selecting not a favorite coffee shop or the best restaurant, but a favorite creek. Buttermilk’s a good choice, especially if you like Enfield Shale. Cascadilla’s got that late Devonian cachet, Six Mile Creek has a kind of dangerous edge to it and Fall Creek’s got great rapids, if you’re not afraid of lead. Your choice will say a lot about you to other Ithacans.
Anyway, welcome. And feel free to weigh in with your two cents on any issue as soon as you feel settled. We don’t stand on ceremony here. Paradoxically, we’re an old community with a constant stream of new arrivals! §