The Urban “Renewal” of Ithaca

1 02 2011

So, the Cornell Alumni Magazine latest issue caught my attention. Its feature article, “Through a Glass, Darkly“, is a feature about visiting professor Mark Iwinski’s artistic work of superimposing photographic stills of Ithaca streetlife from decades past over the contemporary appearance of those locations today. Which, falling in line with my addiction to interest in local architecture in a historical context, was a worthy read.

The most obvious thought after reading it is that history has not been kind to Ithaca. It hasn’t been kind to the downtowns of many older cities and towns in the Northeast. From the late 1940s to the 1970s, “urban renewal” basically consisted of trying to suburbanize downtowns by tearing down underused structures, often pinning their hopes on one or two big projects. An example of its effects can be seen whenever you drive through I-81 in Syracuse –  in 1957, Syracuse’s primary African-American neighborhood (the 15th ward) was town down to make way for the interstate, which effectively cut off Syracuse University from downtown and contributed to the emptying out of that city.

Image property of syracuse.com

As the article mentioned, Ithaca fared better than its peers. First of all, in 1968, Route 13 was supposed to become a limited-access highway connection from Horseheads, through Ithaca and to I-81 in Cortland. However, the project lost state and local support, and the only portion completed was the three-mile section that leads north out of Ithaca to just past the Cornell Business Park in Lansing. So there weren’t large expressways bisecting the city.

Secondly, although Ithaca was fairly rundown by the 1970s, the preservationist movement also started to gain momentum around that time by saving the Dewitt Mall (the old high school) and the Clinton House from demolition. In a way, it could be said that when the Cornell Public Library was torn down in 1959, and gas stations started replacing Victorian homes near downtown, that the Ithaca preservationist movement was really born. However, as the article shows, not every structure could be saved; the Colonial old city hall was torn down around 1970 to make room for the Seneca Street parking garage. The original Hotel Ithaca, which dated from 1871, was torn down 95 years later and eventually replaced by the Rothschild’s Building, which in an ironic twist of fate the building was vacated by its primary occupant because they complained it was too old and inefficient. The Rothschild’s Building is slated to be renovated into residential units.

So Ithaca has a relatively intact downtown thanks to early preservation efforts, and with further redevelopment and infill, the city has enjoyed a better aesthetic appearance than most of its regional peers. For the record, although I am strongly pro-development, I don’t think preservation is a bad thing. It has its merit and each case has to be considered in all its pros and cons on an individual basis.

On a final note, progressive and meticulous Cornell is by no means an innocent party. Back in the 1990s, the university and the town of Ithaca engaged in several contentious meetings because the university was seeking to expand north campus with the Residential Initiative in the late 1990s. The decision in itself wasn’t a problem, but the decision to tear down one of the oldest farmhouses in the county was. Eventually, a deal was worked out where the Cornell and the NPO Historic Ithaca would have the building, known as the Cradit-Moore house, trucked up Pleasant Grove Road .3 miles (in one piece no less) and built onto a new foundation. Cornell wrote off the moving cost and Historic Ithaca sold the house to a private owner to write off the costs of building a new foundation. In case you were wondering, this is how  “Cradit Farm Road” on North Campus received its name.

The article was a good read, I enjoyed it immensely. It reminds me that while we continue to develop new assets, we shouldn’t turn a blind eye and wantonly demolish what we already have. Otherwise, it might be as empty as the lots behind Dr. Iwanski’s photographic stills.


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