The Times They Are a-Changin’

3 11 2015

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A little less fact and a little more opinion with this week’s Tuesday post.

I postponed what I originally had planned because of a few things coming together at once. One, a post from Kathy Zahler at the Dryden Daily Kaz alleging ageism at work in the 4th District county legislature race, and this piece on the ever-evolving character of New York’s East Village from the Sunday New York Times.

In the 4th District race, you have a 19 year-old candidate, and a 56 year-old candidate, both Ithaca natives. Reading their views on the issues, one can’t find a whole lot of differences, but the “he’s just a kid” type of comment raises its ugly head. I don’t claim to know why people vote the way they do, nor do I feel it appropriate to do endorsements. People will vote how they want. But it would be a real disappointment if age were being used as the deciding factor.

It reminds me a lot of an Ithaca adage that people want Ithaca to look and feel exactly as it did when they moved here, or felt most in their element here. Which ties in pretty well to this NYT piece from last Sunday.

“When I asked nostalgic people to name the street’s golden era, they cited a range of years — often falling between 1960 and 1982, but sometimes 1945, or 1958, or 2012.”

Likewise, everyone has their own idea of Ithaca’s “Golden Era”, and when it ended. For many of the city’s oldest or most conservative residents, and for many older folks in the surrounding towns, it was when the Commons opened in 1974/75. It has just as much to do with the Commons itself as what the Commons represents – when Ithaca turned leftist. Up until the early 1970s, the city and county were run by Republicans. But, due mostly to the large influx of largely singleminded faculty at IC and Cornell in the late 1960s and 1970s, and a trend towards rentals in the city (then as now, students/young voters tend to be more liberal), the area started voting more and more Democrats into office. The last Republican mayor of Ithaca (Bill Shaw) left office in 1983. The last alderperson (Bob Romanowski), 1993. The national trend towards the right didn’t help, as Northeast Republicans generally trend to the moderate side. The Commons was a product of Democrat Ed Conley’s administration, and it’s often seen as a congregation site for social activists and crunchy boutique stores – head shops, organic specialty items, and the like. So it’s not hard to imagine why the Commons receives so much criticism, because for those who saw Ithaca’s best days as Republican ones, its opening signified the beginning of the end.

You could go down any street and get a variety of numbers – for the more blue-collar folks, the end of the Golden Era might be 1983 (when Smith-Corona shut down most operations and BorgWarner Morse moved to Lansing), 1986/87 (when Ithaca Gun moved out), or 2011 (when Emerson Power laid off its last local staff). For those who have clung to the misguided image of Ithaca as a small town where nothing bad happens, the Ellis Hollow murders in 1989, or the stabbing death of IPD Officer Padula in the line of duty in 1996, might be when Ithaca’s Golden Age came to a close, and it became to them an alien, dangerous place. Still others will say Ithaca’s Golden Age closed when Wal-Mart opened (2005), when Cornell turned to the lake for its cooling needs (2000), or this year, when Moosewood decided to go national.

The point is, Ithaca’s “Golden Era” ended at a different time for everyone; for some it’s still going.  That’s because the community is always changing, evolving, remaking itself into something different from what it was.

“If you’re complaining about the East Village, or New York in general, being dead, I think it’s worth considering the possibility that, yes, it is over — for you. But for plenty of others, the city is as full of potential and magic as it was in 1977. Or 1964. Or 1992. Or whenever you last walked down the street and felt like it belonged only to you.”

One of the things that I find bothersome is when one prefaces a comment with “I was born here in 1953/I moved here in 1977/I bought my house in Fall Creek in 1983…”. It doesn’t make one more “correct”, it doesn’t mean one’s opinion should have extra weight. For a community that prides itself on being so cosmopolitan for its size, bragging about the decades one has been in one place suggests insularity and close-mindedness. It’s like saying the community isn’t allowed to change without one’s explicit permission.

My exposure to it is mostly from the perspective of development. Almost always, it’s how they’ve lived here for decades, and something will ruin the character of a neighborhood. People don’t like anything that impacts the feel of a place, which can be something major like the physical appearance of a new house or apartment building, or something more subtle, like the type of resident moving in. But as communities go, character was never intended to be a static object. That’s why you’ll have a building built in 1926, next to a pair of houses built in 1880, just west of an office built in 1972, and across the street from a building built in 2005.

The average Tompkins County legislator is well into their 50s; the county’s average age is 30. Some might see a 19 year-old too young for office, I see a kid with a lot of potential and desire to work for his community.

“Walking along St. Marks Place now, I see young New Yorkers having their moment, living their own Technicolor years. To afford to be here in 2015, they may have trust funds or three jobs or their bedroom may be a friend’s brother’s couch in Ridgewood. Yet here they are at midnight, breaking up with their first boyfriend on the same corner where ’50s poets went to jazz concerts, ’60s radicals handed out fliers, ’70s punk rockers skulked on stoops, ’80s artists plotted their assault on the art world and ’90s skateboarders did kick-flips….Who understands the soul of any place? Who deserves to be here? Who is the interloper and who the interloped-upon?”

Ithaca is always transforming. People are born, they grow up, they age, they die, they move in, they move out. New thoughts awaken and old ways of thinking fade to the background. Change will happen, welcomed or otherwise. But at least if it’s welcomed, there’s the opportunity to guide it.

 

 

 


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3 responses

3 11 2015
Here in Van Nuys

Very wise commentary. I read the same article you did about St. Mark’s Place in NYC, written by Ada Calhoun and published in The New Yorker (10/30/15).
What was the golden time of any time? Why of course it was the youth of the person doing the reminiscing.

3 11 2015
CS PhD

This observation is one reason the anti-development mindset (aka NIMBYism) frustrates me so much. When people say “we shouldn’t build this, it will ruin the character of the neighborhood,” what they’re really saying is “everything needs to stay exactly the same as it was when I got here, because that’s when it was best.” But they’re forgetting that everyone’s idea of the “golden era” of the neighborhood or town is pretty much defined by when they happened to arrive, and other people’s ideas of the neighborhood’s “character” are going to be different depending on what state it was in when they got there. If everyone says “the town/neighborhood must stay the same as it was when I arrived,” there’s no possible way for everyone to be satisfied. Asserting that your particular recollection of the neighborhood’s golden age is the one that needs to be preserved, and not anyone else’s who arrived at a different time, strikes me as arrogant.

3 11 2015
Ex-Ithacan

I think the Golden Era occurs many times in a person’s life as one’s outlook on life and the circumstances change. Of course looking back into the past tends to make one recall more of the fond memories than the bad times.
Being an old guy, I tend to recall the Ithaca of my youth with good feelings. But I still want more talls downtown and greater density.

With that said you can all GET OFF MY LAWN!!!!!

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