You could say that Ithaca is Exhibit A for the kind of society envisioned by America’s founding fathers. “People here are engaged,” reports Phyllisa DeSarno, the city’s deputy economic development director. “Everybody comes to city council meetings. There are all different kinds of opinions.”
At the Chamber of Commerce, membership services and public relations director Rob LaHood echoes the thought. “The thing that strikes me most is how everything is a big decision. Everyone chimes in on everything—and all these people have something to say.” In other words, it’s hard for a few politicians to foist unwanted laws on these engaged townspeople.
Sometimes, though rarely, a public meeting becomes the best show in town. DeSarno cites the legendary night when city officials were pondering an extensive upgrade to the road system between the main city and the hospital on the west side of the Cayuga Lake inlet. The proposed new road would have created faster access to the hospital and alleviated heavy traffic on another city street.
The project became “extremely controversial,” recalls Matthys Van Cort, then the city’s planning and development director. Environmentalists were especially concerned about damage to wooded land along the way. “Altogether,” Van Cort says, “there were too many meetings to count, maybe more than a hundred. This thing got argued to death.”
The most dramatic moment, though, was the arrival of a woman costumed with perky ears and big bushy tail. Championing all furry forest denizens, she seized the microphone and barked, “Who will speak for the squirrels?”
(Bottom line: The squirrels’ land was mostly preserved.)
Relocating to Ithaca, N.Y.
Citizen engagement spills over into other areas, such as the school system, a fact that has impressed David Evelyn, M.D., who relocated five years ago from Oneonta, N.Y., a smaller city about 85 miles east of Ithaca. “Our kids were getting bigger,” he says, “and we wanted a place that had good schools and was in upstate New York. My wife and I like outdoor activities, and we like upstate. Ithaca is a bigger, much more vibrant community. Oneonta is a college town with 5,000 students, and Ithaca is a college town with 30,000 students.”
Evelyn’s decision to relocate wasn’t lightly taken. He had worked as a family physician in Oneonta for 16 years, eventually taking on duties as vice president of medical affairs for the A.O. Fox Memorial Hospital. But he felt it was time to move on. “Oneonta was a great place when the kids were small, but for me, as an adult, Ithaca (offers more stimulation and activities),” he says. “And I wanted to expand into a different and bigger hospital.”
“There were other opportunities, but none of them was in the same caliber community as Ithaca. My wife and I wanted to make sure it was an area where we felt comfortable with our kids but still with a little bit of a small-town atmosphere.”
And there was the question of schools. “There is a Catholic grade school and a very small private school,” Evelyn explains, “but what impressed us is that everybody sends kids to public schools. Because academics are a focus here, the parents are very involved in the schools and they demand a high caliber from them.”
As a concrete example of parent participation, he cites the recent middle school musical and his daughter’s experience. A hundred young showmen were poised to perform in “Beauty and the Beast.” Others had assembled costumes, created sets and designed lighting—and then the show was cut from the school budget. That was when conscientious parents came to the rescue. “They raised enough money to support putting on that production,” Evelyn beams. “It was amazing to see that many sixth, seventh and eighth graders come together to put on a show that was very, very good.”
Almost like wooded versions of the Grand Canyon, the seemingly
ubiquitous chasms inspired the slogan “Ithaca is Gorges.”
While Evelyn was seeking a larger practice arena, Brian Bollo, M.D., and his wife, also a physician, were looking to relocate from the hubbub of the New York City area, where he grew up and was educated. Most recently, he had been practicing in Brooklyn, specializing in minimally invasive and bariatric surgery. The Bollos were also seeking a more congenial place to raise their children, now 4, 19 months and 5 months old. And, an equally large consideration, “I wanted to be in a hospital and more involved in a place where I could serve people instead of scrambling for patients,” Bollo explains.
The couple moved to Ithaca last August, where he joined Surgical Associates of Ithaca, associated with Cayuga Medical Center, the city’s sole hospital. “The commute is half an hour less each way,” he explains. “That’s an hour more to be with my family.” In fact, he adds, “Everything that you need is close by.”
Another pleasing aspect of his new town is that there’s “a lot of public space,” a considerable change from his previous population-heavy location.
The great outdoors of Ithaca
Geological rumblings thousands of years ago created a craggy natural Eden of deep chasms, a multitude of area waterfalls (more than 100, according to the Convention & Visitors Bureau) and, of course, Cayuga Lake, one of 11 in New York’s appealing Finger Lakes Region.
Almost like wooded versions of the Grand Canyon, the seemingly ubiquitous chasms inspired the slogan “Ithaca is Gorges.”
The 215-foot Taughannock Falls in the state park of the same name (pronounced Tuh-GAN-ick) tops Niagara Falls by three stories and thunders into a gorge. Another, Cascadilla Gorge, takes its time, with several falls eventually descending a grand total of 400 feet. Cornell University students can find a quiet refuge near Fall Creek and the cascading Triphammer Falls. Several falls create tempting swimming holes at their feet.
The great outdoors doesn’t shut down with the onslaught of cold weather. As Evelyn puts it, “We decided that if you are going to live in the Northeast, you have to embrace winter. Ithaca has every kind of outdoor thing that you can imagine: cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, snowshoes, crampons for ice, ice skating, sledding…”
In summer, Cayuga Lake is temptingly near for Evelyn. “We got a canoe as a wedding present,” he says. Eventually, they added a sailboat to their inventory. “There are a number of places to put boats, so a lot of people have either motorboats or sailboats.” Winter or summer, it’s easy to make friends who share their enthusiasm for the great outdoors, he says.
Unfortunately, in his opinion, not every resident is so energetic. “With all the outdoor possibilities here,” he laments, “there still are many residents who choose to sit the winters out at home, a surefire way to court obesity.”
That was almost an open invitation for Bollo, who was working and had been trained in advanced laparoscopic techniques at Brooklyn’s Lutheran Medical Center under one of the country’s leading experts, Dr. George Ferzli. While Bollo’s expertise includes minimally invasive surgery in a number of areas, one of his great personal rewards, he says, comes from “the results you can achieve and the change in lifestyle” by using the newest techniques in bariatric surgery.
This availability so far has drawn patients from several area towns. It’s one example of the success of a strategic plan by the Cayuga team to add services that can make care more convenient for local patients, according to physician recruiter Ginny Olsen.
In line with that goal, reports Evelyn, “We’re trying to meet that desire—and demand—so that people here get the best care locally. Or, if it’s something they can’t get locally because we don’t have the volume to support it or because it’s a highly specialized thing, we decided, ‘Let’s develop a linkage with another facility that has that kind of high-end service so that they can get that treatment, making it as seamless as possible for the patient.’”
Cayuga Medical Center has taken on no fewer than 18 new physicians in the last two years, including three interventional cardiologists whose skills have made the hospital an accredited chest pain center. Last year it was approved by the New York State Department of Health to offer percutaneous cardiac intervention (PCI). These and other updates are designed to create “a systematic approach to doctors working as a team to minimize complications,” according to a hospital publication.
Upgrades are being made in several other areas, including new techniques and equipment for cancer care which, without any local increase in cancer, has brought “a steady increase in the number of cases treated locally.”
There’s been “a routine introduction of new surgical procedures” in the orthopedic area, too, accommodating the increasing number of sports participants, including middle-aged and older men and women.
In fact, a multi-phased renovation of the entire institution is now nearing completion.
To handle the growing demand for services, the search is on for pulmonologists, infectious disease specialists, OB/GYNs and internists, according to Olsen. She adds, “Physicians are not all employed by the hospital. Ithaca is also a thriving private practice center.” With 204 beds, CMC is now affiliated with 35 teaching and research institutions and 200 physicians.
All of the above, according to spokesmen, “underscores its evolution from an acute-care hospital to an integrated health community.”
Ditto for the city itself. After serving as America’s first woman cabinet member, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Frances Perkins moved to Ithaca to teach at Cornell. In a not-very-grateful assessment, she called the city “the most isolated place on the Eastern Seaboard.” This, in spite of the fact that the university was a flourishing—and renowned—center of learning. Even today, the closest I-road is half an hour away—though there are several regional highways leading into and out of town. There’s also an easily accessible airport with non-stop service to such hubs as New York, Philadelphia, Detroit and Newark.
Soon after the Revolutionary War, and after negotiations with resident Iroquois Indians, much of the area was set aside to reward veterans with land grants.
Most of them sold the grants to entrepreneurs like Simeon DeWitt, the state surveyor who envisioned the town as a shipping center for grain, coal and lumber to the East Coast. Trade was good—for a while.
A railroad stoked hopes for major commerce, but with the coming of the larger New York Central Railroad and the Erie Canal, Ithaca, as author Michael Turback puts it, “was left stranded midway between two trunk systems.”
Gradually, the town grew enough to become the county seat. Powered by local waterfalls, gristmills and other factories prospered.
Academic influence in Ithaca
But in 1828, the game changer literally walked into Ithaca. Ezra Cornell, a gangly 21-year-old, would found the precursor of the Western Union Telegraph Company and become wealthy enough to retire at 50. His next project was deciding how to use his money for the good of the community, starting with a free library.
The best was yet to come. In 1862, Cornell was serving in the New York State legislature, which had signed on to the U.S. Morrill Land Grant Act authorizing free land for agriculture and engineering colleges in various states.
He offered his 300-acre Ithaca farm as a site for what would become Cornell University.
Set atop one of Ithaca’s highest hills, the college opened on October 7, 1868, with 412 students.
Today, about 20,600 students attend. Its faculty and staff number more than 11,000, and there are 260 major buildings.
Starting in 1892, a second academic institution began sharing the limelight. Ithaca Conservatory of Music was the brainchild of William Grant Egbert, a homesick violin student in Europe who decided that Americans shouldn’t have to travel so far to perfect their skills. The conservatory soon began adding non-music courses such as dramatic arts and rhetoric. By 1931, when it became Ithaca College, the curriculum had multiplied. Settled on a modern campus since 1960, its enrollment of almost 7,000 includes students from 78 countries, 49 states and four territories.
Not surprisingly, the yearly economic impact is estimated at several hundred million, according to Rob LaHood at the Chamber of Commerce.
With a student body almost as large as the permanent population, it’s also no surprise that its lofty, progressive ideals have rubbed off on the city and that its heavily international student body has injected a cosmopolitan flavor into Ithaca life. The zeal for a better, simpler, healthier lifestyle manifests itself in all forms of environmentalism, including resources preservation, protection of nature, clean air restoration and healthy living in general.
One man who can be credited with injecting vigor into the population is Paul Glover, environmental organizer supreme. Among several incentives he spearheaded was a health care cooperative, the Ithaca Free Clinic, and a local currency called Ithaca Hours for use in an organized one-to-one work barter system. One of his stated goals was, “Ithaca will become the nation’s first 100 percent precycling and recycling city.”
Today, Ithaca College could be considered the poster child for that goal. In 2006, then president Peggy R. Williams signed the Talloires Declaration, a pledge by leaders at some 400 universities to work toward a sustainable future. About a hundred courses now meet UNESCO criteria for sustainable development, and the college offers interdisciplinary degrees in environmental science and studies. Campus facilities were renovated for energy efficiency, and two new buildings were designed for LEED certification, meeting the “highest principles of architectural sustainability.”
In one of New York State’s peculiar municipal configurations, the thriving City of Ithaca, with a land area of 6.17 square miles, is known locally as “the doughnut hole.” The “doughnut” is the Town of Ithaca, ballooning around it in an expanse of 29.1 square miles, most of which is farmland and an area of strong conservative conviction. This convergence of left and right would spawn another popular city slogan: “10 square miles surrounded by reality.”
The rural “reality” is a happy situation for city residents, especially for fresh-produce lovers. Fresh-from-the-trees fruits and berries abound at any number of pick-it-yourself locations. But most refreshing is a visit to the Ithaca Farmers’ Market.
A trip to the market can double as a social event for most Ithacans—and a place for the two “realities,” city and town, to meet, mingle and, at least for the moment, forget about their political differences.
Eileen Lockwood is a regular contributor to PracticeLink Magazine.
Wine, dine and learn!
During the college’s inaugural ceremonies in 1868, famed naturalist Louis Agassiz rhapsodized that “no other area could compete with Cornell University’s surroundings in opportunities to study natural history.”
A tradition of respecting gorges, waterfalls, ponds, forests, wetlands, meadows and arboretums had begun—and continues today.One striking example is the Finger Lakes Land Trust, a 1989 agreement among landowners to permanently protect acres and acres of scenic, wild and farmland areas of their property from future building development.Gorge trails and hiking trails abound in Taughannock, Robert H. Treman and Buttermilk State Parks, all short distances from Ithaca, plus a near mind-boggling number in nearby state forests and other areas including the lakefront, rails-to-trails conversions and nature center properties. In summer, guided gorge tours are available.
Although Ithaca is far enough south to escape the gargantuan snows of Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo, cross-country skiers can find enough of the white covering to keep them gliding on groomed trails. Ditto for sledding, ice skating and snowmobiling. Downhill ski resorts are a short drive away.
Golf, horseback riding and even skydiving and scuba diving are all thriving sports, too, as is fishing. Cayuga Lake is renowned for its trout.
Including and in addition to Ithaca’s natural attractions, a group of educational organizations, the Discovery Trail Partnership, includes eight compelling visitor sites. Among them are the Cayuga Nature Center, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Cornell Plantations.
Some 30 years ago, two would-be vintners tried growing European grape varieties on land near Keuka Lake (one of the 11 of the Finger Lakes). The experiment was such a success that it segued into no fewer than 90 wineries in the area today. Fifteen wineries, plus a hard cider producer, have joined forces in the Cayuga Wine Trail. Wine lovers can set their own itineraries, but group tours are also available, and there’s no shortage of special events.
Back in town, music and theater performances come by the hundreds (at least 450 concerts per year), thanks especially to Cornell University and Ithaca College. Many of the student and faculty presentations are free. Professional community offerings include chamber orchestra, vocal, ballet and baroque music ensembles. A mixture of drama, comedy, musical, opera and dance performances are the bailiwick of the city’s Kitchen Theatre Company, Ithaca College’s Theatre Arts department, and the Cornell University Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts. Summer fare is provided by the Hangar Theatre, actually housed in a former airplane hangar and in business since 1975.
Art connoisseurs in a buying mood can visit an astounding number of studios and galleries, including 53 aligned as part of the Greater Ithaca Art Trail.
And food lovers are in for a surprise, too. Tourism leaders boast that Ithaca hosts more restaurants per capita than New York City itself!
Ithaca by the numbers
Average high and low temperatures:
Average rainfall: 35.4 in.
Average snowfall: 67.3 in.
Days of sunshine: 188
Airport: Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport
Bus: Greyhound, New York Trailways
Roads: Several regional highways
COST OF LIVING:
Index (100 is avg): 102.9
Median household income: $27,939
Median home price: $173,200
Sales tax: 8 percent