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Commons Concerns-

Updated: Jul 2


An essay on the Ithaca Commons- Brian Keeler

This Commentary published in The Ithaca Times- July 10, 2024


As I've been on the Commons in Ithaca for about nine months now, as a gallery owner, this is a fair incubation period to appraise the supposedly pedestrian-friendly concourse.  It is good time to think about the gallery here too.



Above- During the Ithaca Festival motorized vehicles, skateboards, bicycles and others were riding unimpeded on the Commons in Ithaca,


The Commons has  long appealed to me for the vision of those who initiated it. I imagine that the idea met some pushback in the early 1970's when it was proposed.  There are always naysayers.  It was and is a progressive venture that supports a automobile-free area. It repurposed an historic area to revitalize a central area of town. I recall that a fellow I knew back in the day who was spearheading an effort to make all of downtown Ithaca a vehicle-free area, like some European cities.  His petition effort did not take.


My concern here is with the safety of pedestrians but also with the overall vibe and civility of the commons as a place welcoming to locals and visitors.   To cut to the chase, instead of a place for relaxed walks and shopping, one could assume the area had been designated as a zone for any and all types of wheeled devices.     Skateboards, bicycles, and motorized bikes of all types have free reign unhindered by any type of enforcement.  Yes, there are some small signs at the entrance to the Commons stating the prohibition, but these go unheeded.


The recently completed Ithaca Festival brought the dangers of mixing vehicles and pedestrians into high relief.  There were thousands of people on the Commons during the festival weekend.  And there were also packs of skateboarders, as if a contest or convention were officially underway.  A gaggle of fans had gathered on benches as a couple of skateboarders did dangerous acrobatics.  With throngs coursing around the exhibitor's tents, one fellow thought it in good form to do wheelies on his bike for a hundred yards through the crowds.  He's done this on more than one occasion.


One can wonder where is the enforcement of codes for public safety.  Well, as if to underscore the vague idea of these laws against bicycles and motor vehicles,  I recently saw a fellow with "Security" emblazoned on his back riding a bike on the Commons. Are police on bicycles flaunting the law?  I've seen cops walking in pairs or individually on the Commons with apparently no interest in enforcing the ordinance.


I asked one of the long-time merchants what her opinion was of the situation.  She laughed in exasperation as she stated that it makes her livid.  But what to do, she said.  The situation has apparently been brought up at public meetings but to no avail and with little or no action taken.



Above- Skateboarders abounded during the Ithaca Festival on the Commons.


One might think it is just the youth that are the scofflaws here.  But I've seen professional looking adults freewheeling through the commons at all hours.  The most dangerous aspect is when they zip past on fast-moving electric bikes or other modes close to the doors of shops.  A shopper could easily step into the path of one of these speedsters. 


Amsterdam comes to mind as having similarities to Ithaca. We've visited the city in Holland several times, most recently last year. Amsterdam is very progressive in many ways and the use of bicycles is a great effort in thwarting the use of polluting traffic. But one local warned us that bicycles there can be more dangerous to pedestrians than cars are. Then the ubiquitous wafting smells of pot offer another similarity between the two cities.  Perhaps the topic of cannabis is a more contentions issue, but there are packs of imbibers that spend the better part of a full day on benches on the commons.  Hmm. is this a good thing? I've seen some ink spilled in the local press about the community aspect of cannabis. Seems to me that touting the community benefits of so many headshops and dispensaries is overstated boosterism. More accurately it is more indicative of something out of balance. Then there is the ordinance about smoking (tobacco) on the Commons- but somehow pot smoking is allowed.  Finally, there is the unbridled consumption of alcohol.  Open containers and trash left behind are part of the mix.


And what about sound ordinances? I know there used to be a protocol for buskers to apply for performing on the Commons. But those mentioned above are not shy about having boom boxes blaring as well.


People have come in the gallery speculating about their own safety and whether the lack of civility deters people from coming to the Commons.  Seems like a legitimate concern to me.


When I first opened a kiosk in the brand new Center Ithaca back in 1981 the Commons was much more regulated in a good way.  The idea of a central market area also harkens back to the similar areas in Italian towns; their piazzas.   These are wonderful areas in the center of towns for all ages to come out in the evening for a passegiata - the Italian word for a leisurely walk.  Conversations and civility abound in these areas woven into the bricks and mortar of the medieval towns.  This tradition seems to be sadly missing in most American towns.  As a point in fact, marking the misappropriation of the term, a building was constructed in Towanda, PA near my hometown and it is dubbed Progress Plaza.  Is has no plaza and and perhaps no progress either.


We see all the high-rises going up on and around the Commons and think wistfully of lost architectural gems that once stood here. The character of the town is seriously undermined by the brutalist architecture. An artist friend noted, that a previous mayor saw no development project that he didn't like. All this for the appeal of population density. Whatever happened to public planning?


The Commons areas of other towns and small cities come to mind when considering our own area. Boulder, Colorado is a city with similarities to Ithaca, including the central pedestrian shopping area .  Some recent visits to Charlottesville, Virgina showed another town similar to Ithaca with a vital commons area.  It was thriving with commerce when we visited this winter.  Many restaurants had dining areas roped off in the center their commons and they were filled with diners.


Ok- I've vented.  Still,. I like being a shopkeeper and gallerist here in Ithaca.  It is great to meet so many people; locals and those visiting from afar.   Our building dates from 1865 and I like this connection to the past. Our promo card states that we've become part of a vibrant downtown art scene.  The First Friday events and the Ithaca Art Trail are indeed wonderful community expressions that offer a great overview of artists and studios, often with music, poetry and other events.


We are planning new shows and are hoping to be a part of the Commons for some time to come. Susan Titus, who owned a gallery on the other end of the Commons, where I showed my work, opened her gallery with the idea of being there for one Christmas season.  She stayed for the better part of two decades.  Maybe this venture will pan out similarly. 

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