You can call me an Ithacan. Heck, you can even call me a townie. This past December I took a job at Cornell after spending many years away. Getting to work here and return to Ithaca was on my bucket list for many years. As I started sharing the life story of what brought me here, I noticed a pattern emerge as I got to the part of my story that related to being raised here in Ithaca, N.Y. This fact about my life seems to elicit the most extreme reactions from otherwise courteous and kind colleagues on the staff and faculty. My Ithacan identity or “townie-ness” turns even the most accomplished of folks into New Jersey nightclub comedians; they spew routines such as, “Did you hear the one about the Ithacan?” or “This place is so bad that …” and the punch lines are followed by an all-too-pleased laugh-at-their-own joke refrain.
At first when I heard these things I really thought people were being witty and ironic about being overly negative, a sort of generally understood absurdist humor. It took me a while to realize this was a “thing” around Cornell. Eventually, I stopped being surprised, though it has taken me until now to articulate a response to it.
I know you’re asking, “What did they say?” Here are some of the more vanilla statements: “I’m so sorry you had to grow up here,” this one always surprises me, as if I am wearing some sort of damaged childhood on my forehead. Then there is, “Why the heck would you come back?” I got that a number of times and it seems to go along with a, “that must’ve been pretty hard, good for you in making it,” and was followed by a pat on my shoulder. The backhanded compliments: “but you seem so intelligent” and most recently someone commented, “But you’re so well traveled!” and the “Well I’m glad you got to leave, because, you know.” Finally, there are the high school cracks, I seem to get many versions of this one, I’ve been told, “I didn’t know anyone graduated from Ithaca High?” and “I didn’t know anyone really went there who works here.” You get the idea. I’m writing this article in part because it is getting boring hearing these quips, especially because, not only are they so out of line with my experience, but they conflict so severely with how fellow Ithacans regard the premiere employer Cornell.
Criticism is normal, it is healthy because it helps you reimagine or move forward to recreate. It is part of the intellectual process of grasping the complex. However, actively criticizing the place that you live in to others and jeering the population may give you a temporary and brutal pride in knowing what you dislike, but that state is fleeting. I saw this first hand years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer. Many volunteers waltz into the country and say “this place sucks” and spend some amount of time trying to move past that negativity. Many never think to see how their attitude impacts others. I see negativity towards Ithaca and Ithacans in the same light — as contrary to the spirit of community and harmful not only to the individual but the family that lives with them.
That being said, criticizing where you live is going to happen but something seems so, I don’t know, so over the top as I’ve encountered it. So trite and wrong headed. I hate to break it to you but Cornell is in Ithaca — that won’t change. Ezra Cornell was a smart guy; he picked this place for a reason. Take a look around: there’s majestic natural beauty, there’s that lake and over a hundred waterfalls within 10 miles of downtown. Add that to great coffee, good music, a diverse community, markets, more restaurants per capita than New York City, book stores, more than a dozen places to do yoga, the potential to purchase property and the list goes on. I know it isn’t Gotham but this is hardly backwater. That’s not all though, Ithaca is much more than gorges and it is much more than what happens on the hills: This community actively practices in and believes in diversity and protecting the natural environment, so it isn’t a bad place to raise a family.
Finally, the staff, as opposed to the faculty, is made up of many more locals who have spent their lives working and building this community. Some never left, and I admire them for that because they showed a dedication and love for the community and their families by staying. When this negativity is expressed, it is felt by the people, who conduct research, take out your trash, process your forms, answer your phone, and lecture in the classrooms. We are proud, very proud to be employed by Cornell and our families are proud of us for achieving what has been for some of us a lifetime goal. We have spent our life proud of Cornell growing up here. We took friends of the family to campus, cheered for CU hockey, noted new buildings while admiring the architecture, traded thoughts on Rhodes’ speeches, Dalai Lama visits and shared the story about the pumpkin. We’re proud of Cornell and we wish that you could be proud of Ithaca or at least give it a shot.