Cayuga Waterfront Trail near NYSDOT facility

If I had three million dollars…

(Set to the tune of the Barenaked Ladies 1992 hit)

A few weeks ago a NYSDOT maintenance facility in Ithaca went up for auction with a starting bid of $2.85 million. You know it’s going to be special when there’s a fancy video!

The eight acre site is situated between the Ithaca Farmer’s Market and the Cornell Boathouse. It is surrounded on two sides by the Cayuga Waterfront Trail.

Efforts to relocate the NYSDOT facility off this prime real estate have been happening for at least twenty years. Whoever buys this is clearly not going to use it as a yard for road salt, dump trucks, and highway signs. (In case you’re curious, the maintenance facility is moving to a site near the airport.) A 2016 study [large PDF] looked into redevelopment options for the site.

By next week the winning bid should be announced, but it may take longer for details about redevelopment to emerge.

The site is a bit disconnected from Ithaca’s primary street grid – the only route for vehicular traffic is via 3rd Street. Crossing Route 13 on foot or bike at 3rd Street is a bit nerve-racking even when traffic is light. While there are crosswalks, due to the geometry of the intersection it takes a long time to cross the highway on foot.

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Thoughts on Historic Markers

Lately I’ve started to notice historic markers. I often see them when I am riding my bike on country roads. I wondered, who are these signs for and what purpose do they serve?

I started paying attention to these signs after noticing one for the Underground Railroad on Lower Creek Road in Freeville. Upstate New York was an important destination on the path to freedom from slavery. The sign in Freeville marked a specific home which provided refuge. Specifically, the sign read as follows:

UNDERGROUND
RAILROAD
HOME OF WILLIAM HANFORD
AND WIFE ALTHA C. TODD,
WHO SHELTERED FUGITIVE SLAVES
ON WAY TO CANADA AND FREEDOM

APHNYS

Unfortunately, most historic markers I’ve witnessed are less remarkable. These signs tend to commemorate events that have blurred into the background of history: ends of old turnpikes, sites of early churches, mills long demolished. These markers tend to blend together as they reinforce dominant concepts in American history: European settlement of the American interior, the growth of industry, etc.

Historic markers are subtle cues to the stories that society has accepted and deemed important. They literally embed a narrative in the landscape for future generations to digest. Like statues, historic markers serve as a showcase for the values and beliefs of those who install them.

While historic markers don’t have the symbolic significance of large monuments, they deserve critical attention in my opinion. These signs tell us about the people whose stories mattered. In my experience, these markers too often reflect a history focused on the accomplishments of white people, men, and Christian congregations. People who do not identify with these groups will likely find it hard to understand how their past intersects with local history.

A new historic marker for the Alex Haley birthplace was recently installed in the City of Ithaca. I found it encouraging to see his story officially included as a part of the city’s history. However, this event also reminded me that there is much, much work left to address how racism in the past continues to echo into our present day.

In my view, a historic marker should cause its readers to pause and reflect on their role in history. It can be challenging to confront some facts about the past – particularly when we find our community’s history painful or our ancestor’s history repulsive. However, I think this reflexive discomfort is an important step to acknowledging uncomfortable truth and a prelude to taking meaningful action to address injustice.

Changing historic markers alone will not make our future more just, peaceful, or equitable. Like statues, monuments, and public art, these signs represent a small piece of our cultural consciousness. However, these signs are unique as they are physically attached to the earth and officially authorized by local historians (and often local governments). Their messages and placement are signals to the values which we continue to deem important.

New House

It’s funny how some things that ought to be celebrations can feel so distressing.

A week ago we bought a house in Ithaca, NY. We are extremely fortunate to be able to afford a home in this city. This is a place where lots of people want to live – and housing prices reflect this demand.

Yet, the events that unfolded between our purchase offer and closing caused some deep turmoil in me. This unrest blocked me from being grateful and joyful at this important event.

Only thanks to my supportive wife have I been able to step back from these feelings and begin to understand their origins. I realized that a profound sense of entitlement was at the root of my feelings. My habits over the past months also contributed to these emotions. These default routines have nurtured resentment and anxiety instead of gratitude and joy.

About the new house:

Our new house is less than a mile from downtown Ithaca and was built in the 1870s. It is very close to a recreation trail and an elementary school. It has a small yard and an enclosed front porch. The house has two floors, two bedrooms, and two bathrooms.

There will be a lot of opportunity for us to upgrade the home’s energy efficiency. The home has a gas furnace and water heater. There is a nominal amount of insulation in the attic. There may be some potential for solar, but its not clear at this point.

Previous owners added on the kitchen and laundry room. Many of the windows in the house are original. The bathrooms and bedrooms have been updated recently. The house has a mix of hardwood and bamboo flooring – there is no carpet.

If highways are a drug, trails are treatment.

Something interesting happened during the nine years I lived outside of Ithaca – it grew a network of trails into its surrounding towns. A glance at the county’s bicycle map shows how these pedestrian friendly tendrils connecting downtown and campuses to rural hamlets. Dig deeper into the Priority Trails Plan and you will find a vision for an even more robust network of non-motorized trails.

Trails can be an important part of a treatment to our national addiction to highways. Yonah Freemark made this striking analogy on his blog, The Transport Politic:

“For American cities, highways are a drug. They’re expensive to acquire. They devastate healthy tissue and arteries, replacing previous modes of nourishment with destructive ones. They force the rest of the body to adapt to their needs, and they inflict pain on those nearby.”

Trails connect communities and open up recreational opportunities. Compared to highways, trails are a bargain (often an order of magnitude less expensive).  Trails enable physical health as people use them to walk, run, or bike.

Trails can help rekindle human connections. On a trail a group can hold a conversation without distraction. (Interestingly, social connection is seen as a treatment to drug addiction.)

While it’s common to hear objections to trail projects on the basis of increased crime or lower property values, new trails have been shown time and time again to be reliably safe and a benefit to neighborsContinue reading

A House, Divided

Hank Dittmar (who sadly passed away earlier this month) delivered an inspiring presentation for the Savannah Urbanism Series last fall. His visit to Coastal Georgia coincided with a Lean Urbanism exercise organized by the Savannah Development & Renewal Authority that explored ways to generate development in urban neighborhoods where investment has stalled.

Over the past three months, I’ve been thinking a lot about housing – mostly because I have been searching for it myself. After looking at dozens of homes in Ithaca I have witnessed how strong demand for rental housing has transformed the physical fabric of the city.

One thing that stuck with me nearly half a year after Hank’s presentation is a fact he shared about Washington, D.C. during World War II. According to his presentation, the city’s population soared after the war started. The city’s public broadcasting affiliate, WETA, confirms this:

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A Tale of Two Buses

Since relocating to Ithaca, I’ve been riding the TCAT bus to work. While my total commute is just under two miles, nearly 300 feet of elevation change make walking less attractive – thus my decision to ride the bus.

Before leaving Savannah, I had also started riding the bus more often. The re-configured dot shuttle to be specific. In September of last year, Chatham Area Transit (CAT) made a major service change on its fare-free downtown routes. For my two mile commute into downtown, this meant public transit was suddenly much more appealing even though I had to walk several blocks to get to the closest stop. (Full disclosure – I worked for CAT while this route change was being considered.)

While these two bus trips might seem similar – they could hardly be more different.

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