Lessons From a Trip Down Memory Lane
I’m currently on vacation in Ithaca, NY. My dad’s father, my dad, his 2 brothers, and a whole host of family in-laws and friends have purchases homes here and retired to the beautiful central New York region. Ithaca is home to Cornell University and Ithaca College, and over the years students from those schools essentially paid for the homes while they rented them during the school year. We would take our 3 weeks vacation here every year to mow the lawn (5 feet high by summer; students don’t typically mow lawns) and see our cousins. Because the brothers and their sister tried to coordinate vacations, we got to know our first cousins very well, as well as some second cousins and others of various once-removed or twice-removed situations.
Ithaca lives up to the stereotype of a very liberal college town, politically speaking. Obama will carry this town with greater than 95% of the vote. For a very long time, large, “big box” stores — Wal-Mart, Kohl’s, Home Depot, for examples — were kept out of town so as not to ruin the local town charm. The problem was, suburbs just outside the town were quite accepting of these stores, and they saw their tax revenues jump as the stores came in, while Ithaca found itself in a bit of a crisis. Money came in to the town, but it flowed out to the mall just on the other side of the town line or in burgs 20-30 minutes away. In the end, the “CAVE” people (liberal folks who were labeled “Citizens Against Virtually Everything”) had to relent to the fiscal realities. Ithaca now has a thriving shopping area for those that want the big stores, and after 5 or so years it still has The Commons where you can stroll around to find that corner bookstore.
What the CAVE people were worried about didn’t really happen, or at least not nearly to the extent that they predicted. The Meadow Court and the Grayhaven motels, longtime residents of Ithaca, have survived the introduction of the Hampton Inn chain. The Grayhaven caters to dog owners, one of the ways they stay competitive; defining their market. The local Wicks Lumber, which has a small hardware store attached, is still in business, even with Home Depot less than 2 miles away. The “mom & pop” establishments are essentially still here. The free market didn’t kill them off, and the CAVE people have grudgingly accepted it. (Well, some were simply out-voted. Acceptance isn’t always a given.)
In the end, capitalism worked. People got more choices, and the existing businesses survived, either by defining their markets, trading on their nostalgic or hometown quality, or enjoying customer loyalty going back decades. In Ithaca, both kinds of consumers — for the large and small businesses — exist, and businesses of both types can exist, side-by-side, in a capitalist society.
Tuesday afternoon, down at Stewart Park, a park operated by the city of Ithaca, a meeting was held regarding the poor condition of the park facilities. Stewart Park, located on the shore of the southern tip of Cayuga Lake, has been a free park for all to enjoy for over 80 years. My kids are now playing on some of the same climbing bars — some which look like a caterpillar and a spaceship — that I played on while on those vacations. The merry-go-round is still there with it’s (prerecorded) calliope music. Not much has changed at Stewart Park in the intervening years.
Although that’s the problem they discussed Tuesday at the park meeting. The climbing bars have years of rust on them, though they are holding up remarkably well. The bathroom facilities are adequate at best. The larger pavilion, available for rent (or for free, if you find it empty), was in such dire need of a paint job that some citizens took it upon themselves to buy their own paint and give it a new coat. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, mind you. Citizens donating of their time, talents and money for the public good are admirable. It should, however, have been entirely unnecessary since those citizens likely had already paid taxes that should have taken care of this long before they took the job upon themselves.
One speaker at the meeting finally did point this out.
David Murphy, the last public speaker, said the city should consider the possibility of public/private partnerships to raise money for park initiatives and renovations, rather than just looking for public funds — city, state or federal.
“Ithacans have a tendency to come up with good ideas and look for ways for other people to pay for them,” he said.
Sounds like the MO of the Democrats these days. Seems like soaking the rich isn’t quite the panacea it was thought to be. When you own something — when you’ve personally paid for it — you take better care of it. The classic question has been, would you rather use a public bathroom or one in a private home. The Stewart Park situation is yet another example of the truth hiding in that question.
In short, Stewart Park is limping along. It’s still a nice place to relax, especially with the kids, but the people here realize that they’re not getting much bang for the bucks that they’ve paid into it with their taxes.
As I read about this, I thought, “and likely these are liberals who can both see a government not administer a park very well, but want to give that same government control of things far, far more important, like their health care and their retirement.” The cognitive dissonance would be positively deafening, for those attuned to it. When health care is “free”, it most certainly will not be of a higher quality. It will be misused and not as well kept up, much like the facilities at Stewart Park.
I still love Ithaca and the Finger Lakes area. But sometimes, they live up to the phrase that many of them, indeed, wear on their T-shirts: “Ithaca, NY: 10 square miles surrounded by reality”. Indeed, Ithaca itself can be a pocket of its own reality. In certain ways, that can be a good thing. The Great Depression didn’t hit here nearly as hard as it hit elsewhere, largely due to the inflow of dollars from college and university tuition, and the money those students brought here to spend in town. It was this economic situation that allowed my grandparents to save up enough to buy land, in the middle of the Depression, in a town they came to love. Also, Ithaca has been a haven for folks yearning for a 60s way of life, and you see a number of them as you walk its streets and visit its Farmer’s Market. But the bubble that this town lived in wasn’t impermeable, and the utopian ideals that it gave rise to didn’t work in the outside world (and indeed not completely even in the bubble). The holiday from reality had to end sooner or later.
I don’t blame them for fighting it; they thought they were doing the right thing. But there’s more to fighting than the fight. There’s reality, and having a firm knowledge of it. I don’t blame them for complaining to the government about its inadequacies; they have a good case. But they’re going to vote for a guy in November that promises to give the government more and more responsibility than just a poorly maintained park. And, if Canada is any indication, they won’t be allowed to take their care into their own hands. You can paint the pavilion, but don’t dare step outside the national healthcare bounds.
That’s “progressive”? Not in my book. I still love you, Ithaca. Here’s to your coming around sooner rather than later.
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