Over the weekend while taking a crack at some local history, I stumbled upon a book written about Ithaca’s EcoVillage, its planning and its construction. “EcoVillage at Ithaca: Pioneering a Sustainable Culture,” authored by the village’s executive director Liz Walker in 2005, is a comprehensive guide to building a community based around vision, a listing of the plans that were written and the decisions that were made for the village to get started.
In chapter two of this book, Walker discusses the concept of “People and the Land,” drawing on the inspiration of the Cayuga Indians who once called the area home and their reverence for their natural settings and their sense of place. From this inspiration, wrote Walker, she and her board of planners envisioned EcoVillage as a community grounded in the context of the land, writing “Without a sense of the land as sacred and with little or no connection to nature or a particular place, we lose a precious part of our souls.”
When founding EcoVillage, the idea was to not only build a community, but to build an identity and, in all the decisions made in the village’s future development, to retain that identity through a rigorous set of standards. The concept of retaining a sense of connection and place to the land itself was written in the very code of the village, the identity and lifestyle it provided coming more or less as a consequence of this concrete, civic code.
Ithaca, its significantly larger neighbor, was not founded on this pretense of rigidity and structure. The city has always been a place for people to settle down, a place where its residents were not working to build a community in their image but drawn by the establishments that drove the city: the salt mines and factories of its earliest days, the university and the colleges, the bartenders, club owners and booking agents who stepped up to meet the demands of a market for entertainment, rest and relaxation. The city’s identity has always been dictated by an engine of youthful enthusiasm and enterprising intellectualism, the city’s identity driven primarily by the institutions on East and South Hills.
Some would argue today that Ithaca is changing. In the past several years, we’ve seen a fight for “the soul of Collegetown” as new buildings have gone up, staunch opposition to a dilapidated old grocer being replaced for a four-story apartment complex due to its size and dismay as the city’s downtown core becomes less about head shops and haberdasheries than it is about hotels and high rises. As such, some might begin to speculate about the future of Ithaca’s identity, over whether it will be less an oasis of progressive politics and small town feel and more of a tourist trap among the lakes, a city that serves as a seasonal waypoint for tourists rather than a place with an identity so unique it serves as an attraction unto itself.
Change is nothing new in Ithaca, or in any city. Ithaca no longer carries the nickname “Sodom,” nor is New York City a “city for everyone,” as its mayor likes to put it. Everywhere around the country, cities are gentrifying, every city filling up with high-end eateries and higher end outlets for entertainment and retail to the point where niceties are no longer a product of their surroundings, but rather they are a result of uninhibited and unplanned free market principles where its wealth and want, not a sense of place, that determines the identity of the city. We see it everywhere, whether it’s a McDonald’s on every road or a cafe on every corner, and on the main drag of cities across the nation, a city’s identity is often copied and pasted from place to place in colorful signs and brand names.
In psychology, a basic need of any person is a need to maintain the integrity of the self. Threats to that identity can cause conflict and stress and, on a larger scale, can be comparative to the reactions of many people in the face of change to their community (looking at you, NIMBYism.) According to a 2014 paper published in the Annual Review of Psychology, an intervention known as self-affirmation, where one writes down and evaluates their core personal values, can avert these negative outcomes, bringing about “a more expansive view of the self and its resources, weakening the implications of a threat for personal integrity.”
So what are these values that differentiate one place from the next, the thing that makes Rochester different from Syracuse, much less from a Miami or Sacramento? No matter the size of a place, there are several consistent factors at play that determine identity in a community.
The first is design, the idea that beyond the aesthetic of a community, the way a community is oriented and the lifestyle that results from that orderliness dictates the ways we live our lives. Thinking about Ithaca now and in its past, for a city so small life has always been very much compartmentalized, with 11 distinct neighborhoods within its six square miles.
What determines the character of each of these neighborhoods, what makes them so distinct, are the various institutions which inform the way of life there. With no real attractions in the neighborhood, it’s no wonder Fall Creek has the reputation of being the quiet neighborhood or why it’s such an ideal site for events such as Porchfest: with no reason to drive there unless you live there, who’s really coming and going? In Northside, you have what is currently one of Ithaca’s largest public housing developments and the furthest walk from downtown shaping its identity in the same way Belle Sherman would as the neighborhood closest to Cornell: its orientation within the community shapes who lives there and how they live there.
When we think about how we’re building or what we’re changing, neighborhood character – what determines the nature of the community and makes it what it is – needs to be taken into account. In the way it’s written, the city’s comprehensive plan more or less accomplishes this in plain english, zoning each community based on the type of development that already exists there and giving it definition, to remove the guesswork of judging each new development contextually and on a case by case basis. This is a good strategy for maintaining identity.
Within these communities lies the second determinant of identity, which is community engagement and civics. In a small town where everybody knows everybody, you often have to take that into account when making points or making decisions. In an ideal local government, which sets the tone for a city’s way of life, decisions are made to reflect the will of its constituency and to act in its best interests. There is a reason we have rigorous environmental reviews and reject logical arguments for unpopular developments like a Maguire dealership on the city’s northern end: people don’t want it, so it won’t happen.
Direct interaction with local government is the simplest and most effective way of getting this will across, the best way to be consistently reaffirming the core values visited in the process of self affirmation. To rally around the causes to bring to the cities attention comes with interpersonal reaction. Facebook groups, regular meetups and community functions and a healthy local media can all contribute to building a base for this advocacy. A large organizing group shows tangible support for a set of core values, and a strong local media latches onto this and amplifies it, recognizing the popularity of a topic and exploring it deeply to further inform and educate that group on the topic to see the benefits and shortcomings of their arguments. This is done in the hopes of facilitating a greater dialogue within the community, forcing people to talk to one another in coming to a conclusion that involves everybody in the community. If successful, this forces us to affirm our values at the lowest common denominator and build an identity in government truly reflective of a community’s collective will.
Where the values you bring to city hall come from comes with the third and final determinant of identity: the people themselves and the idea that “The place chooses you,” rather than the people choose the place. We think about why we come to a town, whether for a job or a lifestyle, and notice that we eventually adapt to our surroundings.
A major component of life in any community falls on its residency and how they interact with each other, something requiring some degree of permanence. Despite the transient nature of the city itself with its two colleges and its role as a tourist town, Ithaca has this sense of permanence: its main industry has been in place since 1865 and since then, its economy has been driven primarily by those who are employed there. Because of this permanence, this tireless economic engine, there is a stability encouraging many people to live here and stay here and, no matter what changes, it is assumed this one constant will continue to drive life in Ithaca.
Even with so much changing and gentrification taking place, maintaining the city’s identity should consistently keep in mind what has determined that identity for so long: engagement and sense of place and ensure that as it grows, it facilitates the three factors that has made the city what it is. Coming back around to psychology, there are ten rules of change, according to a 2002 article by change expert Stan Goldberg, that ensure a successful handoff between old and new. The first is to break down what makes us what we are, the different drivers of our behavior. This is what we look to as the defining pieces of our city’s identity. Next, we acknowledge that change is frightening: as our city gentrifies and people begin to be priced out, we acknowledge change needs to happen and something must be done to adapt — we must move ahead.That change must be positive, it must be done slowly and it must be done in a way that is structured and is well-informed, that we always examine what we are doing and how it helps us achieve our final goal of what we wish to become.
But there is one rule Goldberg lays out that we should take heed of as we go through these changes: that being is easier than becoming. In our city’s comprehensive plan, we have a definitive roadmap of our city’s design, that as we physically build we maintain the structures that have facilitated a city’s personality for so long. The rest lies with how we interact with that structure.