Ten Square Miles, Surrounded by Reality

Abel McSurely-Bradshaw

Ithaca, New York has to be one of the strangest cities in America.  It’s most easily recognizable for its schools—Cornell University and Ithaca College.  It is known for its liberalism, its waterfalls and a nationally known music festival called Grassroots.  Much like Boston, most of its population consists of college students. Come summertime, half the city is empty.  Shortly after the students leave, they are replaced a couple weeks later with music festival hippies by the busload that pour in bearing tofu and non-conformity.  Many of these long time non-conformists end up loving Ithaca so much, that they stay. From these travelers eco-friendly communities are created, homeless populations skyrocket and a never-ending Bush protest begins.  It is a very liberal, very white place.  It is a place of acceptance of all ideas except the wrong ones, who are open to all cultures but will never change their own.

This is Ithaca, New York—ten square miles surrounded by reality.

Ithaca has no ethnic roots, but it has culture and community.  It has become its own people, its own society.  Living there throughout my childhood gave me a voice, but a contrived one.  It took me a long time to realize there were more opinions than the Ithacan one.  Though it was all in innocence—I would have never realized this unless I left.  It may come across that I think Ithaca is an evil place full of ignorance.  Though I feel that my views of Ithaca have become slightly soured since my leaving, it was a wonderful place to grow and learn.  What I want to get across more than anything, is how the Ithacan image, the Ithacan knowledge and Ithacan idealism will only seem brilliant when you are in Ithaca.  It’s a world within itself. A place where you can judge and request change from the rest of the world, while losing focus on the local problems at hand.  And just like any culture or society, it does everything with complete confidence that it is the right thing.

Ithaca is a place where people appreciate others and everything they do.  It is an artist’s dream world.  No one is ever satisfied with who is in power, but no one could tell you why he or she are unsatisfied.  I would rather get locked in a public bathroom then get stuck in an Ithacan poetry slam.  They’re in every café and at every protest.  A bunch of awkward, dreadlocked, 15-24 year olds who live at their Mom’s and smoke pot out on the fire escape after the show.  If I had heard one good poem from a single one of these shows I would eat my words.  This is where Ithaca fails my test.  The people’s voice is such a wonderful thing to have, but an educated people’s voice is even better.  We must have confidence in what we believe, but we must know why we believe it.   95% of Ithaca is liberal democrats.  I lived there during 9/11, four years of the War in Iraq, and two elections.  I hated President Bush, and I opposed the War, and I knew it was wrong, yet the few times I came face to face with a Republican I found myself unable to hold any real discussion.  Could this be that I myself was just independently ignorant?  Possibly. I then tried talking with peers, my teachers, co-workers, and even my parents, but they never seemed to say anything different than myself.  “Bush is not our elected President; we went into Iraq under false pretenses; Iraq had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks…”  These are all valid points and most certainly had significance, but here, in my opinion comes the problem.  If I went back to Ithaca today, years into the war, and asked my colleagues what their view was, the same ten or so facts would be spouted off.  In my mind, the fact of the matter is that we are still in Iraq, but how can we get out?  Why is no one taking action?  Where did our voices go?  Where did the liberal power that is Ithaca go?  It’s stuck on what happened, not what is happening now.

Maybe it’s the hippie ideal.  Maybe the difference between the War in Iraq and Vietnam is simply the draft.  Is that why people spoke up?  Is that the only reason my parents rioted for change, for their own well-being and safety?  Nothing is wrong with that.  I just always thought there was more to it.  I thought the accepting, equalitarian culture I grew up in was deeper.  I thought Ithaca was deeper.

And it is.  In so many other ways.  Though I wish it wasn’t completely true, Ithaca made me who I am.  It made me a free thinker, an accepting human, and one who truly values my own life and the life of others.  The roots of Ithaca’s ideas are so wonderful, so pure and so important, yet I feel it was lost somewhere along the way.  I think it’s a catch 22.  It’s a focusing on self-improvement while being critical of the people around you.  On a larger scale it is improving Ithaca’s democracy, while having a critical outlook on our nation.  It is hating our government, but not working for change.  It is standing in front of a tank, but moving at the last second.  It is protesting the war in Ithaca, but not in Washington.

That was a real bumper sticker I quoted above, “Ithaca, New York, ten square miles surrounded by reality.”  People don’t have those on their cars because they are bitter—they do it because they are proud. Ithacans are proud of Ithaca.  I agree.   There is much to be proud of, but why are we proud that we refuse reality?  If Ithaca just let reality in, change would finally come.  Ithaca is a perfect contained example of the liberal idea and what needs to change in it.  A fire needs to be lit underneath Ithaca but more importantly America.  I hope someday soon that fire is lit no matter what the cost and this fantastic idea that is Ithaca will spread.  Then people will finally understand the freaky little town for all that it is.  And I will be proud.

Abel McSurely-Bradshaw is currently a student at Berklee.  This essay was written for his College Writing 1 course.