August 21, 2000

The Commons Celebrates 25

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With musical reviews, dance performances and a giant Wegman’s cake, the Ithaca Commons celebrated its 25th birthday on Saturday.

The festivities aimed to bring the community together in the downtown pedestrian mall and to “bring attention to The Commons” said Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Ithaca Downtown Partnership, an organization representing businesses downtown.

“People don’t realize how unique this is,” Ferguson said. “People who live in this community take [The Commons] for granted.”

The organization booked some of Ithaca’s favorite performers for the celebration, including the Ithaca Ageless Jazz Band and Johnny Russo and the East Hill Quintet.

“We wanted to make this sort of a family thing,” Ferguson explained.

Mary Trochim joined Rachel Lampert of the Kitchen Theater in performing the original skit, What Will Ithaca Be Like in 25 Years? In this musical review, sung to the tune of “Be Our Guest” from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, they envisioned a monorail winding through the city and predicted that Birkenstock, a sandal company, would locate its national headquarters in Ithaca.

Three pavilions on The Commons housed musical performances, ranging from Celtic music to classic Jazz to swing. The Ithaca Academy of Dance performed at the Main Pavilion.

The fashion show “What Does an Ithacan Look Like?” featured diverse native styles: hemp, plastic and fake fur were among the bizarre Ithaca wear.

Volunteers from On Site Volunteer Services served slices from a giant cake decorated as a map of the Commons. The Elks Lodge hosted a barbecue.

The Commons is the pedestrian mall or “free zone” that spans three blocks in downtown Ithaca. Twenty-five years ago, construction crews blocked off State Street and poured concrete walkways, a “cutting edge idea” in the early 1970s, according to Ferguson.

“Today there’s probably only a handful [of pedestrian malls] left, and we’re one of them,” Ferguson said.

The Commons acts both as a business district and as a meeting place for the community. Its roles were evident Saturday while people milled through shops and stopped to watch the entertainment. Ferguson estimated that 5,000 people attended the celebration.

At 1 p.m., members of the original Commons committee that planned the mall arrived. Former Ithaca Mayor Ed Conley, City Planning Director H. Matthys Van Cort, architect Anton Egner and then-president of the Downtown Businesswomen’s Association Betty Cornish drove through The Commons in a convertible as they had in 1975.

Van Cort explained that with the rise of retail competitors such as mail-order catalogs, discount chain stores and the internet, Ithaca has survived because of its pedestrian center.

A man named Lawrence who grew up in Ithaca agreed that the Commons was instrumental in keeping Ithaca thriving. He remembers Ithaca in the early 1950s when State Street was open to vehicular traffic.

When Pyramid Mall opened years later, business downtown changed as big department stores left State Street for the mall. “There was nobody down here (downtown),” he said. “The Commons has been a great asset to Ithaca. Look at all the people here now – if we didn’t have the Commons here they wouldn’t be here – it would just be an empty street,” Lawrence added.

A 71-year Ithaca resident preferred downtown before The Commons came along. “To me it’s called cement city,” she said. She worked downtown in 1942 and enjoyed parking her car on State street, walking by the windows of J.C. Penny’s and Montgomery Ward’s. The stores now on The Commons offer goods too expensive for senior citizens, she said.

“I come to the bank to pay the bill and go back home,” she said. “At night I wouldn’t dare come up here. It attracts these kids that smoke . . . and the way they dress is no attraction for any place.”

Ithaca College graduate Megan Jomynas participated in the “Hyde Park Style Sound Off” — a soap box style forum for Ithacans to expound on local, national and international issues. Jomynas praised Ithaca for its diversity, which she hadn’t experienced in her small Connecticut hometown. “This is a good thing. Take advantage of it,” she said.

“That’s the idea . . . to get a whole mix of people here,” Ferguson said.

According to Ferguson, 16 new businesses have filled vacancies in the Commons since April 1999.

Mike Katz, a resident of Fall Creek, brings his children to play on The Commons’ playground.

“On a beautiful day, nice weather — what could be better,” Katz said.

The celebration was sponsored by the Ithaca Downtown Partnership, Wegmans of Ithaca and B.P.O.E. Elks Lodge No. 636.

Archived article by Heather Schroeder