April 5, 2011

Ithaca’s Caring Community

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Last week’s column began with a joke, the gist of which boiled down to: “Too many people will want to go to Cornell,” says Ezra. “Not when they find out where it is,” A.D. replies. When understood in reference to the fact that most of the year Ithaca sees itself overtaken by less than desirable weather, the joke’s humor hits (maybe even a little too) close to home. However, if you consider the community of Ithaca itself, the joke takes on a very different kind of irony. Ithaca demonstrates in a multiplicity of ways its strong communal ethic and values. While life at Cornell is, justly, primarily comprised of Cornell-centric concerns — classes, work, friends, clubs — Ithaca has a lot going for it.

As has been reported various times in The Sun and elsewhere, Buffalo Street Books recently prepared to close. Instead of watching a beloved bookstore disappear and allowing corporate dominance to succeed, the Ithaca community bought out Buffalo Street Books in order to reopen it as a cooperative. Co-ops are owned and run collectively and democratically by community members. This means that the interests of the business turn away from internal gain and instead turn towards communal benefit. The business answers to its members and values equality and participation among the community, with the wealth generated used to sustain the business and then redistributed to members. This too means the co-op has an explicit interest in serving the community and the community has an interest in supporting the business.

The fact that the Ithaca community cares enough to band together and save a neighborhood institution speaks volumes. Further, the fact that the business’ intentions and interests lie in contributing genuinely to the community indicates collective morality and kindness. People in Ithaca care about Ithaca — a phenomenon largely absent in major metropolitan cities or cultural groups where success in business and finance are valued.

Ithaca’s model community organization does not end with its cooperative tendencies. Ithaca even has its own currency: Ithaca Hours. One hour equals ten dollars, and these can then be used as money to trade for goods and services within Ithaca. The philosophy of directly connecting labor with currency promotes and supports a culture of community contribution. With Ithaca Hours, money is not just an abstract value; it is connected to the work it took to earn it.

What’s more, the currency only functions within 20 miles of Ithaca, according to ithacahours.com, fostering community support. Ithaca hours promotes consciousness in trading and supports community involvement. It further allows people to feel more connected to each other, the work they do and the goods they procure.

This is how communities should function. For example, the Ithaca Farmers Market — where vendors must be verified as local — and Green Star Co-op — where working two hours once a month earns a 10 percent discount — demonstrate the abundance of beneficence circulating within this community that we at Cornell can too easily refrain from becoming a part of. Ithaca culture involves a unique collective concern not easy to find within a larger culture that values a very different measure of success.

Unfortunately, the United States saturates its culture with images of “The American Dream” of uninhibited consumption, all the while making it as difficult to achieve as possible. Of course success stories happen, and these are great and largely capitalized on, but stand as a testament to the people rather than the system. For the most part we live in a world where profit matters and excess stands as the goal. Even more unfortunately, the education system propagates this promulgation of hypocrisy, supporting departments that lead to practical (financial) success and implementing curriculi that can be quantified and counted. Curved grading breeds competition and earning grades in general distracts from the meaning of the content of courses. Standardized tests teach that the teacher or authority is always right, and standard lessons imply that every context should be homogenized. Ithaca, however, employs aspects of a framework that begins to escape this cycle.

Within Ithaca, successful implementations of inclusive business models and re-conceptions of currency and value prove that people exist who actively care about the community as a whole. Ithaca, while maybe very Ithacan, is also pretty progressive in that way. Or maybe it’s the opposite; maybe Ithaca has regressed to a more direct market of community trade that modern consumers easily lose sight of. After all, what’s the purpose of any business if not to provide a service to the community? What’s money if not the symbolic value of goods and labor? While most Cornellians will graduate and leave Ithaca, four years is certainly enough to learn something about the city and at the very least acknowledge the possibility of moving towards a nicer version of communal interaction.

Ruby Perlmutter is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be contacted at rperlmutter@cornellsun.com. Having Said That appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Ruby Perlmutter