I wholeheartedly believe that a place is experienced through its food, and the last four years here at Cornell have been no exception. I may be a wise and learned senior (cough cough), but in some ways I am still stuck in freshman year. I think it’s a defense mechanism against the increasingly impending countdowns (“ahhhh less than one month until graduation!”) and questions (read: interrogations) about the future. With my time coming to a close at Cornell, I’ve found that I am constantly focusing on what’s happening next and am being torn away from the here and now. It’s for this reason that I remember my lunches at Risley with friends freshman year with such partiality. We would sit down at one of the large, wooden tables and talk about our morning happenings over a bowl of Mongo or one of their Santa Fe Burgers topped with guacamole. Our biggest concerns were surviving prelim season and when we would meet for dinner that night. For me, lunches at Risley are symbolic of a time when I was more focused on the present and the people I was with.
But, I suppose I can’t make this entire article a sappy senior nostalgic piece. Emblematic reasons aside, dining at Risley is truly an overlooked gem on the Cornell campus. It offers an amazing selection of food — from create-your-own omelette to a loaded salad bar — in a setting unlike any other dining hall apart from the one in Harry Potter movies. Years from now when I am an old and distinguished alumna, I am certain that lunch at Risley will be one of the first things I reminisce about; not solely for the food and the atmosphere or the people I passed countless hours there with, but for the combination of the three that created an experience that allowed me to enjoy the here and now of my time at Cornell.
Across a variety of publications and websites, Ithaca consistently tops the list as one of the best college towns of its size. Articles frequently reference its physical beauty, its creative culinary scene, its host of accessible vineyards, etc. Though I would generally agree that Ithaca is a fairly remarkable place for its size—Cayuga and the surrounding waterfalls are indeed quite gorgeous, and the concentration of imaginative restaurants here is pretty unheard of for a town of 30-50,000 — while reading such pieces, I can’t help finding a gaping disconnect. The reason these articles appear somewhat misleading to me is that here at Cornell we don’t really live in Ithaca. For the most part, we live our day-to-day in Collegetown — which, oddly enough, leaves much to be desired as an actual college town.
My four years at Cornell have seemed to run parallel to the slow descent of the neighborhood of Collegetown, as it has gradually wilted into a sad collection of vacant storefronts and dilapidated apartment buildings. Many of the closed businesses were poorly advertised, several offered fare that was already available or poorly thought out, and so of course most couldn’t cope with rising prices and stubborn landlords. I’m not saying I come close to understanding the entirety of the situation; all I aim for in this blurb is to make the few people who read this think about why Collegetown is in the shape it’s in, and to consider ways to improve it.
For instance, much-adored franchises like Chipotle and Jimmy John’s could avoid the difficulty of attracting new customers, filling empty buildings while pleasing both proprietors and students. If any business is equipped to pay the sky-high rent prices, it’s probably them. A Commons-esque pedestrian area, however small or insignificant, could immediately revitalize a strip of College Ave., an area that is severely lacking in public gathering space. Additionally, a small grocery store would be welcomed by college students who seem perennially low on milk, and it would help make Collegetown that much more self-sufficient. And in the meantime, unreasonable landlords and tenants alike should continue to be exposed and pressured to change. I understand that some of these solutions would be incredibly difficult if not impossible altogether, but again, I want only to promote discussion about bettering our community.
Some of my favorite memories have been made here in Collegetown: me and my roommates’ customary visits to Souvlaki House, watching the world go by on the Collegetown Bagels patio, sangria in hand. In the end these words amount to nothing more than the crazed musings of a Cornellian who’s tired of seeing his neighborhood waste away. Maybe, if we as a group talked more openly about the issues plaguing Collegetown, we could slowly begin to reverse its decline. Maybe, if the entire community just put a bit of effort into improving its surroundings, Cornellians would complain a tad less, and enjoy their town a bit more.
Of all the iconic food and drink institutions Ithaca has to offer — the Ithaca Farmers Market, Moosewood and, of course, Collegetown Bagels — the only one I can truly count as a constant in my life is Rulloff’s. The first time I visited Rulloff’s, I was 17 and was tagging along with my father as he relived his Cornell experiences (the ones appropriate for a high school junior, of course). We toured the campus, visited some of his old classrooms and settled on his favorite Collegetown hangout, Rulloff’s, for dinner. At the time, I didn’t get what the fuss was about; you can get a fat, juicy burger or my choice, the Strawberry Fields Salad — mixed greens adorned with goat cheese, candied walnuts and fresh strawberries — just about anywhere, right? Well, maybe you can. But little did I know that I would attend Cornell a little over a year later and find myself in Rulloff’s time and time again. I went back for dinner with my dad a year after he introduced the place to me, but this time, I was there as a Cornell student. I’ve been there for a post-class snack of chips and spinach and artichoke dip with my friends. I’ve been there for $2 pitchers of Rolling Rock to wind down mid-week. I’ve made spontaneous visits there with friends for what would turn out to be some of the best nights I’ve had at Cornell. Most importantly, I did something the 17-year-old me never could have anticipated — as a college junior, four years after my first visit, I took my sister, then a high school senior who had just been accepted to Cornell, back there for dinner. Just as my father had introduced me to his Cornell via his favorite college dive bar, I, too, had introduced my little sister to my Cornell the very same way. Can I say she was impressed with her meal? The jury’s out on that one. But I can only hope that she’ll find her own favorite place to take me when I visit her.