March 4, 2021

STELLA | Ithaca Is The #4 College Town in America — Why?

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Many of you probably never knew that. Some might ask yourselves this very question every time Cornell makes us walk to class in negative 20 degree weather. To all of us, it might seem strange to find our little town just behind Madison, Wisconsin. Ithaca is the fourth best college town in America, according to people who have (obviously) never been here for more than a spring weekend.

Behind only Boulder, Colorado, Ann-Arbor, Michigan and Madison, Wisconsin we hold our heads high above the likes of Berkeley, Bloomington, hell even Cambridge (take that Harvard, we’re the best of the Ivies in something). Many of the college towns on this list boast populations double or even triple the size of Ithaca. A true David and Goliath story, but you know what they say — size doesn’t always matter.

I knew this the minute I got into Cornell. Coming from California, many of my friends were staying in-state for college, bragging about living on the beach in Santa Barbara, or seeing movie stars in Los Angeles. 

Even the other out-of-staters could brag about the heavy hitting cities they were entering. It’s hard to argue against the glamour of New York City when you haven’t lived there to see the rats scurrying across your path on your way to dinner (though scurry is a loose term, as the all-you-can-eat buffet of garbage bags plump some up so much it turns into a cartoonish waddle). When I retaliated against my beach-going high school friends, I was met with mockery, stemming from the location of Ithaca itself — bumblefuck New York. Fair.

Ithaca can often seem small-time and dull. Our seven-month winter doesn’t quite incite outdoor play in the same vein as the California sun, either. The cold, the isolation, the opioid problem — none make the case for Ithaca’s brilliance easier. So why do we endure four years here? We know it sure isn’t due to the ease and accessibility of courses at Cornell (am I graduating on time? Does Arts and Sciences know that?)

As we’ll find in our age, people like to live in places that offer them a diverse ambiance, meaning the best of as many worlds possible. Strangely, Ithaca satisfies.

Before Ithaca became the weird, 1960’s-esque, fiddle-playing-in-the-backyard kind of town that it is today, it was the hub of silent movies (until Hollywood monopolized the industry). Some fraternity and sorority houses are former movie star mansions, and perhaps this created a first wave of culture (if we can call it that). 

Today, Ithaca sports more restaurants per capita than New York City. Of course many of them will give you food poisoning, but we all have our favorite spots, Saigon Kitchen, Asia Cuisine, Gola Osteria, Mercato, definitely not Collegetown Bagels. And we always have new ones popping up, Hound and Mare making the most recent splash.

Everyone loves food, but the real reason Ithaca is Gorges isn’t solely due to its restaurants, or its natural beauty. Where else can you (COVID excluded) ski 20 minutes away in the winter, wine taste when the weather turns nice, hike tremendous trails near waterfalls, get drunk on a boat on a giant lake, have your house cleaned by a strange man who you leave a $20 bill for even though you never hired a cleaning service, practice trapeze arts, see niche artists perform live and enter your dad’s recipe into a town-wide chili fest? Not Cambridge.

Despite its flaws, the seasonal depression probably the worst of them, Ithaca seems to be its own biome with its own array of offerings. Probably more than we can fit in before graduation.

AJ Stella is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Stellin’ It Like It Is runs every other Friday this semester.