May 5, 2022

VALDETARO | Cornell Was My Public Living Room

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 A few Saturdays ago, I was walking home after a long day on central campus. My only company all day had been the dataset in front of me, the software packages I was using to analyze it and the T.V. show I had playing on my phone to stave away the isolation-induced craziness imposed by the third-floor computer lab in Sibley Hall. In short, I was desperate for some interaction, any interaction, to give me a chance to speak, a chance to laugh, a chance to be more than a data analyst methodically manipulating shapefiles in GIS. Thankfully, I found that on my walk home. In the short strip of sidewalk outside of Collegetown Bagels, my 10-minute walk turned into at least 20 as I talked with no fewer than five people about assignment progress, hilarious costume parties attended with alumni friends living in New York and plans for the evening.

There are a lot of reasons why a four-year university experience is placed on a pedestal as an exceptional time in life for those able to live through it. To quote a friend’s graduation column from nearly three years ago, “Put a bunch of predominantly privileged kids up in an incubator on a hill where time is distorted and youth is forever.” However, I think this resource density explanation leaves out a key factor in the prepartum nostalgia that many of my classmates here and other undergraduate seniors across the country are starting to feel: the walkability of the campuses on which we spend these formative years.

Cornell might not seem like the best example of walkability at first glance, especially if that glance is taken from the bottom of the Slope when your destination is an early morning class at the top. Although I never personally experienced this predicament because I never lived on West, I do remember how freshman year walks from High Rise 5 on North Campus provided a harsh demonstration that Cornell was not only well distributed vertically, but horizontally too — sprawling yet hilly, the worst of both worlds.

And yet, compared to the auto-dependent suburb I have returned to every break and pandemic since August 2017, far above Cayuga’s waters is a sort of paradise. In Collegetown, I can leave and come back with a package of grape tomatoes I forgot in less time than it takes me to get to the grocery store back home, leaving me more time to write a column whilst my TikTok pasta practically cooks itself. In Collegetown, the apartments of multiple incredibly close friends and a smaller number of bars are no more than a stone’s throw away, especially given the way my Alaskan-raised roommate throws stones. In Collegetown, even though there’s no mass transit system on par with New York City’s subway, I’m a hop, skip and a step away from frequent TCAT service to Central Campus, Ithaca Mall or the Commons. Plus, I live above a Subway, so if I close my eyes, it’s easy to imagine that the conversations I can hear because of our building’s poor soundproofing are taking place in an actual subway station.

This isn’t to say that Cornell and Collegetown are perfect, or even anywhere near it. Instead, it is to say that they are so much better than the auto-centric alternatives many of us will be forced to return to at some point in our lives if we stay in the United States.  

 When I returned home at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, I quickly realized that if we didn’t drive somewhere, the only humans my family would see were those we don’t know walking their dogs across the street. Sure, cars drive down the road in front of our house all day and we have neighbors whose houses we can see, but if we don’t make an effort we are hard-pressed to see anybody’s face, hear their voice or feel their presence. That might make sense during the initial period of a global pandemic when little is certain about how well the disease spreads, but otherwise it is an inevitable result of policies that encourage alienation and isolation. The environment we experience on campus and in Collegetown — with its impromptu conversations, sunset viewings on the Slope and lounging on the Arts Quad — is a direct result of taking the opposite policy path.

This is not how I expected my graduation column to go. After watching friends of all stripes choose these final unpaid words carefully — or let their silence speak for itself — I thought mine would be solely personal. Sure, these words might still be political, but only in the way that all things personal are inherently political.

And yet, this feels like a more fitting end, not just because this particular policy sphere seems to be the only thing I can ever think about, but because so many of my most cherished memories here were only possible because I have hardly ever had to get in a car. The two weeks at the start of freshman year when I played hours of tennis with my roommate and got 30,000+ steps each day. The Dos Amigos burrito drunkenly enjoyed on the grass outside of Cascadilla Hall after my Sunday evening 21st birthday. One of my friends chasing a deer up Seneca Street two nights before Thanksgiving in 2019 after an evening of tequila. Bringing microwaveable mac and cheese to a friend who was feeling sick during finals. Delivering bread baked with the surplus time of online classes to friends all around campus last spring. Enjoying Iranian flat bread during a Slope sunset with feta, fresh vegetables, and friends. Eating Thursday evening dinners with my roommates on our balcony overlooking Eddy Street. And popping over to a friend’s fourth floor apartment for dinner and drinks whenever the occasion warrants it. 

The short distances and pedestrian orientation of Cornell’s broader campus made each of these moments possible. Although my apartment is cramped, this proximity ensured not only that I lived closer to my friends’ living rooms than ever before, but that places like the Arts Quad, the Slope, the area in front of Schwartz and any other place where two people can stop and talk could be made into a sort of public living room.

Unfortunately, most places in the U.S. are not designed to be as human-friendly as this one, as pulling into my family’s driveway in a few weeks will remind me. And so, if I have one piece of advice, it is not that incoming freshmen should figure out which sides of the street are shaded and which are sunny (although I have found this to be helpful for staying cool in Ithaca’s summer humidity and warm in its winter frigidity). Instead, it is that my fellow soon-to-be-alumni should not accept these past four years as an outlier of connectedness, but rather use them as a standard to hold up to the physical spaces they are about to inhabit. 

Although fewer in number than they would have been in most other places, my experiences with car-oriented infrastructure here have demonstrated the value in moving away from such built environments: the parking lot I came out in is now a dorm that houses hundreds of students, one of whom even works part time as a serial arsonist.

With all of that said, nearly five years after I first arrived at campus and walked with my parents and sister from High Rise 5 to Barton Hall to get the student ID that I still carry, it’s time for me to step off my soapbox. Thank you to those who gave me this perch for saving my friends and family from even more hours of listening to my thoughts. Thank you to my friends and family for reading the occasional draft of this column, despite the incessant chattering. And to the person who will step up next after me, I have one request: please don’t drive to get here.

Giancarlo Valdetaro is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] ​​This is the final installment of Boy (Not) From Ipanema.