The main road in Collegetown — College Avenue — with its plethora of popular restaurants, convenience stores and apartments, has been the hallmark of Cornell students’ social lives for decades. However, in the past few years, College Avenue has been undergoing road work, with the summer and fall of 2022 being the most intense periods of construction.
For months, students and cars navigated the portion of College Avenue south of Dryden Road, which was an unpaved, rocky street characterized by uneven gravel, ditches and humps, and no sidewalks or street lamps. In addition to the students who trek down the street daily, the local businesses on College Avenue also suffered the consequences.
Specifically, these businesses have had fewer customers and drops in sales.
“Business is nonexistent during the day, and even at night it’s probably down 40 percent because people don’t want to venture out on College Ave if they don’t have to because it’s not lit,” said Jason Burnham, the owner of Jason’s Deli and Grocery, which is open till 3 a.m., seven days a week.
Susan Lin, manager-on-duty at GreenStar Food Co+op, expressed a similar experience.
“The road work and nonexistent sidewalk has definitely decreased the flow of people who walk in front of our store,” she said. “This made it less possible for people to walk by our store and think ‘oh, I need groceries.’ Instead, GreenStar became a place that mostly required pre-meditated planning, which isn’t bad, but this has had an impact on our business.”
Indeed, the dangers of walking down College Avenue has deterred students from visiting these businesses. For instance, Abby Hwan ’23 recalls the challenges of visiting Koko, a popular Korean restaurant on College Avenue, during the road work.
“Just getting to Koko was dangerous because they put a piece of wood to walk across a big ditch they dug in the middle of the road,” Hwan said. “I don’t even like to drive on that street because the rocks had a huge negative impact on my car’s tires, and I had to get them replaced.”
Sophie Jin ‘23 also described the treacherous nature of College Avenue by recounting her own experiences, as well as her roommate’s.
“I used to trip a lot, especially at night, because there is so much loose rock and no lighting,” Jin said. “My roommate even sprained her ankle when she stepped off the paved entrance of our apartment building. She stepped into an eight-inch deep ditch that should have been level with the entrance.”
In addition to safety hazards, Lin also recalls the effect the road had on stock deliveries.
“Usually we have deliveries through the front door, but because of the road, we’ve had delivery drivers call us and say we don’t know where to bring an item or that they dropped an item off at our location, even though they didn’t because we were here,” Lin said. “We had to go find the missing items, which was time consuming and inefficient.”
Burnham concurred. “There were times when we couldn’t get deliveries at all,” he said.
To find solutions, business owners have reached out to the city, but have only experienced greater feelings of frustration and neglect.
“The city of Ithaca is very rude. They’re not concerned about the businesses or students who are here,” said Sungyoon Hwang, the owner of Koko. “Because the city doesn’t care, it’s very hard to talk to an actual person when you call them. It’s always an automatic AI answering machine.”
Burnham believes that the lack of care can be attributed to the city’s perception of Collegetown in general.
“Collegetown is ‘out of sight, out of mind’ to the city. If this problem happened down by The Commons, they wouldn’t allow it and would be much more tuned into the needs of the merchants,” Burnham said. “But the city thinks of this as a student ghetto. They just don’t care.”
Hwang has even tried to talk to the construction workers to alleviate some of the issues the road work created for her business, but only faced dismissive tones and microaggressions.
“During parents weekend, we had many reservations in the morning. The construction outside was creating a lot of noise, and the dust dirtied my windows and caused customers to track dirt into my clean restaurant,” Hwang said. “But, when I went to talk to the workers, they said they could not understand my English and refused to talk to me.”
Hwang also mentioned that she noticed the white merchants on College Avenue did not experience this same tone.
Although the road work will resume in the spring of 2023, it has come to a halt for the rest of the semester. But the residents and merchants on College Avenue remain unsatisfied.
“College Ave is still unsafe. There are no lights and the new sidewalk is made of black tar, so you can’t see in the dark,” Burnham said. “The tar doesn’t come up to the top of the curb so there are tripping hazards everywhere. If this was any place other than Collegetown, they wouldn’t allow it.”
Hwang also expressed concern about the quality of the road, stating that she is upset that her tax dollars are being wasted.
“I’m worried that my taxes are being spent on this useless project,” Hwang said. “We don’t have any big buildings or very nice cultural landmarks in Ithaca. They only spend our tax money on the roads, which are not even nice and take years to complete.”
However, students like Jin ultimately remain grateful that there is finally a sidewalk.
“Although the sidewalk isn’t well done and smooth, I’m thankful we at least have a sidewalk that isn’t made out of rocks,” Jin said. “At the end of the day, College Avenue is a constant reminder that beggars can’t be choosers.”