East Hill Notes: A College Town’s Sense of Place

By Susan Riley

Photo Provided by Cornell University
Susan Riley

This year’s International Town Gown Association annual conference – held in Eugene, Oregon – reiterated a fact of life: Ithaca and Cornell are unique, but so is virtually every college town in the U.S., Canada, and overseas, too.

When I first stepped into the Eugene airport, I was struck by how much it felt like the Ithaca-Tompkins County Airport, i.e. clean, friendly, and easy to navigate. Within minutes, I met another newly arrived conference attendee, and we found our way to a shuttle bus heading into town.

My new acquaintance immediately launched into a conversation about housing in our respective communities. He was representing the City of Clemson, South Carolina, and what struck me as I listened about how the City of Clemson and Clemson University were increasing housing stock, was how similar life there is to here.
Though the institutional makeup of Ithaca and Clemson are different – imagine paying thousands of dollars for a parking spot in a gated community for football tailgating! – both communities share, for example, a “housing crisis.”

That first evening at the conference, I joined about 30 others on a tour of some of the local breweries and restaurants. Some of our enthusiastic hosts described what they had to offer in terms like, “the best breweries in the country” or the “cleanest water in the world,” and other such superlatives. Again, I was reminded how this compared to how Ithaca is described by locals with phrases like, “We have more restaurants per capita than New York City” or “We’re the smartest small city,” etc.
It brought home the point, again, about how we often describe what we’re experiencing as the best – or sadly sometimes as the worst – in an effort to distinguish ourselves from other places, and convince ourselves of our uniqueness. Part of what became clear when I spent time with colleagues at the conference is that we share a lot in common, and generally have pride in where we live.

We also had much to learn from each other, and I did so during the run of the conference.

This year’s conference theme, “CommUniversity: Strengthening Town & Gown Partnerships,” featured a term emphasizing the inextricably-linked nature of town and gown relationships. At the University of Oregon “CommUniversity” is a program title used for students who serve as ambassadors to residents in campus-area neighborhoods, and exemplifies the overlapping intricacies of university and community issues and partnerships.

The conference program tracks were designed to reflect the broad range of issues and stakeholders involved in building the strong and productive relationships needed to enhance college town economies, strategically plan and implement policies, support the safety and well-being of our shared communities, and finally, celebrate, when possible, our collective achievements.

It was my pleasure to speak about the uplifting power found in Cornell’s annual Town-Gown Awards, scheduled this year for the morning of Saturday, Dec. 2, at Ithaca High School, with remarks from Cornell President Martha Pollack, and others.

One interesting session I attended, described how some campuses – and inevitably their surrounding communities – are dealing with cannabis as states start to legalize its use. One interesting point among many: Some of the early findings suggest students living on smoke-free campus who are vehemently opposed to cigarette smoking, are generally more relaxed about marijuana use. Should it become legal in New York state down the road, we’ll have the experiences of our town-gown colleagues to help inform us along the way.

I will continue to talk about our college town with pride and an open mind, and continue to learn from town-gown colleagues near and far. Community-campus relations are an inexact science, but our goals in Cornell Community Relations remain the same every day: To be inclusive, proactive, responsive, transparent, progressive, and collegial.

If you would like to learn more about the International Town-Gown Association, please feel free to send me an e-mail, or access ITGA.org. As noted before, college town life is as diverse as our world, but remarkably similar, too.
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Susan Riley (sfr4@cornell.edu) is deputy director of Cornell’s Office of Community Relations. East Hill Notes are published the second and fourth Mondays of each month in Tompkins Weekly.