Sunday, August 02, 2009

the empire state strikes back

I went to Cornell in the '70s, and taught there for a semester in the '90s, so upstate New York is not entirely unfamiliar to me. Still, it's different to vacation somewhere than to work there. For one thing, you have a car and free time, the latter of which I mostly lacked as a teacher (and both as a student). For another thing, it's warm, which happens maybe a week or two during the academic year. A trip back thus brings memories, but also prompts one to notice things which either have changed in the interim or which--being there all the time--you simply didn't notice the first time around.

One of the first things you notice is cultural. People, which is to say strangers, actually say hello in upstate New York, something which would probably cause you to seek police assistance in Philadelphia or New York City. There is also a certain live-and-let-live attitude which seems almost quaint by big city standards. At the Smart Monkey cafe in Ithaca, a vegan menu and environmentally-oriented magazines predominate, but one can also order a hamburger (on a natural roll, to be sure) if one desires. Not very consistent, ideologically speaking, but it does win points on the tolerance scale: perhaps the greater physical space provides opportunity for more cultural flexibility, as well.

A second, related point relates to political diversity and the limitations of the red state/blue state theory. Upstate colleges, and Cornell in particular, have always been more green than red: environmental consciousness runs strong but it's hard to find a copy of the New York Times, let alone serious left-wing publications. With the passage of time, and the settling of more alumni (or pseudo-alumni) in the college towns, this has morphed into a culture that at once liberal in its social attitudes but almost quaintly small town in its attachment to family, outdoor activity, and such quintessentially American pursuits as country (or pseudo-country) music. While eating breakfast at the Ithaca Bakery, I tried my hand at dividing the grown-up hippies from the beer-drinking and pickup truck crowd, until I realized that many of the hippies were the beer-drinking and pickup truck crowd: the urban distinctions simply didn't work in a small-city, postradical environment. Presumably Obama did well in Ithaca, but Bush might well enjoy the music better.

Which is not to say that cleavages don't remain. Across the football line in Canandaigua, where people shop at Wegman's and root for the Buffalo Bills, miles of strip development (and a beautiful beach) sat alongside a largely forlorn downtown and what was obviously a great deal of economic stagnation. We snacked at an all-crepes cafe with wonderful espresso and breakfasted at a greasy spoon with a one-page menu: but the middle seemed difficult to find. While cultural distinctions have blurred in twenty-first century America, it seems that economic distinctions have if anything gotten wider: or perhaps that cultural tolerance requires one first have a job. A point which seems obvious, on reflection, but which it sometimes takes a vacation to notice.


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