Lovely Ithaca, New York

It’s time for another vacation so I am on the road. This vacation though serves a dual purpose: some relaxing while checking out various likely areas we would like to live in retirement. During previous vacations my wife and I had sometimes surveyed areas and spoke about retiring there in the abstract. Now we are focusing on specific cities. We have a goal to relocate and semi-retire to one of them in about three years.

The northeast keeps calling us. It calls me because I grew up in New York State. I’m not quite sure why it calls my wife, a Midwestern gal, other than it shares a similar latitude and climate with the Midwest. Our first stop was a night and parts of two days in Ithaca, New York. The city is best known as the home of Cornell University. Ithaca sits at the southern tip of Lake Cayuga, the longest of the glacially-created Finger Lakes in central upstate New York. Cornell is not the only college here. There is also Ithaca College. Ithaca shares one unique distinction in this part of New York State: it is a healthy, thriving and growing community. In a bucolic area full of dying rust belt cities, this makes it stand apart. This is in part due to its educational influence. College towns often tend to attract startups, particularly if the colleges are full of scientists and engineers of premier quality, as is the case with Ithaca. Perhaps because of its liberal values in a generally red and rural area of the state, Ithaca also attracts liberals. The downtown is full of small and independent businesses, mostly boutiques and restaurants, with rarely a chain store in sight. Restaurants of all types can be found in its downtown but nothing that resembles a chain store except a Starbucks. Little Ithaca is now very much a happening place.

Ithaca has all this plus an undeniable charm. “Ithaca is gorges” goes its chamber of commerce bumper sticker, and that’s pretty much correct. There are more gorges and waterfalls in the area than you can shake a stick at. We saw one of them during a high water event caused by torrential rains we passed through.

High water on gorge in Ithaca, New York
High water on gorge in Ithaca, New York

Ithaca is not a city for the vertically challenged, as its hills are steep and challenging. If your intent is to get a good workout the natural way, then it is a natural fit. If you are vertically challenged, it has a convenient and highly available bus system that quickly gets you around not just Ithaca but all of Tompkins County. A car is not actually required to live here, although it certainly makes life more convenient. As we discovered, the bus system goes into apartment complexes out near Lansing and all the way out to Dryden, which is halfway to Cortland. During unseasonable weather many of Ithaca’s physically fit residents will prefer a bike, snowshoes or running shoes instead of a car.

For me, one of the most delightful things about Ithaca is simply that it is so closely connected to nature. Its scenery is spectacular as framed by its numerous waterfalls and anchored by its soothing and beautiful blue lake. It is also fifty miles from where I spent my formative years near Binghamton, so it feels home-like. It has largely the same climate and rolling green hills, just without the vacant buildings and houses with decades of deferred maintenance. It attracts educated people, some of whom live elsewhere but maintain residences out here for a bucolic escape. There are lakefront properties for those into boating but the scenery definitely improves with elevation, which is perhaps the attraction to the Lansing area northeast of the city. Out there you can find a small mall and strip mall retail that dominates the rest of America. Out there are also some surprises: a bird sanctuary that survives under the Cornell umbrella, free to the public with nature trails, an indoor viewing area and a library.

Bird sanctuary near Ithaca, NY
Bird sanctuary near Ithaca, NY

Since we are seriously considering it as a possible retirement location, we hooked up with a local realtor. My brother Tom suggested Ithaca because he graduated from Cornell and loved the area. For me it is largely unexplored territory, with memories of it distant at best. He spent many hours researching homes that met our retirement standards, which amounts to something simpler, smaller and easier to maintain than our current single family house, some place where we could age gracefully before age diminishes us. Ithaca is small enough where a high rise condominium was out of the question, but a townhouse was not. Unfortunately, with real estate so cheap townhouses were almost nonexistent. The few that he found were in newer development and were only townhouses in the sense that one single family house shared a wall with another single family house. In the case of Ithaca, this was a fine option. Mowing and snow removal services are a small fraction of what we pay in the Washington area.

Ithaca townhomes
Ithaca townhomes

The realtor listing a house in one of these areas was more than happy to meet us and show us houses around Ithaca that met our criteria, even though we were years away from relocation. We saw plenty of neighborhoods, as well as single-family house options, before she finally pulled us up to a “townhouse” near Lansing on Stone Creek Drive and took us inside. What we saw inside immediately made us jealous: a glorious, upscale townhouse that was actually bigger than what we currently own, and with a two car garage. It backed to woods. A path took you up to the local mall. There was a beautiful kitchen, a loft overlooking a large living room, a huge master bedroom and both bedrooms had enormous walk in closets. The only downside to the house that we could see was the downstairs. The basement was unfinished, but enormous. All this could be had for less than the value of our current house, and for a house only three years old. We left the place drooling and seriously considering Ithaca as a retirement community.

While the upside of Ithaca is its closeness to nature, its downside is that it makes it far away from culture. As a university city, it is hardly bereft of theater, classical music and the like, but it’s obviously not the same as the quality and quantity we take for granted around Washington D.C. How important this is to us has to be thought through before choosing a new community. Ithaca has so many pluses, including a substantially lower overall cost of living. For those few times a year when we do crave high arts, it would make sense to simply drive or fly to someplace that has it, and pocket the overall savings. Both New York City and Washington D.C. are one hop flights from Ithaca’s regional airport. Presumably in our semi-retired state we would have more flexibility for choosing these dates as well.

Retirement, if you can afford it, is about increasing freedoms and options. It appears that barring some unforeseen event, we will have the opportunity to find out within a few years.


In the city of my birth

I was born at St. Clare’s Hospital in Schenectady, New York on February 1, 1957. There I spent my infancy and early childhood. When I was about six years old my parents moved our family from Schenectady to Endwell, New York, about 140 miles away. That was 1963, some 41 years ago. It has been that long since I have been in Schenectady. Today I am finally back.

Memories of a six-year-old child are typically poor. Mine are no exception. I did not expect to remember much all these years later. Schenectady, and the Village of Scotia just across the Mohawk River, is mostly alien to me. I expected Schenectady to be more like Binghamton, the city near Endwell where I spent my formative years. But it is not quite as hilly as Binghamton. In many ways it is like the Endicott (near Endwell) and the communities surrounding it. It is an area that has long been in decline.

There are lots of communities like this all over the Northeast and the Midwest. If they haven’t been quite abandoned, they’ve suffered from a lot of benign neglect. Many residents have been forced to move elsewhere in search of work. The industries that powered these cities (General Electric, in Schenectady’s case) have largely left for somewhere else. The results are cities with rows of houses, many of them boarded up or in need of serious repair. Many commercial areas are rife with empty buildings.

Most of these houses have wonderful potential. They are large houses with big front porches. They were designed to allow neighbor to meet neighbor. And they still do this. On some porches we saw whole families pass a pleasant evening. These houses were built before garages became popular. Those that have them have a garage in the back of the property in a building actually separate from the house. It saddens me that these once vibrant neighborhoods have been so neglected while new neighborhoods are created elsewhere. It is such a waste. These houses in Schenectady could be probably be refurbished at a fraction of the cost it would take to put up new houses in new developments. Why can’t Fannie Mae or HUD refurbish these neighborhoods a block at a time? Once refurbished, I believe these houses would draw back a vibrant middle class. Then these cities could become reinvigorated. Instead cities like Schenectady are allowed to rot.

The house where I grew up in Village of Scotia (123 North Holmes Street) is still there. Looking at it with middle aged eyes I can make a vague recollection of the time I spent there. I knew approximately where it was on the block. Our old house is actually in pretty good shape for a house on this block. But the house right next to it is in terrible disrepair, as are many on the block. Yet much of Scotia is still charming and does not suffer from Schenectady’s blight. On a block about 25% of the houses seem to be in disrepair or boarded up. Nonetheless the community still has a fairly solid feel to it. Businesses on Mohawk Avenue seem to be working hard to be trendy. Collins Park along the bank of the Mohawk River looked very inviting. They have a few upscale restaurants. The local cinema still is in business. Even parts of downtown Schenectady look like some form of urban renewal is underway. But walk a few blocks in any direction and neighborhoods become ugly and depressing.

Everything seems so compact in Schenectady and Scotia. Everything is close together. The streets are narrow. The houses are close to each other. St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, where my family worshipped is but a short walk. I don’t know if my father ever walked to his job at the General Electric plant along the banks of the Mohawk River. It didn’t seem to be very far away. I could jog there in fifteen minutes or less without even breaking a sweat.

This is just a surface impression. We are only here for only one night on our way to Montreal to start a week of vacation in Canada. I would need a week or more to get some idea of the true character of the city. There is little in the way of new development, so I suspect it is much as I left it 41 years ago.

Still, there is something about Scotia that still appeals to me. It appealed to my wife too, who admired the tightly knit neighborhoods. I hope that a renaissance happens to my birth city and cities like it. But there is a lot to fix up. The sidewalks on my old block in Scotia, for example, are crumbling and in pieces. I guess there simply isn’t the tax base to fix them up.

Here’s hoping for some urban renewal.

Homing Instinct

I’ve been planning our trip to Canada in late August. We’ve been meaning to do a Canadian vacation for years. But it seems we always found more desirable vacation destinations (Arizona, Hawaii, Yellowstone) to hit first. Now we are getting around to it.

My daughter Rosie has already been to Montreal with her French class. As a top French student (and someone who professes to want to live in France) it took no arm-twisting to get her to agree. But we will only spend a couple days in French speaking Quebec. The bulk of our vacation will be spent in Ontario. Most of it will be in Toronto, but we will also spend a couple days in Stratford. This city is renown for its season of plays and musicals, many with a Shakespearean bent. As theater sluts it is a natural destination, but Toronto also offers theatrical possibilities.

I am sure I will enjoy visiting Canada. We have traveled across Ontario before on our way to Michigan and have seen Niagara Falls. But perhaps the most interesting part for me will be the way stops coming and going. Because between Virginia and Canada lies New York State. And as someone who spent his formative years in upstate New York, the state still has the call of home.

My family has wholly vacated New York State. At one time there were ten of us living under one roof in Endwell (a town near Binghamton) and now we are all scattered elsewhere. There are not even any old neighbors or friends that I know about still living in my old neighborhood. Nonetheless the lure is powerful. I made an overnight foray to Endwell in 1982 and spent a few hours there in 1995. More recently in 2001 my sister Mary and I spent a couple days there with our children. This was the best of the three experiences for me since I had time to visit old haunts and neighborhoods. Having Mary there was also invaluable since she we could trade memories.

This time I hope to at least spend an evening near Endwell. But I also hope to return to the city of my birth. I haven’t been there since I left it in January 1963. I was born in Schenectady and spent my first six years across the Mohawk River in a modest and overcrowded house in nearby Scotia. I must have had fun growing up there but my memories of the place are scattered and dim. Schenectady will be a place to spend the night en route to Montreal. But hopefully I will at least have a chance to see my old house and elementary school.

Altogether between Scotia (1957-1963) and Endwell (1963-1972) I spent nearly sixteen years living in upstate New York. I moved to the Washington area in 1978 after graduating college, so in reality I’ve spent most of my life here. In many ways I do feel at home here in the Washington area. The climate here is not bad and the growing season starts early and lingers late. I’ve never lived in a place where spring has been so colorful. And yet the lure of my birth state is palpable. It makes no sense but as soon as I cross into New York State a feeling of peace and contentment washes over me. Everything feels right. Everything looks right. I am home.

I often wonder if life makes me an early widower whether I would choose to move back to New York State. I doubt I could arm twist my wife into relocating there. She’s from the Midwest so she would prefer to retire there. For her home is a place where you buy “pop” at the store instead of “soda”, the people are perceived to be uniformly friendly and the land is flat as a pancake.

There are plenty of good reasons I can think of why I should pick other places to retire. Lake effect snow is certainly a compelling reason to hither thee elsewhere; I remember two feet or more of snow in one storm were not uncommon. Temperature is another. While Washington is more benign, New York State gets cold. It’s rare in DC to see a temperature below zero. In New York State it is not all that unusual to wake up to -10 or -20 during the height of winter. And there were other negative aspects of living in the Southern Tier that I had forgotten. The Binghamton area is basically in Appalachia. Its economy was in the toilet when we lived there and it has not improved. Unlike Northern Virginia, which is in a constant state of change (go away for five years and you may not recognize the place), the Triple Cities are stuck in a time warp. Except today the Endicott Johnson shoe factories are closed, and IBM seems to have only a token presence in downtown Endicott. There doesn’t appear to be any substantial industry left. Real estate is dirt cheap. Boarded up, poorly maintained and abandoned houses are plentiful. In addition I’m not too hot on softening my own water. And until I returned during the summer in 2001 I had forgotten about the gnats. The valley is overrun with them. Had I arrived in the spring I would have also recalled the return of black fly season. The Binghamton area also had the reputation of being the second most overcast city in the country right behind Seattle. I guess I wouldn’t have to worry about contracting skin cancer.

No, there is no reason to live there again. Except, of course, the rolling green hills that abound everywhere, the lovely omnipresent maple trees and the intoxicating sound they make in the breeze. There is also the closeness of nature. In Virginia you have to drive to see serious nature. In Endwell if it’s not outside your back door it is at most a mile or two away. It’s hard to separate nostalgia from fact sometimes, but Endwell was to me very much what the Shire was for Tolkien’s hobbits. It still is that way.

I could choose other places to live in New York State that hopefully would have the same appeal but without so many of the detractions of the Southern Tier. But most likely we won’t retire anywhere and we will stay in living here in Northern Virginia. I suspect while I would enjoy the sense of comfort from living in my home state again, it would quickly wear thin. I’d miss the vibrancy of living in the DC area. I’d miss the diversity, the craziness, the many opportunities to enjoy the arts, and even the lack of traffic would eventually feel deeply disturbing. I’m not sure I was born to relax. A lady I know who claims some psychic powers once told me as much.

But perhaps I will be a frequent visitor, and rent a regular summer cottage in my home state. That may be enough.

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