Washington Park

New Topographical Atlas of Tompkins County, New York Philadelphia, Stone & Stewart, 1866

New Topographical Atlas of Tompkins County, New York
Stone & Stewart, Philadelphia, 1866

It ain’t much to look at (at least not this time of year), but Washington Park is the only public patch of green in LoNo. It’s much appreciated: when I’ve spent time there, it’s usually after grabbing fish sandwiches at The Corner Store with some coworkers and finding a tree under which to chow down. If I’m thinking ahead, I’ll bring a disc for us to throw around. Now that I’m about to live nearby, I figured it was time to find out more about it.

The park is exceedingly simple, unadorned by sculptures or gardens, enclosed by a skirt of trees. It features concrete pathways (making it a popular place to walk dogs) and a few benches, but those things don’t leave much history to track. Looking at Zillow (whose estimates are shaky, I realize) median prices for homes bordering the park hover around $184,000 compared to $209,000 for all of 14850. There’s nothing premium about this location, apparently.

Pretty drab in winter

Pretty drab in winter

Mentions of the park aren’t common in the history books, and I’m still in my lazy stage where I’m doing all research from home. That said, I have discovered that Simeon DeWitt (who surveyed the city and gave Ithaca its name) carved out the space early in the city’s formation:

The blocks around Washington Park, laid out in 1832 by Simeon DeWitt and his son Richard Varick DeWitt, were built up with homes by the end of the century. The park has been under municipal authority since 1847 and is still an important open green space enjoyed by all Ithacans, especially those in the immediate neighborhood.

Ithaca’s Neighborhoods: The Rhine, the Hill, and the Goose Pasture, p. 112
Edited by Carol U. Sisler, Margaret Hobbie, and Jane Marsh Dieckmann
Published by DeWitt Historical Society of Tompkins County, Incorporated, 1988

There’s a little more (but not much) detail on that transfer to “municipal authority” in an older work:

The Nathan T. Williams administration, in 1847 and 1848, proceeded to make up for lost time in public improvements. Owego Street was planked from curb to curb, from Aurora Street to the Inlet. Other streets were opened, extended, or improved. Washington Park was taken over by the trustees for control, improvement, and public use.

Ithaca, p. 73
By Henry Edward Abt
Published by Ross W. Kellogg, 1926

Since the establishment of the board of public works, the local park system has been much improved. Washington Park, bounded by Park Place, Buffalo, Washington and Court Streets, was filled in and developed in 1908.

Ibid. p. 146

Another tidbit of history again comes from the DeWitt Historical Society of Tompkins County:

Ithaca has several very useful and delightful smaller parks. Washington Park on Buffalo Street and Park Place serves many westside children during summer months. This park formerly provided a practice field for the High-School Marching Band before it moved to its new home on North Cayuga Street.

Remembering Ithaca: 1930-1970, p. 31
By Jessamine Kelsey Johnson
Published by DeWitt Historical Society of Tompkins County, Incorporated, 1971

In my experience the park area is relatively quiet, so it’s hard to imagine a marching band blasting its music in the middle of a dense neighborhood.

Anyone who has walked by the park has noticed a bit of more recent history: a ghost bike (a bicycle painted white as a memorial to a fallen cyclist and a reminder to drive with care) chained to a stop sign at the corner of Court and Washington Streets. The bike honors Edward Coil, a 58-year old rider of an adult tricycle killed by a FedEx truck in 2007. I’m one of those jerks who prioritizes aesthetics over a lot of things (and this bike could use a new coat of paint, to be honest), but it’s a mournful reminder to respect cyclists in this bicycle-heavy town.

Washington Park Ghost Bike

Washington Park lives in the shadow of its downtown rival DeWitt Park and it doesn’t feature all the recreation that Stewart and Cass parks offer. But Washington was established well before those latter two parks and has been a fundamental part of the city’s design since the beginning. We’re lucky to be in this part of the city, where residents can choose from Washington, ConwayThompson, and DeWitt to bask in that rare sunshine.

It isn’t fancy, but it’s an easily accessible, decent-sized oasis. There’s potential for greater excitement too: while Thompson Park appears to be the front-runner for a food truck roundup, Washington Park is being considered too (personally I’d like to see a rotation among all the parks). Those visits from the office would get even better.

Has Ithaca’s Northside Turned the Corner?

Why focus a blog on barely 90 acres (I used Google Planimeter) of an already tiny city? For starters, it minimizes my workload. I’m not sure I’d want to tackle this project if I had to include the entire Northside or even bits of the West End. But it’s also clear to me as I read about the city that the neighborhood doesn’t really have a home, so giving LoNo its own identity doesn’t seem so unreasonable.

I found a report from 2003 titled Ithaca’s Northside: Turning the Corner. Prepared by a group of community members, city officials and Cornell students, the document lays out a bottom-up approach for revitalizing the neighborhood. As you might expect, the report details the boundaries of Northside:

The Northside neighborhood is located in the city of Ithaca, New York, in the downtown area known as The Flats. The neighborhood is triangular, bounded by Route 13 to the West, Cascadilla Creek and Lake Avenue to the Northeast, and Cascadilla Street to the South.

Lower Northside doesn’t belong there. And as I’ve noted before, it doesn’t belong to Fall Creek, West End or downtown either.

But that’s OK. Northside is our neighbor and it helps to learn some things about it. Pages 12 and 13 contain a brief history of Northside. Originally a swampy area, it was drained in the mid-1830s. The first homes were built along Cascadilla Street and Lake Avenue. The Bowl-O-Drome and the Ithaca Housing Authority’s Northside Complex (housing 70 families) were a result of 1960s urban renewal (I’ve still never bowled in Ithaca). A lot of defunct companies I’ve heard the names of like Ithaca Glassworks, the Ithaca Gun Factory, and the Ithaca Calendar Clock Company were situated in Northside.

Some of the strengths and opportunities listed in the report include its ideal location (being adjacent to Route 13), a diverse population, affordable housing, active neighborhood organizations, and little pleasantries like mini-gardens on street corners. Some of the concerns the document is hoping to address include absentee landlords, poor maintenance of homes in general, softening of the rental market with more student housing options closer to Cornell (more true now than ever with Collegetown Terrace underway; more on that at my favorite Ithaca blog), and of course, the neighborhood’s image.

Ever since I moved to the area I’ve been warned to avoid Third and Fourth Streets, as friends and coworkers describe that whole area as the “ghetto”. The authors are well aware of Northside’s negative reputation. The report addresses issues with open air drug dealing and the need for a neighborhood watch. I’ve walked through the area many times without issue (as a worker; not yet as a nearby resident), but it’s not like I can forget the advice and there’s definitely a concentration of crime there.

The report is 10 years old and I haven’t worked in the city long enough to appreciate what has or hasn’t improved. I still consider myself relatively new here and in any case I haven’t had much reason until now to get to know Northside very well. One thing I’ve definitely witnessed in my time here is the closure of the P&C Foods on Hancock Street. The document listed the grocery store as one of the neighborhood’s strengths, and hopefully the opening of the new Neighborhood Pride grocery store (which will benefit Fall Creek and Lower Northside residents too) will help create a sense of community and spur residential and commercial development.

Kicking off research

I don’t know much about Ithaca’s history in general, and I suspect it won’t be easy to track down the history of one tiny neighborhood whose boundaries are fairly arbitrary. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources at my disposal.

The Tompkins County Public Library has an amazing collection of digitized books on this area’s history. I like research I can do from home. I’ve given Ithaca and Its Past: The History and Architecture of the Downtown by Daniel R. Snodderly a quick read, but much of it is set up as a walking tour and I never left my house with it. It’s filled with a lot of detail about individual homes in the city, though, so there’s a good chance some of them are found in Lower Northside. I’ll be going through it again looking for relevant street names.

Another promising work is Ithaca’s Neighborhoods: The Rhine, the Hill, and the Goose Pasture. This book, published in time for Ithaca’s 1988 centennial, puts Lower Northside in a neighborhood called North Central. I’ve never heard that name used in the few years I’ve lived in Tompkins County, but the book goes on to divide that area into more familiar names (page 110):

In this chapter the area south of Cascadilla Street and east of Washington Park will be referred to as Central, while the area west of Washington Park will be called West End. The area north of Cascadilla Street will be described as Northside.

So this establishes Cascadilla Street as a meaningful border, but the West End described in the book (bounded on the West by what’s now called Fulton Street) is a little different from the one today, which includes the area around the inlet (here’s where I think City-data.com is way off, since they merge Northside and parts of the city that are commonly referred to as West End into something called Northside Triangle Inlet Island; again, many neighborhood borders are quite arbitrary). Northside is still Northside for the most part. It looks like Central is approximately what we now call Lower Northside, except the modern variant includes Washington Park. I’ll be diving into the details of the Central neighborhood in a later post.

Detail of frontispiece from Ithaca's Neighborhoods

Detail of frontispiece from Ithaca’s Neighborhoods

Both of these books were published by The DeWitt Historical Society of Tompkins County, now The History Center in Tompkins County (at least I think so; the history page seems to indicate they underwent a name change). I need to visit at some point. Another vital stop is Historic Ithaca, an organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing historic buildings and neighborhoods in the city.

I don’t have a whole lot of free time and I’m sickeningly far from being a historian. I’ll be learning very slowly and I’m probably going to screw things up a lot. Worst of all, I’m not much of a writer. Still, this seems like a small way I can contribute to the neighborhood. Feel free to help me along the way.