Shaping a City: Ithaca, New York: A Developer’s Perspective, by Mack Travis
[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Reedsy Discovery for the purposes of review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.]
This book is a complex one (and a sizable one at around 300 pages) that manages to serve a variety of purposes. It serves as a love letter by the author to downtown Ithaca and its history, a very detailed discussion of developments proposed and built in Ithaca over the course of the last fifty years, and also a memoir of the author’s own experience in developing and in seeking to pass along his insights to the next generation. Whether or not the reader knows a lot about Ithaca going into the book, the author gives a great deal of information about the history of Ithaca, not only its size and its geography, but also the importance of universities to the overall health of the city and the city’s reputation as a place for high culture as well as a frequently awarded city for its livability, all of which the author discusses frequently during the course of the book as he discusses his efforts to help Ithaca thrive.
In a bit less than 300 pages, the author discusses the development history of Ithaca from 1971 to the present-day with a focus on his own personal involvement. The author discusses matters in mostly a chronological fashion, with chapters for each project or phase of the author’s varied and complex career. The beginning of this book looks at the development of the Commons in the early 1970’s (1) as well as the author’s experience with the Community Land Use Game (2). After this the author discusses projects that provided affordable housing to Ithaca, or were financial failures, and comments both on projects that increased jobs and business within downtown Ithaca or that caused a great deal of panic, like a threatened postal disaster that could have left downtown Ithaca without a post office presence at all. Quite a bit of the discussion involves the tension between the interests of residents and businesses, the desire to preserve culture and encourage not-for-profits and a strong ambivalence towards increasing the amount of undergraduate students within the heart of the city. The author also enthusiastically discusses his efforts at passing along his insights to his son as well as to the next generation as a whole, and the book is largely celebratory in its tone concerning the health of the city of Ithaca itself.
Needless to say, this book is particularly worthwhile if one is an Ithaca native or resident (or from nearby) and wishes to better understand the area and its development, or if one has strong interests in property and community development and the political and economic tensions and compromises involved in such decisions. The author’s detailed discussion of the financial and legal and political aspects of property development allow the reader to gain an understanding of the sort of pressures are faced by cities in preserving and increasing the tax base of urban space and the competition that downtown districts face from suburban districts when it comes to jobs, housing, and businesses. The author sprinkles his discussion with a high degree of cliches about real estate and his fears of downtown Ithaca being boarded up and in decay. The author’s voice is a strong one and in many parts of this book one can feel as if one is having a conversation to the reader and can almost hear him–when he talks about creeks as opposed to “cricks,” for example. Overall, if you have an interest in Ithaca or in the development of strong towns and cities, this is a worthwhile book.