Posted by: ithacaisdoomed | June 2, 2010

Why is Ithaca Doomed?

Why is Ithaca doomed?  A logical question, begging to be answered, for no one wants Ithaca to be doomed, least of all me.   As I have mentioned elsewhere, Ithaca is no more doomed than anywhere else in the United States of Dysfunction — which is to say, totally screwed.  However, aside from some of the more obvious causes of our future demise, such as packs of feral dogs, cannibal rednecks,  invasive species, hydrofracking for natural gas, and the overabundance of estrogen in our water supply (something I’ll write about at a later time), Ithaca has a problem uniquely its own. I’m not sure what to call it, “liberal asshattery” perhaps?, but Providence has recently provided an archetypal example. 

 Tragically, during the course of the 2009-2010 academic  year, there have been 6 suspected suicides amongst the Cornell student population, three of whom were young, male Engineering majors.  Many of these young adults chose to end their lives by jumping from one of the bridges on campus into one of the two gorges from which the “Ithaca is Gorges” slogan takes its name. There have been so many suicides from these bridges that, over the course of the past 30 years, Cornell has garnered a reputation as a high stress “suicide school.”

Quoted in  a recent New York Times article on the Cornell suicides, Timothy Marchell, a clinical psychologist in Cornell’s campus health services whose specialties include suicide, said that “despite the half-dozen known or suspected suicides this year, historically, Cornell suicides have not been higher than what national statistics predict for a university population of 20,000 students: about two per year.” What makes these suicides unique, and more disturbing, is their highly public aspect and the ominous juxtaposition of beauty and death going on when one contemplates ending it all by jumping into a gorge, a place normally associated with tranquility. 

In response to this “suicide epidemic,” Cornell asked the Ithaca Board of Public Works to erect some “temporary” chain link fences, “suicide barriers,” on some of the dubiously popular bridges.  Originally, the fences were slated to come down on June 4, but Cornell has asked the BPW to extend the deadline another eight to 10 weeks while the city and Cornell work on interim and then permanent bridge barriers.

A Cornell tm suicide barrier

Many feel, as do I, that the barriers mar the inherent beauty of our natural areas, giving them a prison-like atmosphere. What’s more, the entire city resembles a construction zone during the summer months anyway, so it’s all the more disconcerting to see our bridges begin to look like them.  I’m all for preventing suicide, I’m just not sure “suicide barriers” are the means to accomplish this and I’m not sure I want “the Big Nanny state” telling me these ugly chain link fences are for my own good.

On May 24, one of these “suicide barriers” was put to the test.  A local man, not a Cornell student, climbed behind the barrier on the Stewart Avenue Bridge and threatened suicide.  First Responders were called to the scene because an alert citizen had time to see what was happening and called.  Fortunately, Ithaca is not the kind of place where people would chant “jump” ( not yet anyway) at a person contemplating suicide.  Nor was he a Wall Street Banker. 

According to Ithaca Fire Department Deputy Chief Tom Parsons, “people actually saw what was going on and were able to call emergency services and that delay in slowing down the process meant the emergency services responders got there sooner and were able to make personal contact.”  He went on to add that “Firefighters used bolt-cutters to cut through the fence ‘like butter,’ and it didn’t inhibit their rescue efforts.”  Others have disputed this idea, saying that the suicide barriers may have actually hampered the rescue effort.

The Board of Public Works debated extending the deadline for removing the fences at its most recent meeting.  Various issues surrounding the “suicide barriers” were debated, among them the aesthetic and financial concerns. (Cornell has financed the fences thus far. But who would pay for a more permanent solution?)  Jennifer Streid-Mullen, executive director of Suicide Prevention & Crisis Services,weighed in, saying that  “her agency has been advocating for bridge fences since the 1970s. Ithaca’s bridges have become ‘suicide magnets’ and installing well-designed, permanent barriers could help reduce suicide deaths in Ithaca.”

Several Board members questioned the feasibility and efficacy of the suicide barriers, but it was BPW member Cynthia Brock, who really nailed it:   “Only 2 percent of suicide deaths are from jumping,” Brock noted, “asking whether this is really the best strategy to reduce suicide.”  And she went on to encapsulate the whole problem:  “I think it is a patch and allows us in some ways to pat ourselves on the back and say, ‘We’ve done a great job,’ when ultimately, as we’ve seen (Monday), people who are committed to suicide will get over the fence,” she said.

And therein lies the Doom, for the “great suicide barrier debate” is but one link in a long chain of asshattery that stretches back  over the years, possibly even into the 19th century.  If one reads the public comments on this Ithaca Journal article, one discerns a couple of dominant themes amidst the inane babble. One is that if you are anti-suicide barrier, you are instantly an unfeeling cad who has no sympathy either for the victims or the families of anyone who has ever committed suicide by jumping into an Ithaca gorge.  The other theme is more subtle: It involves identifying with the “victimized” group, even though you may not have any direct ties to said group.  This process of identification then allows for you to sit astride the moral high horse.  Even though you may have never given a thought to Cornell college students before, aside from trying to keep out from under their tires, you can now identify with those afflicted by the specter of suicide.  A comment such as this typifies this sort of psychological process: “The FACT is that Suicide is preventable with treatment and by limiting access to the means. If it was your teenage son or daughter who committed suicide from these bridges, you’d think differently about the issue,” wrote one poster in response to someone who suggested tearing down the barriers. 

Here is how it works:  Why question the deeper issues when one can simply respond with quasi-moralistic statements designed to make the other side in the debate feel guilty for even suggesting that suicide barriers are not the real solution, or that the best way to solve racial discrimination in Ithaca might not necessarily be to rename the most visible street in town after Martin Luther King Jr., or that it might not be a good idea after all to invoke the right of eminent domain in order to complete a pedestrian trail?  Many in Ithaca cherish their knee jerk, highly visible “patches” to the deeper problems that beset our fair city and they will defend them with as much vituperative name calling and morally judgmental statements as it takes to get their way.  Sure, there’s some inherent hypocrisy involved, as in “I’ll get all bent out of shape about killing the Cayuga Heights deer while I continue to eat factory farmed meat,”  but aren’t we all hypocrites to a certain extent simply by nature of living in 21st century America?  Dig a bit deeper into the motivations behind many of the most vociferous and there’s often some grant money, some social standing, or some career-building riding behind that “patch,” whether it’s a street name, a pedestrian trail, or a suicide barrier. 

Before I moved to Ithaca, I lived in Chenango County, New York, a county that has a literacy rate approximating that of Afghanistan.  The idea of living amongst such an educated populace as can be found in Ithaca was a dream come true.  People warned me about Ithaca, though, saying it had a nickname, “The People’s Republic of Ithaca.”  At the time, I shrugged off their criticisms, thinking it was just right-winger talk or that they were just “jealous,” stuck in their dying small town while I was on my way to one of the most vibrant places in Upstate New York.  Having been here for almost a decade now, I’m beginning to see what they meant.  There are a few people in this town who could stand to watch a bit more South Park, until they develop a sense of humor.  T.S. Eliot said that the world ends “not with a bang, but with a whimper.”  In Ithaca, New York, the world may very well end with humorless, angry accusations of intolerance and insensitivity from the mouths of the “enlightened.”



  1. they should line up all the piece of shit commies in ithaca and help them off the bridge.

    • WOW! There’s Commies here too! We really are doomed!

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