ITHACA, N.Y.—Emotions ran high Tuesday during a meeting hosted by the Downtown Ithaca Alliance. The meeting centered on the dynamic between business, crime and homelessness in the city’s core.
Many of the roughly 50 attendees, most of whom said they owned or worked for downtown businesses or organizations, said they had noticed an uptick in criminal activity in recent months, particularly on the Ithaca Commons.
Data from a Ithaca Police Department dashboard shows a slight upward trend in average daily 911 calls since spring of 2023.
During the meeting at the History Center in Tompkins County, shopkeepers addressed their comments to a panel composed of Ithaca Police Department (IPD) Acting Police Chief Ted Schwartz, City of Ithaca Chief of Staff Deb Mohlenhoff and Downtown Ithaca Alliance’s new CEO, Nan Rohrer. The complaints varied but the most common included public excrement, shoplifting, drug use, panhandling and harassment.
Some attendees seemed on the verge of tears, like Greta Perl, who runs toy shop Alphabet Soup.
“I think a lot of other retail stores have experienced a huge increase in shoplifting,” Perl said. “I think it’s gone down a little bit with school starting again. But this summer it was very, very bad.”
Sam Parlett, who owns clothing store Benjamin Peters, said he has had to clean urine and feces in the mornings before opening.
“Some people are saying they’re cleaning up dog poop, but I’m cleaning up human poop—like full size poop,” Parlett said. “I had to come in from my paternity leave multiple times to pick it up with my bare hands because nobody would even show up to DNA sample [it] or anything.”
Adil Griguihi of Marrakech Pizzeria, said he regularly witnesses people drinking, panhandling and using and selling drugs, particularly on the western end of the Commons.
“Look at what happened last night,” Griguihi said. “About 20 people hanging out right in the middle of the Commons—open beers, smoking, harassing people, using crack.”
Many business owners, Griguihi included, expressed their strong support of IPD, but felt officers often did not respond promptly or adequately in some cases. Griguihi cited a recent incident in which he claimed a man had entered his restaurant with a gun.
“I call the police department almost every day for something going on,” Griguihi said. “There are fights every day.”
There have been a number of headshops and a legal cannabis dispensary that have opened on the western end of the Commons. Only one attendee, a long time resident, criticized the shops, though her comments prompted some rebuke from business owners.
The county’s emergency dispatchers prioritize cases in which someone has been injured. Ithaca Police Department Acting Chief Ted Schwartz said that can result in longer wait times for people who call to report in other incidents, like those that are being seen most commonly on the Commons.
Many attendees noted there has not been a regular law enforcement presence on the Commons for the last few years. Schwartz said current staffing levels have made it difficult to have a dedicated beat cop on the Commons.
“We are not able to do that right now,” Schwartz said. “Because we need to just have people in a car to respond to emergencies.”
However, Schwartz said IPD is starting to see some improvements in recruiting and retention, like an increase in the number of officers in other municipalities interested in transferring to Ithaca.
“As of the last few months, I think things have been going better. I feel like the city and department as a whole are moving in a good direction for the first time in over four years,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz also blamed New York’s 2019 bail reforms for some repeat offenses, though studies remain inconclusive on whether the law is actually to blame for any increases in crime.
Mohlenhoff said that the city would prioritize improving police visibility on the Commons, but left it open-ended as to what that increased visibility might look like. She also said the city would explore the possibility of opening and staffing a public restroom, but did not commit to the idea. A port-a-potty was stationed for several weeks over the summer at the corner of North Tioga and East Seneca Streets, near the Bernie Milton Pavilion, but has been removed.
Rohrer, who comes to Ithaca after a stint managing a major business improvement district in Baltimore, M.D., said she’s exploring a contract with site management companies that would hire and train local employees to provide a myriad of services including security, cleaning and hospitality.
Rohrer said she had worked with one such company, Kentucky-based Block by Block, during her time in Baltimore.
While such contractors would provide some public safety services, Rohrer disagreed with the characterization of workers as private security guards.
“They would be unarmed,” Rohrer said. “They’d be more like a friendly face and a pair of helping hands.”
Rohrer named two firms as potential contractors: Block by Block and Brooklyn, N.Y. based Streetplus;, but said the bidding process for the contract would be competitive.
Rohrer also touted a more immediate response: the Commons will soon have two dedicated, full-time outreach workers through a partnership with Family and Children’s Services of Ithaca.
Currently, there is just one outreach worker—Jade Brewer. Though Brewer works full-time, they said they aren’t able to provide consistent services during times of need, like nights and weekends.
Brewer said they are hopeful their new colleague can help make a difference.
“He’s going to start within the week,” Brewer told attendees, to approving nods.
After the meeting, Brewer told the Ithaca Voice they feel the situation on the Commons has been exacerbated by a gradual winnowing down of resources in recent years. Today, there are fewer public restrooms, working water fountains and sheltered areas for people to rest compared to a few years ago.
Many shopkeepers and visitors may also be indirectly witnessing the opioid crisis evolve, Brewer said.
Some researchers report the synthetic opioids that now dominate the market offer a stronger but shorter lived high compared to other opioids like heroin. As a result, users may need to seek out and use the drugs on a far more frequent basis to avoid withdrawal symptoms. The increased frequency of those transactions can make the opioid addiction much more visible, particularly in popular public settings like the Commons.