An opinion piece, originally published in the March 11 Ithaca Times
If the Internet is to be believed, a large majority of Ithacans would love to take their dogs for a walk on the Commons whenever the downtown pedestrian mall gets to looking fresh again.
Mayor Svante Myrick asked his Facebook followers their opinion both last September and in late February: should the 40-year-old ban on Commons canines should be lifted? Over the course of a couple hundred comments between the two strings, the Yays outnumbered the Nays about three to one.
“Why not Fido?” asked the online dog lovers. “S/he goes with me everywhere,” they said. “Dogs are everywhere in Europe, and Paris/Rome/Berlin is beautiful.” “Whenever we visit City X (Burlington, Asheville, Portland, any weird little city, really), no one there has any problem with dogs downtown.” Mostly, the affirmatives said “yes,” “yeah,” or “YES YESS YES.”
If one asked a selection of Commons merchants their opinion, several said they welcome in four-legged patrons. If not they seemed unconcerned, even blasé about the issue. One found it “very interesting” that a ban existed, then complained about smoking on the Commons. Some thought allowing dogs might help business, as tourists tend to bring along their pets – especially that yearly tourists-and-their-greyhounds bus. One merchant of 26 years said that dogs have been on the Commons “since Day One” and there’s no way to keep them off, “legally or illegally.”
Economic impact and certainty in enforcement were the two driving reasons why the Commons Advisory Board recommended dogs be legalized. Economic, because merchants have been hard-hit by reconstruction and will take all the business they can get, drool or no. Enforcement is difficult for police because it’s very easy for someone who’s caught with a poodle on the Commons to say “Oh, no, my Fifi is a service dog.” Those papers are easier to acquire than your Wednesday Ithaca Times.
Sniff those winds of prevailing opinion. Stop into a Lake Street tavern where a pit bull has claimed a stool. Watch passing strangers, man or woman, young or old, having an oh-you’re-soooo-cute squeal over one another’s poodle or pit bull. It seemed concluded that Ithaca and its Commons was gone to the dogs.
The only obstacle was a vote of Common Council at their March 4 meeting, where they were to consider a whole package of Commons law rewrites on everything from outdoor dining boundaries to a move-along rule for buskers. This was when Fido’s foes showed up in force. A force of a half-dozen or so, but they were there.
The no-dogs minority had stated their opposition on the Internet strings. They said they were either allergic, or afraid – of doggie disputes, of scaring the kids, of the few ruining it for the many, of poop smeared upon the shiny new Commons pavers. Besides one Ithacan arguing for a statue of Odysseus’ hound, these were the people Council heard talk. And Council said, “Well, dogs can wait,” because councils give more weight to people who show up than those who do not.
Council is not required to read Facebook comments – though 50 or so old-fashioned emails to one alderperson or another, which do go on record, might have changed the debate’s tone. There wasn’t one. And a lively Facebook presence might make national reporters drool, but it doesn’t give Mayor Myrick the power to tell Council to roll over.
Perhaps it’s true that all this means is that “people in Ithaca know the law is soft,” as the one, dog-opposed, Commons merchant who showed up March 4 said. Maybe Ithacans do “laugh at the signs.”
Until Ithacans start telling their government what to put on the signs, though, no one should be whining when on a trip with Toto to the pretty new Commons, an officer says “Get off there! I said, GET OFF!”