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Downtown safety a priority for local shops, cops and boosters


Photo of the Downtown Ithaca Commons (Photo by Carolina Cedraschi/Ithaca Week)

Police agree that safety is a major issue in downtown Ithaca — and point to understaffing as the major roadblock. 

Earlier this month — in the middle of the day during a chili cook-off event — police responded to a stabbing on West State Street near Ithaca Commons. Two of the people involved in the altercations fled the scene before officers could arrive, leaving a third person wounded, with a laceration on his face. 

For those who say this college town is becoming more dangerous, incidents like this, and local crime statistics, support their views. 

Concerned Business Owners 

In September 2023, the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, a nonprofit organization charged with supporting city business and revitalization, hosted a meeting to discuss increasing crime with local businesses. About 50 businesses were represented at the meeting. 

Ben Plotke has owned Lev Kitchen, a restaurant in the Eastern part of the Ithaca Commons, for two years. He and his staff typically feel safe, he said. However, last month when the staff was busy, a woman who had been asking for money took $60, he said. The woman, Plotke said, has a history of substance-use disorder and mental health issues and is familiar to the downtown community. 

Photo of Lev Kitchen, a middle Eastern restaurant downtown owned by Plotke. (Photo by Carolina Cedraschi/Ithaca Week)

Plotke said he made a police report but hasn’t heard if they talked to the woman, who is still in the area.  

“That individual has been out on the Commons every single day since the incident,” Plotke said. 

Plotke said he understands that the system has failed the woman who came into his business — but he feels the system isn’t working for him, either. 

“The system is also failing us as business owners, because someone came in, stole $60 from us, and it seems as if there are no repercussions for it at all,” he said. 

Greta Pearl is the manager of Alphabet Soup, a toy store that has been on the Eastern part of the Ithaca Commons since 1984.  

Alphabet Soup is one of the oldest and longest-running businesses downtown. Over the past year, Pearl has seen an increased police presence downtown — and she believes it has helped with keeping loiterers from congregating near her business. 

The inside of Alphabet Soup, a toy store in the Downtown Ithaca Commons. (Photo by Carolina Cedraschi/Ithaca Week)

In early Fall 2023, Pearl attended the meeting held by the DIA, and the biggest issues that were mentioned included shoplifting, panhandling, drug use, public excrement, and harassment.   

“Most of the issues we had last summer seem to have gone away,” Pearl said. “And I give (the police) a lot of credit for that.” 

Monday through Friday, Alphabet Soup is open until 6 p.m., and overall, Pearl said, she feels safe working downtown. 

The Bar Scene 

Chris Serrano, a manager at Moonies bar in the Commons, also lives downtown. He said he is concerned with the safety inside — and outside — of the establishment.  

The bar is open from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and Serrano said the police presence seems to have decreased, particularly during the daytime hours. 

“Externally, there was a (recent) situation when a customer was unruly, denied entry to the bar, and the situation escalated to the point where it could have resulted in a fight,” he said, adding that Moonies is one of the few local clubs investing in “a ton of security.” 

“We really put the emphasis on providing a safe place for people to enjoy their night out,” Serrano said. 

However, he said, there are police officers patrolling in the evenings from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. 

It takes a village 

Understaffing is at the heart of the problem, police say. 

Ted Schwartz, investigations officer at the Ithaca Police Department since 2011, said perceptions about safety can be subjective.  

However, he said, the rise of serious crime coupled with police understaffing challenges can contribute to citizens’ feelings of unease. 

“Over the last couple years, we’ve seen a rise in serious crime in Ithaca, and with that, our staffing levels have been drastically low, and I think there’s a lot of things that play into crime and safety, but certainly our staffing numbers have impacted our ability to respond, enhance safety, and reduce crime,” he said. 

Nan Rohrer, Downtown Ithaca Alliance’s (DIA) chief executive officer, said since she started in her new role in July, she has made it a priority to understand the various issues that residents and businesses owners may be facing downtown — and to have a presence there, as well. 

“The DIA is currently working on recreating our hospitality program so that we have someone, or multiple people, (who could be the) face of the community and the face of the DIA throughout all of downtown,” Rohrer said. “They will also be trained and have very quick access to the police department and to the community outreach program.” 

For the past nine months, Schwartz and the DIA have been joining forces to tackle downtown safety issues. One way they’ve done this is to increase communication with residents and business owners. 

“We’ve had several meetings, trainings, and we’ve had community engagement events down at the Commons, just at the very least to try to open communication and let them know that this is what we’re able to do and this is where we want to go,” Schwartz said. 


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