Ithaca Blog

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Ithaca's Wild West End

The #2 most e-mailed story in the New York Times yesterday was a story featuring Gimme Coffee, the Ithaca-based coffee bar whose outpost in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn has helped define that area as the epitome of hip in the city, and raised the entire city's standards for coffee to heights never imagined at Chock Full O' Nuts.

Gimme Coffee at 506 W. State St. in Ithaca is doing the same thing here, in the town's West End, which might be to its city, what Willamsburg is to its.

Half a decade ago, the West End was a section of quizzical businesses in non-descript buildings, and bars where nobody wanted to know your name. There was a chicken-and-egg aspect to the area: were there no good businesses there because no one went there? Or did no one go there because there was nowhere to go?

A couple of small businesses thought the latter. It's not that the West End is too far to visit, at four or so blocks past the Commons (and no hills). Maybe the place was a zircon in the rough.

The neighborhood wasn't barren. GreenStar Co-op moved there in the early '90s, after a fire at their old Fall Creek store. Soon after, Maxie's Restaurant brought vigor and style to the site of the old Farmers and Shippers restaurant.

But GreenStar and Maxie's were businesses that, generally, people drove to, then away from.

By the turn of the decade, Gimme Coffee and other businesses were betting that they could bring car and foot traffic both to the area, and change the perception of it from far out to near in.

One of those businesses was Small World Music, which close readers of Ithaca Blog will recognize as having a mild affiliation with this publication. In the interest of a seeming modesty which is by no means easy to affect, we will shift attention from this business right now, except to note, for the historical record, we were here good and early.

In 2002, a sea change came to the neighborhood in the form of an ocean liner of a home built for itself by the Alternatives Federal Credit Union. The new building replaced the old Moose Lodge, and then some, taking up a whole block on Fulton Street, from Seneca Street to State Street, and becoming the financial nexus of much of Ithaca, as well as a focus of serious face-time.

At around that time, GreenStar expanded its hours of operation. Gimme Coffee opened, bringing people in early, and keeping them fixated for long and frequent spells.

It only made sense that soon the area would need a nighttime yang to the daytime ying of Gimme. And so Felicia's Atomic Lounge opened, right next door. Today the businesses are joined at the hip by a chic alleyway patio that could easily be mistaken for an idyllic part of Williamsburg or the Lower East Side.

The influx increased with the migration of an existing business, the Cayuga Mountain Bike Shop, now known as Cayuga Ski and Cyclery. Their move 5 blocks west, from State and Geneva to State near Fulton, gave them increased space, on a block they construed as closer and more convenient to their clientele.

Joining the party, so to speak, was Finger Lakes Beverage Center, next to Kinko's on West State Street, home of fancy beers and sodas - including kegs, and beers on tap to take away ("growlers", for some reason) ; and one of the very few places in the United States one can use a currency not issued by the United States government, nor any government, to get an adult beverage (they accept an Ithaca Hours dollar - known as a 1/10th note - per purchase. For more information about Ithaca's own money, see

Already at the party, for a number of years now, has been Sparrow's Wines and Liquors, a small but excellent shop on the corner of Fulton and Green (which also accepts Ithaca Hours).

Ithaca Bakery saw enough potential in the West End that they opened a branch on Meadow and Cleveland, just a few blocks away from the main shop at Meadow and Court. It is more a complement than a competitor to the flagship, serving the Southside neighborhood, and featuring a drive-through window.

A new health club facility on Inlet Island is perhaps only technically on the fringe of the new West End. But it certainly raises the profile of the area, as will an adjacent walk and bike path that is planned as a nature-friendly link from the West End to the Farmer's Market area.

If the first shall indeed be last, let us close with a brief mention of the conscientiously overlooked Small World Music. Come and see it for yourself, next time you're on the West End. From the newest CDs to the oldest LPs, a great selection at great prices. Appropriately funky for the neighborhood, and then some, in a garage behind the house at 614 W. State St. - one block west of Gimme, right across the street from Finger Lakes Beverage. Ithaca Hours accepted 100%. Mention this piece and get 15 % off (Hours, or US dollars) your purchase.

Stephen Burke
unhired gun
for Ithaca Blog

1 comment:

David Makar said...

Mild affiliation eh?