Entry number five in the Collegetown history series.
There’s a lot to dislike about Collegetown. The litter, the students, the traffic, the students, the noise, the students. For as much value as it is to the city’s coffers, I’m willing to wager that a survey of 20 random Ithaca residents on the worst neighborhood in the city would turn up a near tie between Collegetown and specific sections of crime-plagued West Hill. To some, Collegetown could hardly be a worse place.
But it can; take for instance, student rioting.
Rioting could fall into two fairly broad categories – violent social commentary, or drunken idiocy. Syracuse can provide an example of the latter. Collegetown’s riot may be a little alcohol-infused (particularly the second one discussed here), but mostly they were the result of social unrest.
Today’s clock is rolling back to May 1972. That spring had been a long semester at Cornell. Carpenter Hall had been taken over a few weeks earlier, with students demanding that Cornell Aeronautical Lab stop government research (much of their research focused on defense and military concerns), that trustees with a hand in Gulf Oil force the company out of Portugal’s African colonies, and that the ROTC be permanently disbanded. The administration, then under President Dale Corson, said it was “prepared to talk and listen but not negotiate“. The protestors refused to budge, but stormed out to Day Hall when an injunction was about to be served.
May 11 started just like any other anti-war rally, with 200-300 students protesting in front of Day Hall at around 10 PM. But when they decided to march to Collegetown, things spiraled out of control. Several students went to the First National Bank on the corner of College and Dryden (the corner where the failed Green Cafe is now), smashed the windows, and tried to set the bank on fire with homemade torches. IPD responded to the rioters with tear gas. Eight protesters were arrested and two policemen sustained injuries, one of which was a broken leg. The rioters, dressed in Halloween masks and being in a destructive sort of mood, retreated to campus, where they smashed the windows of the Campus Store and Day Hall, to the tune of “Day Hall must fall” chants. They marched on to Barton because of its ROTC affiliation, smashing several more windows while Cornell police watched in their riot gear, but did not intervene. By 1:15 AM, the rioters called it a night and dispersed. The damage to Collegetown was estimated to be thousands of dollars, which would be in the tens of thousands when adjusted to 2014 values.
Corson and his administration were none too amused, and vowed to prevent any recurrence with the help of the IPD. That vow would be tested two days later, at a student block party on College Avenue near its intersection with Catherine Street. The party had hundreds of attendees and had been well-publicized, but it lacked the necessary permits from the city (yes, even in the idyllic days of yore, there was red tape). Mayor Ed Conley, remembering the riots two days earlier, was not going to let it slide. The police were out by 6 PM and started to arrest students for minor infractions such as noise violations. The proverbial stick was poking the hornet’s nest, and Cornell’s provost tried to step in on the university’s behalf and offer up party space on campus. But students declined, and unrest began to boil over by 9:30 PM. The officers turned to tear gas to keep the street clear, which fomented the students and encouraged them to act out. Bottles, rocks and obscenities began to fly. Soon the battlefield had migrated up College Avenue, where IPD threw tear gas into buildings in an effort to gas out what they thought were unruly students taking refuge, but ending up gassing innocent bystanders as well. One store-owner accused the police of starting a fire with a canister thrown into his deli. The rioting continued to 2 AM, and resulted in 29 arrests, including 13 Cornell students. Accusations were thrown around about who started it and who did what damage, and a report some time afterward laid blame on the students, the IPD, the mayor and Cornell (so essentially, everyone was at fault). In retrospect, the May 13th episode was regarded as a giant mistake. The May 11th incident was still a flash point months afterward, a drug-infused example of organized crime per the district attorney and a witchhunt per the students.
Not to condone the drunken throngs losing their dinner on the sidewalk, but I suppose I’d rather put up with that than burning buildings and riot gear.