ITHACA, N.Y. — The city of Ithaca has its good days and bad days. 25 years ago today, was one of those bad days.
Those of us who are young would have no good recollection of what used to stand at the small block bounded by North Cayuga, Cascadilla and Farm Streets in Fall Creek. To us, it’s always been the boxy and jagged Resistance Salon building, with a small, well-kept parking lot next to it. Not very eye-catching, and something that quickly gets overlooked as one heads towards Gimme! Coffee, or glances down towards the creek.
In fact, many younger residents, whether by age or by life experience, might be a bit surprised to know that a three-story mixed-use building used to stand on that block. The same kind that the city planners get all excited about now. There were businesses like Nick Vlahos’s Busy Bee Restaurant on the first floor, and apartments above. But most prominently on that first floor was Ithaca’s beloved GreenStar Co-Op.
Although the Ithaca economy was hemorrhaging jobs in the early 1990s, GreenStar was having a pretty good run. Their 2,400 square-foot store, first rented in 1983, was often jam-packed with customers, and the governing body was having debates over a new location, to increase their size and offerings. It was a good problem to have.
That was not what was on their minds on the seasonably cold night of January 6th, 1992. At that moment in time, it was about picking up the pieces and salvaging what little they could.
Hours earlier, in the dark of the January night sky, the city had been cast aglow after a fire broke out on the block. Starting around 9 PM, it spread quickly through the century-old wood frame building and burned into the early morning. The flames devoured the co-op, diner and apartments, and two neighboring homes at 105-107 Farm Street and 431 N. Cayuga Street. The walls, charred and weakened, collapsed onto themselves. Not only did the businesses lose their shops, 22 people, 12 in the units above GreenStar and 10 in the adjacent houses, had lost their homes.
Thankfully, customers, staff and residents were able to evacuate in time, and no one was seriously hurt. An IFD firefighter was slightly injured, but after treatment, he returned to duty quick enough to help keep the smoldering debris from reigniting. A video of the fire can be found online here. The cause of the fire was determined to be arson – a 13-year old who set fire to the materials inside a trash can, which then spread to the building. The narrow alley channeled the heat and smoke, allowing the fire to persist even as firefighters actively worked to get it under control.
With nothing left but a pile of blackened timber beams, there wasn’t much to rebuild on that block. Eventually, though, the residents of Ithaca and the members of GreenStar looked past their sadness and began to move forward. The Resistance Salon was built the year after the fire, and the house at 105 Farm Street came along several years later. But GreenStar never returned to the block. In fact, the debate on whether they needed to move to a new location was settled, though not by vote as its members would have preferred. A landslide vote saw the co-op pick up the old Payless supermarket on the west side of the city. This became GreenStar’s new 10,000 square-foot market the following September, and where they’ve been since. A decade later, the food co-op would return to the heart of Ithaca with the GreenStar Oasis branch in the DeWitt Mall. Vlahos, the owner of the diner, stayed in the local restaurant business until his retirement.
January 6th, 1992 was not a good day for the city of Ithaca. But, sometimes, seeing how bad something were on that day years ago, is a reminder of how good things are now. GreenStar is doing well with its three locations, some life has returned to that block (although the city planners probably wouldn’t mind a new building on that parking lot). Like Simeon’s more recently, it shows how Ithacans can face tragedy and work together to rebuild.