La Mesa, From A Distance, Still Looks Good

GENEVA, NEW YORK -- As beautiful as it is, it is healthy to get away from the Jewel of the Hills. Living in a place that is as comfortable as La Mesa, there isn't as much pressure to "get away from it all'' than if you live in, say, the hot flat Midwest or the frenetic Northeast where the seasons are winter, before winter, after winter and the tolerable summer.

And so I find myself back in the small town of my youth, visiting a beloved and ailing Mom. The people of  this small, Finger Lakes town are, I am reminded, very similar to La Mesans. Perhaps we live out the paths of our adult lives, always trying to recreate, in some form, the comfort of our youth. Geneva is La Mesa East!

In these summer days, the Finger Lakes are very much like California. The slopes that rise from the deep, glacial lakes of this region are quickly being overtaken by wine vineyards, some, in fact, owned by Californians  who have found they can grow good grapes here more cheaply than on the Left Coast.

Over a few glasses of the local reds, friends asked me what it is like to live in San Diego. From a distance, big cities subsume the towns that make up a region.

"I don't really live in San Diego,'' I tell them quickly. "The truth is I have sort of found a 'Geneva West.'

Then I go on to describe life on the slopes of Mt. Helix with views of snow in the distance and beaches that can be reached in 15 minutes. I talk of artisan bread being baked at BMH in the morning and the fish tacos from Sun Tacos that are available 24-hours a day. A local library that is proudly our busiest local institution. Colleges and universities are nearby and filled with energy, yet I can walk quietly along a hillside road at sunrise and watch coyotes chasing the last rabbit of the night as hawks head out on their morning hunts.

I don't mention the cranky Village merchant who recently told me to be fruitful and multiply (but not in those words) because he didn't like my style of journalism. I don't try to explain the Property Based Improvement District -- it is summer after all and we're enjoying our wine. From a distance, these sources of local angst don't really warrant sharing; they are just little moguls on pretty lovely mountains.

Every year I return home, I see more parallels with La Mesa. Both Geneva and La Mesa have quaint, but struggling "Village"  downtowns, though Geneva, a city of 20,000 long ago created a Property Based Improvement District. Their PBID raises about $190,000 but spends more as some of their monthly concerts, cars shows (pictured above) and arts events make profits that are used for banners and hanging planters, cleaning sidewalks and maintaining the appearance of prosperity even in hard times. Geneva's merchants have teamed with art students at the local college to keep vacant store windows attractive and interesting to the strollers until new tenants can be found.

John Hicks, the professional administrator who was coaxed out of retirement to head Geneva's downtown efforts, said the key to preserving a downtown is remaining relentlessly upbeat, even when things are challenging.

"People ask me how we're doing,'' Hicks said. "My answer is always 'Fine.'"

I recount this not to advocate for La Mesa's PBID, but to share the universal struggles that small downtowns seem to face in maintaining an attractive commercial district. Geneva  clearly has everyone pulling together, trying to attract a share of the tourist trade that wanders through this new wine country every year.

Still, my conversations with Genevans about La Mesa usually end with an extended invitation and a promise from the New Yorkers to visit -- in the winter. I'll bring them to Cosmos to meet you all -- even the cranky ones.

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Tags: Geneva, New York, La Mesa Today, La Mesa news, On La Mesa, Property Based Improvement District

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Comment by Jim Wieboldt on August 2, 2012 at 2:20pm

Having one of our self appointed and proclaimed "Civic Leaders" telling the editor of this fine publication to perform a physical impossibility upon himself is not explained as easily as: "The reason I believe this is true is a passionate and engaged, (sometimes with descriptive nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs!) citizenry".

Is this how we justify the lies and bad behavior of our fellow merchant? For the betterment of our village? I think not!

We need to stop making excuses for bad behavior and support those who hold accountable such persons. Thank you Chris!

God Bless You all!

Comment by Chris Lavin on August 2, 2012 at 7:14am

So interesting to find another Finger Lakes connection. My take on Geneva is a little different, having lived there growing up. Virtually every year I have returned home, I have seen improvements in my hometown -- steps taking to save historic buildings, trees along the street scape, a waterfront development, a downtown playground and ice skating rec center. The college and town have worked more closely in recent years too. But urban development, particularly in more isolated locations, are slow and long term, subject to economic limitations that more metropolitan locations can combat a bit more easily. Still, the need to have a cohesive vision and a consistent, projected image to the wider world does seem to be concomitants of success where small towns have managed to establish a successful niche.

Comment by The OBriens of La Mesa on August 1, 2012 at 4:36pm

Superb Commentary and vision on this topic Chris. As always fine writing. My family and I just returned from a week on Seneca Lake, a little south in Dresden. Great time of year to spend time in that part of the country,  fresh water fishing, rolling thunder and lighting shows and all the S'mores you can eat!

I agree with your comparison to a point on Geneva and La Mesa. However,  and I think you can agree that Geneva is treading water; with a  Reduced tax base, few jobs out side the college and an all to short boost from the 'season' and wine industry, Geneva while trying its best, has seen better days. La Mesa on the other hand, I feel, has its best days ahead of it. The reason I believe this is true is a passionate and engaged, (sometimes with descriptive nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs!) citizenry. When you have a community such as ours that has people on both sides focused on the issues and the effect AND affect it will have on our future, this little town of ours has no where to go but up!

Comment by chris shea on July 31, 2012 at 11:21am

Really swell writing, Chris. As usual.  It sounds like you did find your Geneva West here in our La Mesa.  Count me in at the Cosmos gathering when your NY friends come to visit!  

Comment by Pamela D. Crooks on July 31, 2012 at 7:56am

Love this piece, Chris!  I have visited Geneva--one of the most beautiful towns in the Finger Lake region of New York State--and agree with your comparisons to La Mesa.  I have similar feelings about the Western North Carolina town I grew up in.  I believe this is what so many of us love about La Mesa--it's a real hometown....

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