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On Loving Geneva

by Kevin Dunn

I am not sure when I fell in love with Geneva.

It definitely happened slowly. When I was hired at HWS, I was encouraged by several colleagues to live in Ithaca or Rochester. They argued that there just wasn’t much going on in Geneva. My partner and I rented a place just outside of Ithaca, but we soon found that we were spending all of our social time in Geneva. At least once a week we could be found sitting at Cosie’s, eating peanuts and talking about politics and music. When we decided to buy a house two years later, we knew we were moving to Geneva.

Sure, the lake is beautiful, but we were drawn in more by the community. How many small towns have their Burger King go out of business, while more than 40 (!) locally-owned and independent dining establishments survive? Clearly, something interesting is going on in this small city. I was soon impressed by the tenacity of Geneva’s entrepreneurs. If a small business failed, it wasn’t long before another one gave it a shot. Of course there were plenty of naysayers. I recall some locals telling me the Red Dove Tavern would never last because they didn’t have TVs or serve Bud Light. The Red Dove has been going strong for seven years now, the vanguard of Geneva’s dining renaissance.

A few months after the Red Dove opened, my friend Doug Reilly and I decided to start Geneva13 – a zine (DIY magazine) of the local that is published quarterly(ish). The goal was to create a platform that “promotes people’s creative expressions as they construct their identities and communities.” We include photos, poems, art and essays from a broad spectrum of Geneva’s residents, but we also started including lengthy interviews with locals as well. In the years since, I have interviewed barbers, farmers, dry cleaners, migrant workers, bicycle shop owners, social workers, musicians, trash collectors, and so many more. My appreciation has grown for the many communities that make up Geneva. As we wrote at the outset, Geneva13 is a “love song to this town of ours,” but it is not a blind love. We recognize it, warts and all. The majority of Geneva’s schoolkids qualify for assisted lunch. The poverty levels are above the state average (although the crime level is below the state average). Race tensions occasionally boil over, as when a black male was shot in the back by a white Geneva police officer a few years ago (admittedly, the case was more complex than it sounds). The City responded to the controversy well, but there are still no African-Americans on the police force. I could go on, but my point is actually that Geneva’s problems are not unique to Geneva. They are America’s problems. Geneva is a highly diverse community. That is one of the reasons I fell in love with it — and started to teach about it.

Three years ago, Anna Creadick (English), Nick Ruth (Art) and I designed a First- Year Seminar entitled “You Are Here: Geneva 101.” It came about in part because we realized that an interdisciplinary investigation of place was a great way to introduce incoming students to the wide range of academic experiences and methods they will encounter during their four years at HWS. The course is not about boosterism (though admittedly I do get carried away at times). Rather, it is about utilizing Geneva and the surrounding Finger Lakes region as a microcosm for intellectually engaging in the wide array of issues and challenges students will study at HWS, and go on to grapple with across their adult careers. Whether students are interested in pressing economic, political, religious, or environmental issues or invested in artistic, cultural or civic life, Geneva is big enough to be an excellent laboratory for examining these subjects up-close, yet small enough to propose solutions and put them into action. Its size, location, diversity and challenges make Geneva a pedagogical blessing.

Since moving to Geneva, I am more integrated into the community than I thought possible. I’ve started a few artistic ventures, and joined several community boards. About two years ago, I helped create the “Love Geneva” initiative, an independent grass-roots movement supporting economic and social sustainability in Geneva. The idea was simple: encourage self-sustaining development by nurturing home-grown resources, specifically Geneva’s local businesses and artists. Partly a “shop local” initiative, partly a morale booster, partly a vehicle for encouraging the arts, the project has been embraced to a staggering degree. For example, we started providing free “Love Geneva” bumper stickers, distributing well-over a thousand so far, and it is hard to drive around town and not see at least half a dozen.

One of the tag lines we use for Love Geneva is “It’ll Love You Back.” After a decade of living in Geneva and loving it, I’m a walking testimonial to that fact.

PROFESSOR OF POLITICAL SCIENCE KEVIN DUNN has written extensively on international relations and politics in Africa. He is co-author of Inside African Politics (2013); Politics of Origin in Africa: Autochthony, Citizenship, and Conflict (2013); and African Guerrillas: Raging Against the Machine (2007), among several other books. He’s also authored numerous articles on a diverse array of topics that have been printed in publications ranging from scholarly journals to an independent music magazine. In 2009, he produced, edited, and directed a documentary on the legendary punk rocker Stevie Stiletto, titled “My Life is Great: The Stevie Stiletto Story.” A member of the faculty since 2001, Dunn received his Ph.D. from Boston University.