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Is Binghamton, New York, the Sad Story of Small Town America?

Binghamton: History Takes A Toll

Do we ever get our hometowns completely out of our blood?

If you're as lucky as I was, growing up in Binghamton, those roots sustain and nourish you every day.

Binghamton, NY, is the small, upstate town where I was born and grew up. It's a beautiful place, set in a natural valley between two rivers.

In winter, foothills bereft of leaves turn slate gray and quiet, waiting for spring to refill with green what's left of the area's ancient forest, cleared when the Erie Canal catalyzed change in the sleepy backwoods through the mid-Nineteenth Century.

Go to New England. You won't find hills and valleys lovelier than those between which the Susquehanna and Chenango Rivers curl, merging near the city's center.

I always thought it was a great place to grow up. My opinion hasn't changed. But what's it like today?

Just after the 1960 Census results were in, the late, respected columnist for the Binghamton Press, Tom Cawley, wrote that, given population trends, the city to which I was permanently attached, the big city for me, Binghamton, the place I'd never forget, was going to be a ghost town by the end of the century.

Industry was leaving, population fleeing with it. Young people moved away to start their lives in distant places, and no new thing on the horizon reversed the decline.

Things never got quite that bad, but Binghamton, true to Tom Cawley's musings, saw its population fall by over fifty percent before ringing in the 21st Century.

Symbolically, my first high school, Binghamton North, ended its life, absorbed by its crosstown rival, Binghamton Central.

More painful is the shell that was once a vibrant downtown, the place my friends and I loved to hang out on summer evenings, watching the world we were about to join as adults pass by from a vantage point in front of the First City National Bank.

This is a story about what happened to most of urban America.

Many cities, like Detroit, got much worse, while a few thrived. It's just that the close-knit social structure of small towns, the sense that we all know each other, makes their deterioration so wrenching.

A History of Binghamton, As We Saw It

While both have had their destructive moments, the well-known Susquehanna River and the lesser known Chenango, fed by the Tioughnioga, carved a gentle flatland between foothills where Binghamton came to life in the Nineteenth Century.

Like most of Upstate New York, growth was fueled by one of the most explosive economic generators of all time, the Erie Canal. To take advantage of the canal, Upstate was clearcut of its old growth forests in an environmental catastrophe having much in common with the destruction of forests going on today in Brazil and other Third World countries.

New York traded forests for farms, and the catalyst was the chance to make a lot of money shipping goods by canal and river as far as New York City where they sailed off to a starving Europe.

Hard to imagine, these days, but the great canal prompted the end of an ancient forest that once stretched unbroken from the Hudson Valley to Lake Erie, broken only by small immigrant settlements and Indian villages.

People helped make Binghamton, NY, great.

Link Aviation, a company started by flight simulation pioneer, Edwin Link, always a reliable source of jobs when I was a kid, was acquired by General Precision, then Singer, and manufactured defense critical simulators into the Seventies. The company was then blown to smithereens by a Wall Street takeover artist who cared not a thing about our hometown legend.

Endicott-Johnson, where they once produced enough shoes to outfit most of our country's armed forces in two great wars, keeping thousands working, day in and day out, lost the battle to lower paying southern states and closed up shop.

Others went too, especially when the end of the Cold War meant shrinking the defense industry, and well before the turn of the century, Binghamton, New York was in the business of trying to reinvent itself, just like the majority of other small towns across America.

Just Some Binghamton Facts

And that is all that was, facts that are known widely and that may suggest reasons for the allegiance locals and even those who have left feel toward the city.

The area prospered under the idealistic business leadership of George F. Johnson, a benevolent style of ownership that would be widely scorned by shareholders today, and it's population grew with a massive infusions of immigrant laborers who came to work in the tanneries.

E-J recruited from Italy and the slavic countries, but a proud population of Polish families created and continues to flavor Binghamton's First Ward.

It's reasonable to imagine that the solidarity of immigrant groups produced a hometown loyalty that goes on, and it's also possible that Johnson's idealistic example of treating others with respect and generosity permeated the local mindset.

Even though I have no way to prove it, I'm still claiming that those of us who grew up in the Binghamton community are more emotionally tied to our hometown than similar places.

A group on Facebook, I Am From Binghamton New York, soared to two-thousand members almost overnight, and an avid group of participants continues to discuss favorite teachers, best bars and unforgettable characters daily.

After twenty years in New York City and twenty before it in Buffalo, I can honestly say I've seen nothing like this passion and loyalty from either place. And I haven't seen it for any other town, small or large, either.

Seeing Binghamton In The Story of Endicott-Johnson

Walking America Through The Big Wars

Binghamton, New York, was named after William Bingham, who bought the land in 1792, and it was known as Chenango Point until Binghamton was officially incorporated less than ten years after the Erie Canal opened and as feeder canals encouraged massive farming.

It became a City just after the Civil War. Over the next one-hundred years, it blossomed into one of New York State's ten largest, topping out at around ninety-thousand before the long decline started, soon enough to be recognized in the census of 1960.

In many ways, the story of Binghamton was the story of Endicott-Johnson. It's companion villages, making up the Triple Cities, were named after the company's co-owners, George F. Johnson and Henry B. Endicott.

Endicott, an out of towner, bought the company from a failing Lester Brothers, and made his impressive manager, Johnson, his partner.

E-J's became the champion of Welfare Capitalism, a movement that argued that business owners had an obligation to and also gained from the uplifting of their employees. This meant that the company built parks, libraries, churches and, most important, affordable housing.

The Village of Endicott was one of the first of what were then known as "company towns," planned, financed and built by the company to provide a beneficial domestic environment for workers.

Another initiative attributed to Johnson was "the square deal" he committed to as fair play for the workers. This included extensive company benefits, which, it's been claimed, greatly influenced the much prized benefits long offered by E-J's younger sibling from Endicott, International Business Machines, now better known as IBM.

The success of Endicott-Johnson was attributable to war, the company having produced virtually all the footwear for American soldiers in both World Wars.

Times of peace were not so good. George F. Johnson died in 1948, and outside management came on as the company declined less than ten years later.

A shadow has since been passed around from investor to investor, including Citigroup, but only the title E-J remains.

Binghamton, New York, Now

Like the rest of the country, most of the Binghamton's industry has gone, lost to lower cost labor elsewhere.

Binghamton University (Harpur College, then SUNY Binghamton, when I was growing up) is to the city what Endicott-Johnson once was, a dynamic magnet drawing people from outside the community, but without many of the benefits.

Students come to learn, and then, they go. Few establish roots or stay to raise families.

The downtown area is empty at night and on weekends, except during special events. Contrast that to the time in the Sixties when business owners expanded evening shopping to Mondays because so many people were crowding the stores on the traditional Thursday nights.

A vibrant arts community has emerged, featuring Binghamton artists, such as Anthony Brunelli, and may be leading a Renaissance that will redefine the city.

The natural setting of the area is huge advantage few other places are blessed with. Rolling foothills, cut by intermittent little streams, spring green in May and burst with earth tones in the fall. Communities and neighborhoods climb the gentle slopes and look down at the usually placid rivers merging at the the center of town.

It's hard to imagine a pleasanter place to live or raise a family nor one with fewer opportunities for long term careers or even just stable jobs.

Sometimes, you come away with an impression of a beautiful ghost town waiting to accept it's fate.

Then, at others, you can't avoid noticing the busy industrial parks expanding in nearby Kirkwood or the vibrant State University campus in Vestal.

But the positives are all suburban and a bit detached. Downtown withers, although the university and artist community may save it yet. City neighborhoods deteriorate without private investment revitalizing housing stock.

The friends from Binghamton I know on Facebook have mostly moved away, regardless of their attachments, and when I search through Classmates to find lost friends, only a few remain in this little town.

It's probably the proper fate of communities that they decline, vanish or reinvent themselves when the initiating cause of their growth is gone. Binghamton, NY, was a creation of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, the agricultural and manufacturing versatility that grew the country.

And now, it lingers into the Twenty-first, enriched by its history but still not sure what it's future really is.

Downtown Binghamton, New York, Video

I wandered around downtown one day in November, just long enough to shoot this video portrait.

Not a pretty picture. As the suburbs and outskirts tended to thrive, downtown got hollowed out. Little is new, and what was old is sagging.