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My Hometown, Binghamton: An Emblem of Shrinking American Small Towns

Updated 2 weeks ago David Stone
Court Street Bridge leading into downtown Binghamton, New York
Court Street Bridge leading into downtown Binghamton, New York
Public Domain

Most of us never get our hometowns and the reference library of community life we gain completely out of our heads and hearts. If you're lucky as I was, growing up in Binghamton, the roots are nourishing. They're also sadly nostalgic reminders that you can never go home because home is gone.

Binghamton: History Takes A Toll

Binghamton is a small, upstate New York town. I was born and lived there until I was 21 when complications from the Vietnam war sent me away.

It's a beautiful place, set in a gentle valley between two rivers, the Chenango and the Susquehanna.

In winter, foothills bereft of leaves turn slate gray. Spring refills what's left of the area's ancient forest with shades of green. The forest was clearcut when the Erie Canal catalyzed change in sleepy upstate counties, continuing 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. 

Just after the 1960 Census, a columnist for the Binghamton Press, the late 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.

My Hometown, Binghamton: An Emblem of Shrinking American Small Towns
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Industry was leaving, and natives were 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 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, the existence fo which sadly suggests that town fathers once had plans for a Binghamton South.

More painful is the shell of a vibrant downtown, the place my friends and I hung out on summer evenings, watching the adult world we were about to join pass from a vantage point in front of First City National Bank.

Binghamton’s is a story about what happened to most of small town 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 everyone's connected with everyone else, makes their deterioration so wrenching.

Merging of Rivers Marks the Map

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

My Hometown, Binghamton: An Emblem of Shrinking American Small Towns
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Like most of Upstate New York, growth was fueled by one of the explosive economic generator of its time, the Erie Canal. 

To take advantage of the canal, millions of acres were clearcut of old growth forests in an environmental catastrophe analogous to the destruction of forests to foster development going on in Third World countries today.

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

Hard to imagine, these days, but the great canal energized the end of a forest that stretched unbroken from the Hudson Valley to Lake Erie, interrupted only by small immigrant settlements and Indian villages.

People helped make Binghamton great.

Link Aviation, a company started by flight simulation pioneer, Edwin Link, was always a reliable source of jobs when I was a kid. In the Sixties, it was acquired by General Precision, then Singer, and continued manufacturing defense critical simulators into the Seventies. 

The company was then blown to smithereens by Wall Street takeover artist Paul Bilzerian who cared not a thing about hometown legacies.

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, for decades, lost a battle with lower paying southern states and closed up shop.

My Hometown, Binghamton: An Emblem of Shrinking American Small Towns
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Others went too, especially when the end of the Cold War meant shrinking the defense industry, and before the turn of the century, Binghamton struggled to reinvent itself, just like other small towns across America.

Some Binghamton Facts

The area prospered under the idealistic business leadership of George F. Johnson, a benevolent style of ownership that might be 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, and 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 generated loyalty that lives 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.

After 25 years in New York City and 20 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.

Binghamton Walked America Through The Big Wars

Binghamton was named after William Bingham, who bought the land on which it grew in 1792.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 record the trend 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 arguing that business owners had an obligation to and also gained from uplifting their employees. 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 of Johnson’s was "the square deal,” a commitment made to fair play for his workers. 

This included extensive company benefits, which historians say influenced the prized benefits offered by E-J's younger sibling from Endicott, International Business Machines, 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 diminishing shadow has since been passed around from investor to investor, including Citigroup, but only the title “E-J” remains.

Binghamton Now

Like elsewhere in the US, most of the Binghamton's industry’s gone, lost to cheaper labor elsewhere.

Binghamton University — Harpur College, then SUNY Binghamton, when I was growing up — is to the city something of what Endicott-Johnson once was, a magnet that draws people to the community, but it lacks many of the benefits.

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

The downtown area’s empty at night and on weekends, except during special events. Contrast that to the Sixties when business owners expanded evening shopping to Mondays because so many people were crowding stores on Thursday nights in the pre-suburban-mall era.

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 an advantage with which few other places are blessed. 

Rolling foothills, cut by intermittent little streams, spring green in May and burst with earth tones in the fall. Neighborhoods climb the slopes and look down at usually placid rivers merging at the center of town.

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

Sometimes, you come away with the impression of a ghost town counting down its fate.

At others, you notice busy industrial parks 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 significant new construction.

Friends from Binghamton I know on Facebook have mostly moved away, and searching through Classmates.com for lost friends, I find only a few still in this little town.

It's probably the proper fate of communities that they decline or vanish when the initiating cause of their growth is gone. 

Binghamton was a creation of Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries dynamics, 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 its future really is.

Coda: Downtown Binghamton, Today

I wandered around downtown one day in November, seven years ago, 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. 

I haven’t gone back, and I don't plan to.


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