Going Home and Finding It Gone, Binghamton, New York Story
Main Street, Binghamton, My Little Town
You Can Go Back to Your Hometown...
...but is it really a good idea?
Have you ever flown, driven or rode the rails back to the town where you grew up, with no choice but to see your memories stacked up against the present?
Unsettling is a good possibility.
My Trip Back to Binghamton
I had only a few hours to spare. I'd be home just a few days for the funeral.
In the morning, after breakfast, I got in behind the wheel, my Flip UltraHD Video Camera in my pocket, my only intention being to take a look for the first time in forty years at the place I love so much when I was growing up.
When I left Binghamton, my hometown, in 1969, I loved the city so much I promised myself I'd come back as soon as the two years I owed my draft board were over. My first year in Buffalo did little to erode that conviction.
But then, just as time passes and circumstances inevitably change, my Binghamton girlfriend and I broke up, I married someone else and got used to a new circle of friends. The pace accelerated. Gradually, I got used to, then became attached to a bigger city with much more to do.
You Don't Need to Read the Book to Know
When Thomas Wolfe wrote You Can't Go Home Again, he knew what he was talking about, but I wonder if he imagine how that truth would accelerate as we raced out of the Twentieth Century.
One thing that comes to you, when you look back that far, is how much smaller the landmarks are. Memory is generous with exaggerations.
When I drove past the American Legion Hall in Johnson City at the start of my journey down Main Street, its insignificance, set back from the street behind a lawn, almost caused me to miss it.
One night in the red hot summer of 1968, I helped lead - ineptly, I admit - a group of peace activists here, traveling en masse from the university, to protest a speech by Curtis LeMay, vice-presidential running mate for George Corley Wallace, racism's public face in America.
LeMay's own brutality had been exercised in the carpet bombing of Japanese civilians in World War II, explaining,
"It doesn't bother me so much to be killing the so-called innocent bystanders."
In honor of this lovely man, we planned a silent protest. We'd take the high road and just walk out when he began to speak.
But we were never allowed inside. Alternatively, we chanted on the sidewalk while others engaged visitors in debate.
I was quoted and got my name in the paper for that one, which wasn't as big a deal as I hoped then and next to meaningless now.
I drove on, passing places where I walked with girlfriends, went to baseball games with my father (both he and the stadium now long gone) and the empty lots where Endicott-Johnson once made shoes and built a community, before passing under the arch that welcomes you into Binghamton.
Going Home on Main Street
The Places We Used To Walk
To be honest, I'd made swings through town a dozen times or so over the years, but this was the first time I really put my heels down.
This was my hometown, then, and I'd loved everything about it. I found that it changed less than I had.
That's not good. Time erodes, and if you don't push back enough, deterioration becomes its theme.
Now, here was the intersection where Sandy's mother, who liked me more than her daughter did, pulled over to the curb when she saw me and tried talking me into giving it another shot. Advice not taken.
Whatever became of Sandy?
In the Summer of Free Love and Mutiny
In our summer of free love and mutiny, Cindi and I used to walk the West Side. In the warm middle of the night, we sometimes stopped at a Dunkin' Donuts, the Starbucks of the Sixties, for donuts laced with caffeine.
Some stores had been replaced, but Main Street hadn't changed much. It looked tired now, not excitingly ripe with unknowns as it did when I was twenty.
When I turned left on Mather Street and stopped for a minute across from the building where Bruce and I rented an apartment.
We were young guys working our first jobs in retail, and we thought they were on the crest of the wave. I got that "smaller than I remember" sensation again. Our building and the street seemed shrunk and more barren, the nearby residences mostly in need of fresh paint and the sidewalks of pedestrians.
Too quiet, the streets were surprisingly free of anyone out walking. We once walked everywhere, but by now, it seemed, car culture had stripped the city of its sidewalk vitality. There was no one to meet by happy accident.
No need, I guess, to tell you about the building where I once worked at selling sporting goods and running stock for Montgomery Ward or Binghamton Central High School across the street.
Both had gotten smaller.
Passing Through Downtown, Finding My Anchor
Now, crossing the Chenango River bridge where Main becomes Court Street, Binghamton's primary commercial core, I slowed down to look more closely. This is where all the great things used to happen for me.
I remember reading about the urban renewal plans that would open up Court Street, adding a center mall and making it more attractive for shoppers. The plans never went far. The facelift never took place.
I also remember my favorite columnist at the Binghamton Press, Tom Cawley, writing that, taking the 1960 census into account, Binghamton would be a ghost town by the year 2000.
My memories racing, I parked on Hawley Street, in front of the building where Cindi and I had our one room apartment. We shared a bathroom with the rest of the building, and it was right here that, writing all night, I finished my first novel, inventing Peter McCarthy, who's been with me ever since.
Not sentimental by nature, I didn't feel any tug back to those good old days, but I was surprised to find the building much as it was. Time paused on the corner where I posted my giant peace sign in our window.
Who’d be living in a place like this now? Did they suspect that some previous tenants had been mutineers?
But it was chilly and there was little time to linger. I walked back to Main Street, saddened to find DiLascia's Bakery, where cannoli to die for were once sold daily, gone without a trace. The cannoli should've been worth a commemorative plague somewhere.
Just a couple of blocks up was the red brick apartment building where I moved in with Bruce and Bob in my first big, soon to fail dash for freedom. A dentist then occupied the first floor. He had a sign in his front window: SUGAR IS THE ENEMY.
With the Cold War very hot, we thought it was funny. By now, how right he was.
Video: The Day I Tried To Go Home
Trying To Find The Trail
I got out my Flip and started shooting. I collected the nondescript hulk of a building that was a busy Sears department store in the Sixties and the cars stopping and starting at a traffic light in front of a demolished corner lot where I used to grab taxis when I was too tired to hitchhike home.
I'd walked through here a thousand times when it was the entry point for steady traffic into downtown, but now it was nothing, or next to nothing. Even the Argo Diner, where Cindi and I used to treat ourselves, was gone.
Things change, and one of the most profound effects in America has been the hollowing out of city cores. Nobody lives there anymore, and the businesses that thrived on walk-in traffic fail. Lesser chains follow, picking up on reduced rents, or the storefronts host a series of new businesses that don't last, the facades changing every couple of years. Communities die like this.
Being There, Downtown Binghamton Today
Where have all the flowers gone?
Things grow smaller, and unless something is strong enough to push back, they deteriorate too.
I remember Cashman and West’s A Friend Is Dying from the Seventies. They were singing about New York City falling apart. In a small town, it’s sadder and more personal.
Soon, I found myself standing on the corner of Chenango and Court, the main intersection downtown where Exchange Street joins them in pouring traffic in from all four corners. It was way too quiet.
There was the creaky relic that had been the department store where my brother got his first serious job dressing their windows. Nothing retail here now, the windows curtained to close offices off from the street.
Traffic thinned, and I crossed over to the County Courthouse, once seeming so monumental. In my personal mutiny of 1968, I got my first shot at public speaking, right here.
Making My Statement
The Soviet Union had invaded Prague, and we wanted to salute the Czech's nonviolent resistance. The city set up a microphone at the top of the steps, and I'd gathered some speakers. A crowd began to fill up the grassy lawn.
I stepped up to introduce the speakers, and for the one and only time in my life, my mind went blank. Quickly, I pulled out the index cards on which I'd written my speech. Somehow, they'd been shuffled out of order.
How I got through that, I don't remember, but I never underestimated the challenge of speaking in public again.
The audience was mainly strangers, but as the Unitarian minister spoke, I could pick out some friends and fellow mutineers in the crowd. Cindi was there, of course. In a couple of years, we’d all be gone, and I don't know where any of them are anymore.
But I'll bet, like me, they never came back.
It's okay that things pass on. Change is an inevitable dynamic, and how a place changes tells you its story without editing.
In the Heart of Town
Down the once vibrant stretch of Court Street, where I had my first full time job, selling shoes in Endicott-Johnson's flagship retail store and where Thom McAn fought back across the street, the only vibrancy belonged to the Occupy camp of tents and signs in an empty lot across from what was once a Woolworths. At the lunch counter, they once served the best blueberry pie on my little Sixties planet.
Go down one more block, and there it is. The store where I ran shoe stock and fitted customers, myself freshly dropped out of high school, is now a sloppy-looking Chinese take out.
A few doors down, a hard to understand gift business fills the front of the former J. C. Penny. I can still feel how much I wanted to own all the sweaters they stacked on the aisle.
Perfectly normal teenage boys, my best friend Tony and I used to hang out with friends on summer shopping nights in front of the stolid First City National Bank. Stolid no more, and - of course - smaller now, it doesn't look like a place for meeting girls or just watching them anymore. More like a shadowy place to sneak a joint.
Tony's gone now too, still just a kid when he wrapped his car around a tree while trying to get home on leave from the Army. And Scotty, his girlfriend, I can't find her either.
Boscov's, the department store that replaced Fowlers on the edge of the district is less well-groomed. Instead of windows with season displays, racks of discounted clothes are pushed up along the perimeter, and it satisfies if all you need is a bargain and you don't really care much about where you find it.
Deflated, I took a little more video when I got to the Chenango River. It was the one thing that hadn't gotten smaller.
For a minute, I thought about driving over to the South Side and up Mill Street to see if I could find my first fiancee's house on Newton, after so long. Of course, I knew I could, just as surely as I knew she wouldn't be there.
I'll Never Go Home Again
There's a Facebook page, I Am From Binghamton, New York, that has thousands of followers. Threads extend deep into remembrances - about Ross Park Zoo, Pancho's Pit, the many carousels and other legacies from Endicott-Johnson's building of the city. The thing is, these memories have impact because almost none of the followers live in Binghamton, anymore. They remain enamored - at a distance.
Governments at all levels continue to pump money into cities like Binghamton, hoping to re-inspire the city core, clueless about why so many left. I saw it in Buffalo too. The authorities borrow cash to build event sites that draw visitors who dash away as soon as the event is finished. They build transit systems nobody is around to use, most of the time.
Abandoned city cores is an American legacy, with few exceptions, coast to coast, but I didn't have time to think about that now. I had a funeral to attend, and with all respect to the people of Binghamton, past, present and future, I felt like I was already too late for this one.
Is Small Town America A Lost Cause?
Is There Still Hope For Saving America's Small Towns?
© 2014 David Stone