Walking America, part 2: Binghamton, Johnson City, and Endicott

Photos and thoughts from Broome County New York

Binghamton, Johnson City, and Endicott are either the northern-most cities in Appalachia, or the eastern-most in the Rust Belt, depending on what expert you talk to.

What the residents tells you though is clearer: They are struggling towns with good people trying to keep their heads afloat. Towns that haven’t recovered from all the lost jobs that were once here, like making shoes or making computers, and all the good people that left because of that.

The story after that, almost nobody agrees on. Some will tell you things are on the up and up, what with the nearby college growing and all the construction projects planned. Some will tell you things are as bad as ever, that all the renewal projects and fancy programs from the Governor, city council, etc, are just more of the same. Band-aids to quiet us residents down, and line their and their friends’ corrupt pockets with government money.

Geographically and aesthetically the area is fully Appalachian — cities of red brick warehouses, rail yards, wooden homes from the grandiose to simple, churches in every form, Walmart plazas, and solitary smoke stacks coughing into a low slung sky, all jammed into the narrow flats along the Susquehanna River, surrounded by beautifully rough hills.

Culturally and economically they are more Rust Belt. Mostly white towns (European descendants), with a growing minority and immigrant population, still dealing with being on the losing side of the US’s changing economic and cultural scene for the last seventy years.

Those changes created a vacuum of vacant buildings, crumbling communities, and despair, that was filled with urban renewal projects, immigrants, and drugs.

Documenting the drugs is why I originally came to Binghamton, spending weeks over a period of six years. Last weekend I came back, to walk, because what I saw then, both aesthetically and personally, never left me.

I started my walks at the tip of downtown Binghamton. A wedge of land, at the intersection of two rivers, filled with brutally ugly buildings built during the various waves of urban renewal. Dreary cement monstrosities which are a complete injustice to the natural beauty of the location.

Thankfully you can still walk along the rivers, although always looming over you, or in view, are those soul-sucking building that feel like they were ported over from 1970s Soviet Union.

The whole scene is made more depressing by what could have been. By the simple elegance of the buildings not tore down, like the Boscov’s department store, or the smaller store fronts and buildings filling the eastern and northern part of the wedge.

Main Street, the commercial spine, bisects downtown and then makes its way through Johnson City and to Edicott. Once you cross west over the river, things immediately feel on edge, ready to burst out at any moment. A busy road of fast-food franchises, vape shops, abandoned and reclaimed buildings, and large wooden homes of single occupancy apartments. It is also filled with college kids, drunks, and various people with no clear motives, all whooping it up and disrupting working people rushing to and from work. All of it is encased in the constant smell of weed that never leaves.

Even on an early Sunday morning it feels unhinged, empty beyond a smattering of lonely people, shouting, begging, wandering, pushing and pulling carts, and sleeping in bus stops. The weed smell is still there, coming from who knows where. But always coming.

Paralleling Main, a few blocks north, elevated train tracks rumbles now and then, and beyond them, through low-slung and blistering concrete tunnels, Clinton Street. It is a shorter, emptier, and calmer street, with little on it. Although, I am told, it was once chock full, vibrant, and alive with “43 bars. You could go up and down the street, from one to another, and never end.”

Maybe. Five years ago, when I used to drink on Clinton, there was at least one bar. An Irish place next to a bodega and a cafe. A small cluster of open businesses in a stretch of empty lots, and industry.

The bar, was as they say, a warm place, where one night I watched as a regular fell asleep in the locked bathroom, unleashing an hours-long drama. People, worried he had OD-ed, debated between calling for help (“Dude could be dead for all the fuck we know”) and definitely not wanting to call for help (“DO NOT BRING THE POLICE INTO THIS!!!”)

Nobody seemed in a rush to unlock the bathroom and free him, beyond those trying to prove their strength, so we all peed outside, or in the women’s. “Your choice!”

It was only resolved when his ex arrived, calming everyone down, explaining he had a tendency “to fall asleep on the crapper,” and giving the No-Call-Cop team a clear win, since “He has outstandings.” Somebody quiped, “Who doesn’t.”

That bar, Mulligans, is now boarded up, like too much on Clinton. Except for the churches. Including two magnificent Eastern Orthodox Cathedrals. Preserved relics from the past, holding erect and proud, despite their surroundings.

One of the boarded-up buildings, an old cleaners and leather refinisher, has a public notice pasted onto its plywood window. A notice for an upcomping hearing “for the establishment of a Crematory in this building.”

Looking around I spotted nobody who would or could take notice, because almost nobody was around, besides a few cars zooming by. The few people who drifted by looked like the time, technology, or desire to comment was beyond them. Not that anybody would listen to them anyhow. ‘When has that ever happened?’

NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) has a very different vibe in towns like Binghamton, and a very different outcome than it does in NY, LA, DC, and on Twitter. As does, YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard).

People in Binghamton want stuff built in their backyards. They want people to move in. They want luxury apartment buildings with pools, laundry, and high-tech cable wiring. They want bespoke cafes. They especially want, like really really want, jobs that pay them enough to live in those future apartments and sip lattes in those future bespoke cafes. Hell. They will even take those Amazon jobs NYC didn’t want.

What they don’t want, but what they get instead in their backyards, is empty lots, boarded-up buildings, brutal souless urban-renewal projects, plazas of strip malls on the outskirts of town, and crematoriums. Things those other towns don’t want.

Binghamton isn’t all empty or dreary, by any means. Main is full and active. Clinton has some stores and homes. And on either side of them are plenty of quiet residential streets of simple wooden homes. Some are grand Victorians, well kept and straight out of an old school Disney movie. Most however, are simpler, box-like structures, with pasted on porches, and yards filled with knick knacks and decorations.

On one of those streets, which dead ends into the back entrance to the WalMart plaza, there is a bar already open and filled with regulars at 9 am.

F comes out to talk to me, explaining that there used to be ‘Lots of bars on this block, but this is all that is left.’ He then gives me his history of Binghamton, which in his mind is all about ‘this computer company that was founded here. Called IBM. International Business Machines. You heard of it? Or well we called it, Itty bitty Machines. You know. To fun people who worked there. Everyone worked there. Not me though. I worked in the hospital. Irish? No I am Lithuanian. Lots of us here. Born and raised though. It was all good here, lots of Lithuanians, Germans, Irish, Russian, until …’

Thankfully the roar of five bikers coming in cuts him off because I can guess where this is going.

The Walmart Plaza, accessed by a dirt path from the bar, is as usual the busiest part of town.

South of the plaza is another residential neighborhood with the usual mix of simple homes, some well kept, some not, but also with a mosque, Asian food stores, and lots and lots of American flags.

Immigrant neighborhoods are often chock full of American flags, the result of an unwritten patriotic arms race. A dual of flags between immigrants genuinely proud to be here and longer time residents trying to make a point that doesn’t need to be made.

This neighborhood isn’t really that unique. Binghamton and Johnson City have lots of immigrants, from Yemen, Laos, Vietnam, Puerto Rico, and so on. That is common in towns losing population, especially in the Rust Belt. Far more common than most people in NYC and DC know. You find Bosnians in Utica, Iraqis in Buffalo, Somalis in Lewiston, and so on.

The whole process is a lot less controversial at the street level, then it is at the national or state political level. In general, people get along. There are misunderstandings, ugly incidents, and confusion. Those get the attention, but that isn’t the bulk of what goes on.

Far more common is people being neighborly because that is what neighbors usually end up doing. Especially ones facing the same bigger threats. You see that in the shops, bars, parks, and even the Walmart plaza. People living similar lives, despite coming from very different places, end up sharing similar values.

The last leg of my walk takes me to Endicott, after a brutal two mile stretch of pedestrian fierce road, with no sidewalks, no shoulders, and lots of fast moving cars.

(The lesson learned is if you wanna fight the Google Monopoly, don’t do it by disregarding their map-walking suggestions.)

Endicott feels different, exactly why I can’t figure out. It looks the same as Johnson City and Binghamton. A commercial strip with fast food places, strip malls, surrounded by streets of simple homes, some well cared for, often directly across from empty lots or homes that are boarded up or not cared for.

It doesn’t feel richer, or better off, or less depressing. It does have an operating factory smack dab in the middle of the city. But that isn’t what makes it feel different.

Yet I like Endicott more. Perhaps I am simply happy to be done with my walk.

I end in the old downtown commercial strip. A street lined with an odd mix of stores dealing with the pressures (Walmart, Amazon, depopulation) all small business in towns like Endicott deal with.

I go to a sports bar to sit, drink, and watch football, the only person there who doesn’t know everyone else there. An acquaintance who had read my book and saw from Twitter I was in town, joins me. He is thirty-three years old and “born and raised in Binghamton.”

I give him my impressions and end with my confusion, and he explains,

‘Endicott doesn’t have the rich people like Binghamton does. It is more equal.’

‘Binghamton has rich people?’

‘Not NYC rich, but you know, professors, lawyers, and real estate and construction types. They have their neighborhoods.’

He is right. Binghamton, like every town, has its local elite. In Binghamton, because of the college, it is both from the left (academics) and right (construction). It is also pretty well off by local standards because there has been a fair amount of money coming from Albany and DC over the years trying to stop the decline, and most of it goes through Binghamton. A few well-placed locals can make a good living as middle men, skimming their take from it. That process can rip a community apart, making it feel less like a, well, community.

Endicott doesn’t have that, well not to the same degree.

While we are talking an older regular comes in, who is blind. Not somewhat hard of seeing, but completely blind. A few regulars get up and quietly map out the lay of the bar to him, explaining where he shouldn’t sit based on who else is near by. It is a very sweet moment, that isn’t especially special. Just people being decent. It happens everywhere.

I try not to overthink stuff. I try not to be all metaphorical. But I am buzzed, and it is a blind man coming to a sports bar, something he clearly does all the time.

The Bills win. The Jets win. Then the Giants win. People cheer and boo.

Community sure is nice.