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Going Home and Finding It Gone, Binghamton, New York Story

Main Street, Binghamton, My Little Town

Once lively with flourishing businesses, Binghamton's Main Street illustrates a cliché: you could fire a cannon down it and not hit anything.

Once lively with flourishing businesses, Binghamton's Main Street illustrates a cliché: you could fire a cannon down it and not hit anything.

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

What Do You Think?

David Stone (author) from New York City on August 28, 2017:

Maybe, home is where the heart is?

Besarien from South Florida on August 27, 2017:

This is a snapshot and farewell letter all in one. Your writing while thoughtful and detail-oriented certainly isn't sentimental, but is beautiful like sparse trees in winter. Your more journalistic eloquence balances nicely with the emotional subject matter.

Florida is where I was born and mostly grew up. It doesn't exist anymore. If they haven't paved it over, they tore it down to erect another strip mall.

I think he was half right. While, you can't go back, home can be wherever you make one.

David Stone (author) from New York City on November 10, 2014:

Binghamton may see a renaissance someday, Wayne, but it's hard to imagine. The economic conditions that spurred the city's growth are long gone now.

I think you're 100% right that you have to move on. Clinging to the past will get you nothing more than what's left of it.

Thank you for commenting.

Wayne Egli Sr on November 10, 2014:

I left the area 23 years ago was back up there in 2006 very depressing city now .I would never go back if they gave me a million to live there .The past is gone to go back to where it use to be , we all move on for the better I do not even wish to ever return to see the area again .It the past but had great memories to me , but not enough to return I have outlive many that I once grew up with or they have moved away too for a better life else where.

David Stone (author) from New York City on November 09, 2014:

You're a lucky woman in that, Susie, and of course in plenty else.


Susie Lehto from Minnesota on November 09, 2014:

I have visited old haunts from the past and was surprised by all the changes that had taken place over so many years. I suppose many cities are like that.

In returning to my home community in the wilderness last year, I was pleased to see this pristine place still thriving with wildlife and the forests as enchanting as ever. There have been changes, but they are improvements.

No disappoints here, and home is where I want to live out the rest of my life. I love the peace & quite of nature.

David Stone (author) from New York City on May 18, 2014:

@CherylsArt: Yessir, some towns actually figured out how to get the community invested. I wish it happened more frequently.Thank you.

CherylsArt on May 18, 2014:

I enjoyed your reminiscing. Although things change, sometimes it's nice to look back. Some towns have grown and took deliberate steps to do so. I read about such a town, where they actually got people together to help plan its future.

David Stone (author) from New York City on May 14, 2014:

@writerkath: Thanks for your comment, Kathy. I never made the Bedford Falls connection with the music. I just grabbed a suggested freebie from YouTube that I liked and patched it in. Oh, yeah, memory is generous with exaggerations. It's all distorted and out of proportion. Thanks, again.

writerkath on May 14, 2014:

I've been through Binghamton (back in the mid 1980s I think), and thought it looked a little dreary. I was able to tell that it had been a very vibrant town at one time. Your video was interesting if a tad bittersweet in that the music you chose and the scenes reminded me a little of George Bailey running around Bedford Falls in "It's a Wonderful Life" when all he once knew was completely different as he viewed it as though he had not been born. Except, as you said, you really can't go home again, and George's relief at finding that the whole thing was a bad trip doesn't happen in the world.I personally never really enjoyed life in my hometown, but I visit about twice a year to see my Dad. Even though I didn't care for my life in that town then, I am still moved a little by how much it, too has changed. I doubt I'd like it any more or less now. But, as I see how the rat-race consumes the entire area (about 25 miles outside the Lincoln Tunnel in NJ), I feel I made a good decision to leave for a simpler existence. BTW: I love your statement, "Memory is generous with exaggerations." How true...Well, I could spend all day on your lenses, but then I'd never get any work done! As usual, this is a great page, Dave. :)

David Stone (author) from New York City on May 14, 2014:

@brown-don1: The decay is pretty evident, and like so many American cities, the money spent to revitalize doesn't seem to have done the trick. Binghamton's not alone in this, but for a good number of us, it's personal. I don't know of another small city with such a passionate and large collection of people who left. At least, we have each other to commiserate with.

brown-don1 on May 13, 2014:

@David Stone1: You can't live on sunsets and beautiful scenery, I am from Binghamton and every time I go home a piece of me dies when I see the broken promises and the lack of initiative on all fronts.

David Stone (author) from New York City on March 22, 2014:

@goldenrulecomics: Binghamton's in a beautiful setting, right where the Susquehanna and Chenango meet and with gentle hills all around, but you're better off looking from the distance, especially if you clearly remember what once was.Thanks.

goldenrulecomics from New Jersey on March 22, 2014:

I've driven by Binghamton many times on my way to school in Alfred N.Y. but never really stopped in the city at all. I now live less than an hour away from where I grew up, and the old neighborhood seems so small compared to what's in my memories. But I defenitely can't go home -- the house I grew up in was torn down and replaced by a McMansion...Thanks for sharing.

Virginia Allain from Central Florida on March 18, 2014:

I still have faith in small-town America but it's true that many have suffered and look like ghost towns.

ChocolateLily on March 11, 2014:

From my experience with two dying small towns, it seems that money is always the biggest problem as to why a small town goes under. The rich keep getting richer and greedier - especially the retail landlords who keep the rents so high that respectable local people cannot afford to open anything for more than 6 months. On top of that, the local government is usually full of people who will not allow any real progress because they might personally lose. I could rant about this, but I won't. I enjoyed your article and can really understand how you feel!

Renaissance Woman from Colorado on February 25, 2014:

Very poignant. Small towns will always remain an important part of who I am. Experiencing Binghamton through your eyes and heart was a way for me to celebrate the formative places that have shaped me. I would like to make a pilgrimage back to my childhood town. I haven't been there since my grandmother's funeral back in the late 70s. This is such a compelling subject.

GrammieOlivia on February 24, 2014:

Nice lens, congrats on the Purple! Well deserved!

Peggy Hazelwood from Desert Southwest, U.S.A. on February 24, 2014:

I am thankful I left my very small town. It is a dead end more times than not. Thanks for your trip back in time!

Pam Irie from Land of Aloha on February 24, 2014:

Our growing up years are not to be forgotten....wherever they took place. I enjoyed these memories and recollected a few of my own during this read. Thank you!

Susan Zutautas from Ontario, Canada on February 23, 2014:

This was very interesting to read Dave. The last time I visited Montreal I drove around for three hours. Lost all sense of direction. I'd probably find my way around Binghamton easier than I did Montreal. I drove through there about five years ago.

Merry Citarella from Oregon's Southern Coast on February 22, 2014:

Such an interesting read Dave, understanding your feelings and the sensations. It takes us all back to where we were then. I'm glad we have it to remember.

Nancy Carol Brown Hardin from Las Vegas, NV on February 22, 2014:

The last time I went "home" was in 2010 for my sister's funeral, so some of the sadness I was feeling may have colored my view of hometown. But it certainly was not as I remembered it. There's now an expressway running through where many of my memories once lay, and of course all those neighborhoods are gone. Time always changes everything, and my town is no exception to that. I won't go back again, because now that my sister is gone, I have nothing to go back for...and my vision of the town exists only in my mind.

Barbara Tremblay Cipak from Toronto, Canada on February 22, 2014:

David, honestly I felt like was right beside you for your entire visit - I could feel what you felt as I was reading it - I'm trying to decide if it made me sad, or if change like this is normal, and the memories of alone are enough anyway. Your memories of the people in your past (Sandy's mother, lol) and the mood of the day, poured through in this piece you've shared. Since I can't decide how to feel, I'll choose 'hopeful' instead of sadness, because when we go back to our 'current day home', we're really home, and all the things lost and changed from yesterday still have, and I think, will always have, their own beauty. Thomas Wolfe was right, you can't go home again - maybe that's because home is where the people we love live, and if they're not there, how can it be home.

yoursfoolie on February 22, 2014:

... And it's happening just when we need to slow our sprawl and consolidate back into walkable communities, for so many very valid reasons... Well written, brother. (I had the same index-card experience you did ~ cost me a state high school debating championship!)

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