Binghamton: A City of Two Tales

PREFACE

My name is Arian Horbovetz, I’m a photographer from Rochester New York (ArianDavidPhotography.com) and this is my third “blog stop” featuring small New York cities.  If you have followed my blog over the last 5 months, you have read stories of urban revival in our small New York cities.  While the story of Binghamton highlights some of the great things happening in that city, the conversations (which are also more lengthy than in previous entries) I had with residents told two very different stories about the present and future of Binghamton.  Some spoke of the horrors of poverty in their community, while others told me all about the phenomenal progress being made.  As a result, this blog entry differs from my visits to Utica and Schenectady because it begs for greater introspection, both for residents of Binghamton and beyond.

My hope is that this blog will start a dialogue between two groups, while highlighting the truly wonderful things that are happening in this small New York city.  So let’s take a day trip together in Binghamton New York.

THE STORY

Two rivers meet near the the border of Pennsylvania, framing a valley in transition, a city still catching it’s breath as it moves from a former manufacturing hotbed to an exciting community fueled by youth and higher education.  A restaurant and bar scene has exploded into downtown, giving life where others had previously given up.  A gritty underground culture fuels a growing arts and music scene that keeps the beat of this revival.  Filling in the gaps are intelligent, hard working people who understand the complexities of making a city vibrant, diligently working to preserve the past and ignite the future.  While the scars still show, while many still doubt, slowly the people are coming together like the two rivers that cradle this small city.  That’s what I found on my third Small New York Cities Tour stop in Binghamton New York.

While I typically take a train or a bus on these trips, scheduling and no train service to Binghamton forced me to take my car for a change.  Driving into Binghamton, I saw the contrast that is abundantly clear throughout parts of this city.  Entering via Front Street, I was introduced to the tremendous wave of poverty that has plagued this city for some time.  Boarded up homes, vacant and vandalized lots.  But as I looked beyond this unwelcoming sight, I saw a city of beautiful old buildings just across the river.  This sight kept me going, and I happily headed downtown. Staying true to my goal of exploring cities without the use of a car, I parked my Nissan Cube in a convenient garage, grabbed my weapon of choice for the day (a Dahon Vybe folding bike) and began my adventure.

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Naturally, my first stop had to be breakfast.  I was told Elsie’s was the place to go, and since it was a very short trip on my bike, I headed in that direction.  The sun was shining, a beautiful day to explore for sure!  I passed this truly unique bike rack  on Henry Street.

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As whimsical as it looked, this impressed me right away.  More and more cities are making the commitment to cycling infrastructure, and blending that concept artistically with designs that create a more friendly, “walkable” urban environment.  As small and “fishy” as this sidewalk gesture was, it was the first thing about Binghamton to catch my eye and make me smile.

The second thing that made me smile was Elsie’s.  It sounds cliche, but talk about stepping back in time!

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Teal walls, a black granite counter and bright red bar stools completed the picture of this retro-gem.  But that only told part of the story for me.  This diner was in the back of the Greyhound Station.  As I sat for half an hour, I saw locals and travelers mixing, talking, even laughing.  I love to meet new and different people when I travel… this place gave locals the chance to do just that without having to leave their city!  On the other side, it was a chance for Binghamtonians to be the first ambassadors for their community to travelers from all over the state and country.

I destroyed my omelette.  It was absolutely delicious.  Not only did Elsie’s look cool, the food was delicious!

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As I stuffed my mouth like a starving traveler, I spoke to the young lady behind the counter about Binghamton.

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“it’s tough you know?”  she said.  “We have some good things going on here, but there’s been a lot of movement here from New York (City) over the last ten years and it’s brought the drugs in… We have a really big problem with heroin here.  I mean like I said, we have restaurants popping up and a lot of the downtown area is really looking nice, the college is great… but the drugs and the crime, I don’t know how you solve that.”

I had heard her words so many times in so many places now.  The same struggles of a former manufacturing hotbed, brought to it’s knees as one-by-one industries left for cheap labor overseas.  This story has been a part of every city I’ve visited.  And like other stories, the path to urban revitalization is not always easy as a city must deal with it’s deepest problems as it pushes forward.

I left Elsie’s full and ready to attack the day.  I stopped into the newly renovated Greyhound Station before I left.

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The interior had a clean and simple feel, while the ceiling gave the impression that I was in some trendy New York eatery.  It was comfortable and clean, more than I can say for most public transit centers I’ve been to.  Often residents overlook the importance of having strong transportation facilities, but as a traveler for both business and pleasure, I can tell you that these are the first impressions visitors have of a community.  They paint a clear picture of how a city receives travelers of all socioeconomic backgrounds.  This place was clean, beautiful, bright and inviting and I was very impressed!

Onward I traveled on my bike to the place where the Chenango and the Susquehanna Rivers met.  As I rode down Washington Street, I passed a lot of new student housing.  Sadly I did not take a picture, for I would learn that this was the energy cell for the future, the revival of Binghamton New York.

Once I reached the Chenango, I made my way south along the walking/bike path.  I will let the photos tell the story of a lovely waterfront experience.

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As I made my way through the tunnel, I reached the spot where the two rivers converged.  Pat was fishing by the water.

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“The scenery here is really nice, it’s a great place to be outdoors.  The people are super friendly too, you’re gonna find that as you go along today.”

As I climbed back of the stairs from the water, I ran into this site that instantly made my whole body hurt!  Apparently Binghamton was hosting a national Yoga competition that day.  As the day went on, I would run into several competitors.  Another example how a large scale event can introduce visitors to a community, and create revenue for local businesses.

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I made my way up and around the Susquehanna side of the park that skirted these two rivers, only to encounter a continued beauty and commitment to a lovely waterfront.  There was even a pedestrian bridge over the river, which I took in pursuit of my next destination, the Binghamton Zoo.

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OK, here’s the thing.  When you look at a Google Map of a city and see something is only a couple miles away, you say to yourself “I can do that, not problem!  I have a bike!”  I’m sure Binghamton residents known exactly what I am going to say next.

Those couple miles are a little… hilly.  OK, it’s just short of a vertical assent.  I got my exercise that’s for sure!  Let’s just say by the time I got to the zoo, I needed a shirt change!

About half way up the hill, I stopped and talked with two lovely women on a walk.  We had a lengthy but very informative conversation about Binghamton.

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“The good is the college (SUNY Binghamton).  The college is really saving things here.  The students are just everywhere.  Those restaurants you see downtown, they (the students) are all in them,”

She continued. “They built all that new student housing to bring the kids downtown, that really really helps!  The only thing is, there really isn’t much else right now.  Most of the industry has kind of died out.”

I asked if there was a youth movement trying to stimulate growth.

“There is a group of young professionals that are really trying.  Like First Friday, they have all the art, a lot of things to do and see.  I think the art stuff brings out people more my age too and that’s important.

The really great thing about Binghamton or any place like it is it’s inexpensive to live here.  We were just looking at houses for sale on this street and she pulled them up and saw the prices, and they were like $100,000.  You get a lot of bang for your buck.”

The younger of the two spoke up.  “We’re in Florida now, and the cost is just insane.  That’s what we were talking about, to come back.”

Both women went on to talk about the same issues of poverty, drug and alcohol abuse that plague the city.  Neither of them had an idea how to solve these issues, but cited the city was moving in the right direction.

A short while and about a million calories of uphill climb later, I finally arrived at the Binghamton Zoo.  I quickly learned that the zoo was the 5th oldest in the country.  Unfortunately the age showed a bit.  I walked around and saw some wonderful animals, but in general I got the impression that the facilities hadn’t been upgraded for some time.  Still, it’s a wonderful little place to visit and the folks that work there work very hard to care for the animals!

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I tried talking to a number of families while in the park, but NONE of the people I asked were actually from Binghamton.  Most were from outside areas that traveled into the city only to take their children to see the zoo.  I did however have a quick chat with one of the staff members.

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“I love the variety here.  In the next couple weeks I will be up here with the penguins, I just got done training with the Red Pandas and the Lemurs.  It’s just nice to move around!  This is my first job out of college, I’ve only been here about 7 months.  It’s a nice place to start.”

On my way out, I spoke with a nice young woman with her hands full!

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“There’s a lot of new stuff, a lot of good food, a lot quiet places… and then there’s a lot of dirty places.  There are potholes that are slowly ruining my car.  The whole area is pretty torn up.”

She stopped to attend to a needy child!  Then she continued.

“There are just a lot of people around… not doing a lot, like there are a lot of things they could be involved in but they’re not.  I would like to see more outdoor programs for kids in all different areas.  They could really clean up things a lot too.  We actually live out near Newark Valley more, so it’s a little bit quieter there… it’s real nice.  We really come out here to go to the zoo… that’s about it.”

I thanked the woman, bought a few items in gift shop and walked my bike out of the parking lot.  Before hitting the road, I stopped to talk with two women heading for their cars.  While they both were happy to talk to me, guess which one wasn’t so keen on the idea of having her picture taken?  😉

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“We have the community college and the university here, so that’s helped a lot.  There are like 16,000 kids, that’s a lot of kids.  They eat at the restaurants, go into the stores.  And they do spend money here!  And now they have those new buildings downtown, so they go out from there into the downtown area.”

When asked about what the city needs, they answered very definitively.  “We need more small industries.  When IBM was here, they would sub-contract a lot of the business off to smaller businesses, and we’ve lost all that.  I mean I know everyone in the country has lost manufacturing, but it’s still really tough here.”

I asked whether or not there was a push for a more vibrant downtown in Binghamton, and again, they both answered with confidence.

“Yes, absolutely.  They don’t want the big house in the country anymore, all the old buildings downtown are being done over into apartments.  I see a lot of kids coming back here, moving back to town.  I think it’s too expensive to live far away anymore.  You have to pay for gas, you’re driving all day, the houses are just so big… I think the kids now are realizing ‘I don’t need all that.’

The rebirth of the city and downtown is still in it’s infancy stage.  The gentleman who runs the college has a real get up and go personality.  He’s done a lot with the chamber of commerce to make things better.  The important thing we have to do as a community is to keep the students and the young people here.  So many of them move away.  We were hit so hard when the industry moved away.  Other places were hit hard to but it was particularly bad here.  It was like a kick in the teeth.”

I left the zoo with a little bit of a heavy heart.  In my blog, I do what I can to lift the impressions of the communities I visit.  I don’t sugar coat anything, but what I find is that when you ask most people about where they live, they want to tell you good things about it.  They want to get behind their community like a good idea.

In the short time I had been in Binghamton, I had heard little other than the wounds and struggles of a community that has done it’s best to weather the financial storm for so long.  It’s hard to write an inspiring story in the face of so much negative local perception.  But as I cruised down the hill back toward the city, I knew there was another tale to tell.  I was about to find it.  But first, I really enjoyed the neighborhoods down Washington Street.  They were humble, but cute and very American.  I snapped a couple pictures of this simple residential area on my way back to downtown.

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I crossed the Susquehanna on the pedestrian bridge once again, then made a left and crossed the Chenango River.  The leaves were just starting to pop, and life was in the air in this beautiful part of town.

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When I saw the Roberson Museum and Science Center, I have to admit, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  A museum built around an old mansion?  What could possibly be there?  How about one of the most elaborate train sets, modeled after Binghamton and surrounding communities?

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And the floors of gorgeous exhibits and interesting things to see!

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If that wasn’t enough, there were several gallery areas that featured all kinds of art from stunning to whimsical.  Whatever your artistic taste, there was something for you.

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Finally, there was the mansion portion of this museum.  I have been in many beautiful places in my travels… this place gave me goosebumps.  I was all alone… it was so quiet, I wasn’t sure if I should even be there!  To this day I’m not sure I was allowed to be but nevertheless, each room was absolutely stunning.

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Running a little short on time, I decided to move on to my next destination, but not before talking to the gentleman at the front desk.

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“There are lost of organizations that are setting up events here.  There’s a run tomorrow, there’s a lot of stuff that happens on the river now since we’ve been revitalizing the walkways along the water.  For example we had Mural Fest last weekend.  We had people painting all up and down the walk along the river, there was tons of food, it was great.  They’re really trying to make it nicer… people know that and they are getting excited about it.  Especially compared to ten, twenty years ago when the downtown was pretty dead.”

I left the Roberson Museum with an unexpected smile.  What a wonderful hidden gem in this city!  A gorgeous mansion and beautiful displays of science and art!  Before I moved on, I captured a shot of the front of the building.

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I was told by a friend I had to go to the Cyber Cafe on Main Street.  While this trip took me a little west of downtown, it was a place I wanted to check out.

An ethnically diverse neighborhood greeted me as I made my way to “The Cyber.”  Again, signs of difficult times were evident, as this once thriving street met roots of poverty and hardship.  I arrived at the Cyber Cafe, brought my bike inside and looked around.  The Cyber had a eclectic feel, something in between a coffee shop, a bar, and a place to just relax and chill.

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I started talking to the good people behind the counter.

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“This neighborhood has a lot of old buildings, a lot of character.  There’s also an underground urban revival going on.  There are as lot of community gardens popping up, there are seven in the area.  People can get a plot of land to grow plants for nothing!  There’s a non-profit organization called VINES (Volunteers Improving Neighborhood Environments), they’ve done a great job.  We just had Mural Fest last weekend, we had First Fridays last night… There’s a lot going on.”

The young lady grabbed a local publication off one of the tables.

“This is the Carousel, it’s a new paper that has everything going on in Binghamton.  There’s literally something going on every night.  There’s an incredible music scene right now, new breweries and restaurants going in, downtown is just blowing up… the last two to three years things have really changed and that’s keeping people here.  I think the young people are going to stay here now, there’s just so much more to do.”

I got some delicious food, a cold beer and sat down.  It wasn’t long before Danielle heard about what I was doing in Binghamton and sat down to talk with me.  I could see she was a little older than the other people in the cafe, but she had a youthful lightness in her eye and an unapologetic smile.

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“I’m a musician.  I’m part of a jam session that’s been going on for 40 years!  The music here is so good!  I think the music in this city really gives people the sense that, ‘hey, I can join in!  I can be a part of this scene.’  When we’re playing music, someone will come in with a guitar and join in.  It’s a chance to meet someone new and share new ideas.

One time I was standing next to a fiddler in a session.  We were going to play a song that I actually don’t like!  But then this guy started playing the song in a way I liked it!  It made me love a song I didn’t enjoy before!  He was from Indiana and they play that song differently there, and it was great!  So there’s something there… when you have something that brings people together, it has the power to change your mind, to inspire.  I think jamming is a metaphor… don’t sit and passively listen, join in.  Make it happen!  Add to the melody!”

What a great metaphor it was.  This simple, kind, quiet woman just gave a beautiful example of how a community can change when people feel welcome, when they feel like everyone can join, contribute and learn something new.

I thanked Danielle, the folks at The Cyber and made my way back toward downtown.  Before I did, I stopped off at the Bundy Museum.  The museum is actually the former home of Harlow Bundy, who’s punch clock business was the seed company that eventually evolved into IBM.

A delightful woman greeted me at the door, and after I told her my story, she kindly took me on a personal tour!

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The museum was beautiful and extremely well preserved.  Every room gave me a sense classic comfort… gorgeous but humble and approachable.

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And then there was the upstairs room that had been turned into a lovely gallery, and a room off the gallery painted up like a night sky…

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While in the gallery, I spoke the nice lady about the arts scene in Binghamton

“We’ve got to reach out more.  Being part of the arts community in this town is precious, but we need to do more outreach and bring more people in.  There are so many people that don’t feel welcome both in the arts community and in the museum.  Where we are located in this neighborhood, there are very few people who just walk in from the street.  They look at it and they say ‘it’s not for me.’  That’s where the hard work is… making all people feel welcome.

In this town, there’s been this unfortunate reality for some time that there’s this divide between Binghamton and it’s university students.  Regardless of the talent and the money that the university is bringing in here, many still see it as an elitist thing that they are not a part of.  So much of this town is working class… their parents didn’t go to college, they went to work in manufacturing.  They still tend to see academia as something that is outside of their reality.

Something that’s amazing here though is the sociology and anthropology department have started a couple film festivals in our museum.  In the crowd we saw people from the university of course, but also people from our neighborhood, because the films being showed dealt with things like food issues, labor issues, films dealing with race… and the people here could relate to that!  We had some of the most amazing discussions as a result.  It was beautiful how people responded.  People were talking, debating, crying… It was the start of something good and I think that has to happen more.  These little museums and cultural centers out here, they can be the hub of change.”

My tour of the Bundy Museum continued.  I learned that the museum also housed the Southern Tier Broadcasters Hall of Fame, one of the most extensive African art collections in the state, and even a vintage barber shop that originally was near the IBM factory in Endicott.

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There was literally something for everyone in the museum… I was so impressed with the diversity of subjects and content there.  It was truly inspiring to see such a hidden gem doing so much to mend the gap between different groups within the city of Binghamton.

I hopped on my bike and headed downtown.  From the bridge over the Chenango to the river walk on the other side, to the gorgeous buildings that lined Court Street, I was stunned by the beautiful look of downtown.

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I don’t need to talk about how nice downtown Binghamton was.  The pictures say it all.  I wandered around for a little while just taking pictures.  My journey eventually took me by a Anthony Brunelli Fine Arts, so I decided to stop in.  There I met Tice (second from the right) John (far left) and Joshua (far right).  Tice had his work on display that evening.  His work featured his amazing street photography highlighting some of the more difficult images of people in states of poverty in the Binghamton area.

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“What people here see more of every day is where you’re standing… the gentrification of Binghamton.  There’s more money flowing in here, things are starting to really look different.

In contrast, my series is called Ever Onward.  The title is almost a joke in that it was the the title of IBM’s corporate anthem when they were still in Binghamton.  The anthem talks about how we are always moving forward and we take our people with us.  It’s the perfect ironic joke.

I look at Binghamton as a sort of shadow of New York City in the 1980s in that (Andy) Warhol era where you have all that grassroots stuff going on, early signs of wealth and gentrification.  But then you had places like Times Square that were pretty awful to be in.  Binghamton is kind of in the same place.

When you’re looking at my photographs and where people are living, these are people that need to have their story told.  They need a platform and no one wants to give it to them.  I’m interested in giving these people that platform and also getting the attention of people who refuse to look, forcing them to see it.  Not just from the issue of a social problem, but to say ‘these are good people that have important things to say.'”

Tice’s words touched on very important issue communities are facing today.  While urban revival is a movement that is repeating itself across this nation, often minorities and folks from lower socioeconomic levels are left behind or forgotten altogether.  Tice used his art to ensure these folks have a voice, something so vital in lifting an entire community to greater heights.

After my wonderful conversation with Tice, I moved on to check out a couple of the local establishments in downtown.  My first stop was at Galaxy Brewing on Court Street.  Breweries like these have become hubs for urban revival in cities across the country.  I had a delicious beverage, and could not have been more pleased.  I’m not ashamed to say I tied on one more. 😉

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I talked briefly with the bartender.  Smart guy for sure!

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“When I moved here about nine years ago there were four restaurants downtown.  Now there’s something like twenty-five.  Downtown had been written off by a lot of people.  But the progress that’s been made, not everyone knows it yet.  Some people that don’t get to downtown very often or still have a negative image of what it used to be and still don’t know what’s going on here.  But the progress that’s been made has been mind-blowing!  It’s simple, you build a livable, walkable, vibrant downtown like this and forward thinking companies will start taking an interest in moving or expanding there.”

One of my last stops of the day was Water Street Brewing.  Again, I had the most amazing beer and shared a few conversations with local residents that could not say enough about the progress this city was making.

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I switched modes of transportation after that and bounced around the city a little bit, just taking it all in.  By the way, for those who are new to my blog, I am a huge fan of adult kick scooters like my Micro White.  I know it sounds odd, but it really is the best way to travel short distances in an urban area.

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For one last hurrah, I headed back to Cyber Cafe to hear some live music.  The band on stage played their hearts out in front of a sparse crowd, but man were they having fun.  It was great to see.

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My experience in Binghamton was excellent, but also very interesting.  While I heard the praises of hope and progress, I also heard the doubts and fears that real progress has yet to be made in reviving this once bustling city.  A generation of young, highly educated artists, musicians and professionals have worked hard to create a livable, vibrant downtown, while the generations who remember the hubs of industry still look for large companies to return to create jobs.  A difference in the barometer of success and how that success is achieved seems to be the only thing standing in the way of this city’s limitless potential.  Time and increased dialogue will no doubt close the still gaping fissure between these two groups.  For now, it truly is a City of Two Tales.

Regardless, Binghamton is a wonderful place to spend a day.  History, beautiful views, adorable animals, gorgeous homesteads, great art, and food and drink that is second to none.  If you haven’t seen it lately, give it a try.  I know you will be as impressed as I was!  Thanks for reading everyone.