“what is it about birmingham? / what is it about buffalo? / that the hate-filled wanna build bunkers / in your beautiful red earth / they wanna build them / in our shiny white snow” — ani difranco, “hello birmingham”
There is the obvious tragedy of the dead and wounded in Binghamton, NY. The anger and despair, the terror of knowing that a gunman can walk into a building in a relatively small city in rural, industrial upstate New York and massacre people at will.
Then the other layers start piling on top of the fear and the rage: the layers that make the story just a little cloudier and darker. Yeah, there’s an inside joke in there– I grew up there, and Binghamton is the seventh cloudiest city in the country. The cloudiest east of the Rockies. No doubt that the lack of direct sun contributes to a sense of malaise in town, but it’s likely the overall economic decline over the last 20-25 years that makes Binghamton just a very sad city in many ways.
We all have our grownup sensibilities about the towns we come from, especially those of us that moved to Big Cities– all our bravado about how glad we are that we “got out,” our vows to never look back (maybe), or quietly and smugly looking back at those quaint li’l places. But there is something special about Binghamton. It was never a thriving metropolis, but it got by alright, and that’s what most of the folks that live there seem to live by.
I once wrote that the people from my hometown were never the stars of the production. We were always happy to be in the background, providing the scenery. Maybe once in a while, we were the people that got a line, fingering the suspect. “That’s the guy,” we’d say. It would be straightforward, without fanfare. That’s how people from Binghamton operate.
Being brought to a national stage like this, under such horrible circumstances, is devastating. Not only do “things like this” not happen in Binghamton, but additional layers — economic duress, the immigrant aid center where it happened — make it all the more sharp.
We have long been the destination of swaths of migrant populations: in the early 1900s, it was Eastern Europeans, and the Orthodox churches’ gold onion domes still dot the city landscape when you drive out along Route 17. More recently, it’s been populations of folk from a number of countries in Southeast Asia: Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotian and more. Not to say that there hasn’t been difficulty in transitioning populations, especially for a place with largely conservative values, but I always had the feeling that Binghamton prided itself on its immigrant foundations and offerings. Centers like the American Civic Association give new immigrants a place to find their footing in a cloudy city in upstate New York.
Offerings. IBM was in many ways the responsible party for Binghamton’s survival for a lot of years, and when they left town, so did most of everything else. Now we’re learning that the shooter was recently laid off from one of the last vestiges of IBM. Economic distress might have been the thing that flipped this guy’s sanity over to the dark side. And now people are dead.
I grew up west of Binghamton, in Owego in the 60s and 70s. It’s hard not to remember the area’s “hay day” when it was vibrant and something of an economic force in the state. My dad worked for IBM for 36 years so as you say that shaped my life as with so many others in the area.
It’s sad to hear about this event. Binghamton and environs have not “caught an even break” for so many years – they don’t need this publicity.
I live north of NYC now, but have needed to travel to the Binghamton area regularly over the last 3 years. That drive up Route 17 always takes me back to my youth, but likewise the return-drive always gets me pumped for my current life which, luckily, is not so bad.
The cloudiness – OMG. As a permanent resident travelling little outside the area until my late teens, I never realized how bad it was. Then I went to college in Boulder Colorado. 350 days/year of 100% sun. What a difference! I realized then what an effect it has.
Thanks for this well-reasoned and well-stated article. Like you, I wish better for Binghamton.
I really enjoyed reading your interesting yet very informative insight. In the book of life every page has two sides: we human beings fill the upper side with our plans, hopes and wishes, but providence writes on the other side, and what it ordains is seldom our goal. Thank you for sharing and I am looking forward to reading more of your very current blog postings!!! :D Shooter Game