“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.