diumenge, de febrer 06, 2005

Binghamton (English)

Binghamton, New York, population, appx. 45,000. I have a panorama of downtown Binghamton laminated on wood hanging above my computer in my home office; the picture was taken in 1910. Today, almost a century later, Binghamton's population is the same as it was then, but now instead of strongly French influenced architecture inspired by Robert Ivey, the downtown is dominated by 1960's era urban renewal Stalinist constructions like the state office tower in the middle of the city. Once known as the Parlor City for its refinement and magnificent architecture, today it is called by many derogatory nicknames, including Big-Hell-Town, the Twilight City, Bingo, and most recently, Bingladesh.

At its height in the 1960's and 70's, Binghamton has a population of around 80,000 people, almost big enough to be considered a big-city. Today, at 45,000, barely half its prime, it is a small city, still in decline. For a small city though, it has a marked skyline, visible from some miles up the valley. It's a striking mix of Victorian Gothic-cum-Haussmanian and block and steel modernism of the most dire kind. It's skyline is however marked with holes, like a smile with missing teeth where other buildings have given way to empty lots and parking lots, now largely disused in a city whose downtown is frequented more by the ghosts of yesterday than by 21ist century shoppers or intrepid urban pioneers.

And speaking of ghosts, the local lore has it that it is cursed. To see its perpetual yellowish haze, its morose collection of disconcerting minor skyscrapers standing next to still oddly beautiful Victorian ruins, its streets frequented by living human caricature left at life's starting gate in some cruel combination of bad luck and bad personal decisions, it does seem a place forsaken by god. The local legends have it that the Onondaga who lived in the area refused to live in the valley, notably where the Susquehanna and Chenango Rivers converge, at what today is the center of Binghamton proper. They only came to that place to bury their dead, and supposedly said that no one should ever live there except the dead.

Binghamton's most famous progeny (not truly a son, he was born in Syracuse) was Rod Serling, creator of the Twilight Zone. In a display on his life in Binghamton's Forum, the local performing arts venue, there was a quote by him I saw some years ago. It read, "Everyone has to have a hometown... I guess mine is Binghamton." Hardly a ringing endorsement.

Binghamton today is basically a collection of poorly built "shanty" houses thrown up in the early 1900's surrounding the bizarre coterie of the downtown and abutting burned out industrial zones. The main settlement of the city is periodically punctuated by well manicure homes, some of impressive grandeur. In another more affluent city, they wouldn't really stand out, but here they stand in marked contrast to the mass of rundown, derelicts. Surrounding all of them is the sprawl of modern suburbia with minor-McMansions and strip malls. The grand industries of the past are all but gone these days, and the city's one saving grace, Binghamton University, is essentially the primary employer. Binghamton's two sisters, Endicott and Johnson City, both of which ride each other, and in turn ride Binghamton's western rump, are little better.

I spent three years of my life in Binghamton, going to the University, frequenting its water holes and assorted dives, and even with the valley's cancer clusters and leukemia plume, its water contaminated with volatile organic compounds, little calling cards of its mega-industrial glory days, it still holds a small place of affection in my heart. I have always held the Binghamton that was, the Binghamton of Robert Ivey, and the Binghamton that should have been, the Binghamton that didn't decided to tear its own heart out, in high esteem, and I still see the potential that the place has. I fear tho, that it may have missed its last chance by now. Each year it just slips a little more and more into obscurity and edges ever close to oblivion, like so many old rustbelt burgs deep in the American continent.