Binghamton, NY, Small Town Where I Grew Up
Just after the 1960 Census results were in, the late, much read columnist from the Binghamton Press, Tom Cawley, wrote that, given the trends, the city to which I was permanently attached, the big city for me, Binghamton, NY, the place I’d never forget, was going to be a ghost town by the end of the century. Industry was leaving.
Young people were moving away to start their adult lives in distant places, and there was no new thing on the horizon to reverse the decline.
The decline never went quite that far, but Binghamton, true to Tom Cawley’s musings, saw its population fall by over fifty percent before ringing in the new millennium. My first high school, Binghamton North High School ended its life, absorbed by its crosstown rival, Binghamton Central, and a great football rivalry vanished. Much worse is the ghost town downtown became, which I’ll show you in a video later on.
In perspective, this the story about what happened to most of urban America. Some, like Detroit, got much worse, while a few thrived. It’s just that the close-knit social structure of small towns that make their declines feel so wrenching.
A History of Binghamton, NY, As We Saw It
While both have had their destructive moments, the well-known Susquehanna River and the lesser known Chenango, fed by the Tioughnioga, carved a gentle flatland between foothills where Binghamton came to life in the Nineteenth Century.
Like most of Upstate New York, growth was fueled by one of the most explosive economic generators of all time, the Erie Canal. To take advantage of the canal, Upstate was clear cut of its old growth forests in an environmental catastrophe having much in common with the destruction of forests going on today in Brazil and other Third World countries.
New York traded forests for farms, and the catalyst was the opportunity to make a lot of money shipping goods by canal and river as far as New York City where they were shipped to a starving Europe. Hard to imagine, these days, but the great canal is what ended the old growth forest that once stretched unbroken from the Hudson to Lake Erie.
Link Aviation, a company started by flight simulation pioneer, Edwin Link, always a reliable source of jobs when I was a kid, was acquired by General Precision, then Singer, and manufactured defense critical simulators into the Seventies. The company was then blown to smithereens by a Wall Street takeover artist who cared not a thing about our hometown legend.
Endicott-Johnson, where they once produced enough shoes to outfit most of the country’s armed forces in two great wars, keeping thousands working, day in and day out, lost the battle to lower paying southern states and closed up shop.
Others went too, especially when the end of the Cold War meant shrinking the defense industry, and well before the turn of the century, Binghamton, New York was in the business of trying to reinvent itself, just like the majority of small towns across America.
Seeing Binghamton, NY, In The History of Endicott-Johnson
Walking America Through The Big Wars
Binghamton, New York, was named for William Bingham, who bought the land in 1792, and it was known as Chenango Point until Binghamton was officially incorporated less than ten years after the Erie Canal opened and as feeder canals encouraged massive farming.
It became a City just after the Civil War. Over the next one-hundred years, it blossomed into one of New York State’s ten largest, topping out at around ninety-thousand before the long decline started soon enough to be recognized in the census of 1960.
E-J’s became the champion of Welfare Capitalism, a movement that argued that business owners had an obligation to and also gained from the uplifting of their employees. This meant that the company built parks, libraries, churches and, most importantly, affordable housing
Another initiative attributed to Johnson was “the square deal,” that he committed to as fair play for the workers. This included extensive company benefits, which, it’s been claimed, greatly influenced the much prized benefits long offered by E-J’s younger sibling from Endicott, International Business Machines, now better known as IBM.
The success of Endicott-Johnson was attributable to war, the company having produced virtually all the footwear for American soldiers in both World Wars. Times of peace were not so good. George F. Johnson died in 1948, and outside management came on as the company declined less than ten years later. A shadow has been passed around from investor to investor, including Citigroup, but only the title E-J remains.
Just Some Binghamton, NY, Facts
And that is all that was, facts that are known widely and that may suggest reasons for the allegiance locals and even those who have left feel toward the city.
The area prospered under the idealistic business leadership of George F. Johnson, a benevolent style of ownership that would be widely scorned today by shareholders, and it’s population grew with a massive infusions of immigrant laborers who came to work in the tanneries. E-J recruited from Italy and the slavic countries, but a proud population of Polish families created and continues to flavor Binghamton First Ward.
It’s reasonable to imagine that the solidarity of immigrant groups produced a hometown loyalty that goes on, and it’s also possible that Johnson’s idealistic example of treating others with respect and generosity permeated the local mindset