Binghamton, a City in Context
by Tasifa Rahman (BA, Medieval Studies, Classics, Anthropology, 2014)
The City of Binghamton is part of the Greater Binghamton metropolis, which is also known as the Triple Cities, an area that includes the neighboring villages of Johnson City and Endicott. Downtown Binghamton lies at the confluence of the Susquehanna River and the Chenango River, a natural feature that was important to the native peoples who originally lived here. To the Iroquois people, a river is the “giver of life” because it offers food, water, and the means of travel and communication, and a confluence would have been particularly sacred.
Binghamton as we know it today began when William Bingham, a wealthy Philadelphian banker, along with his land agent, John Whitney, started to develop the city in the late 18th century. The area grew rapidly when the industrial revolution arrived at the end of the Civil War in 1865. Major industries such as leather, tanning, wagon building, and cigar manufacturing led to a massive growth of jobs, and the region became known as the “Valley of Opportunity.” In the late 19th century and during the first half of the twentieth century, this industrial base attracted large numbers of immigrants from Europe, including Italy, Poland, and Germany. The Endicott-Johnson Corporation, a large shoe factory known as EJ, was so well known for the opportunities it offered that European immigrants alighting at Ellis Island in the New York harbor who could not yet speak English would have been taught to ask the immigration officer “Which way EJ?”
For decades the Endicott-Johnson shoe factory provided a livelihood for Italian immigrants, mostly from Naples and Sicily, who came to Binghamton to escape poverty. Large numbers of Eastern Europeans also settled here. This rich and long history of immigration is reflected in the local culture. The influence of Eastern European immigrants is still visible in the gold onion-domed churches of the Eastern Orthodox Church built in the early 20th century that you see on the way to and from the airport. Even our local cuisine shows the legacy of immigration in the area. Spiedies, a local dish that is made of cubes of various types of grilled and marinated meat served on Italian bread, attests to the influence of Italian immigrants in the region. Binghamton continues to attract immigrants today from places such as Ethiopia, India, and Vietnam.
During World War II, several technologically innovative companies, including IBM, were founded in the area, and these high tech industries then attracted large numbers of engineers and other skilled workers. Until the 1980s the Binghamton area enjoyed a diversified economy supported by both the manufacturing and technology industries. But after two centuries of relative prosperity, the local economy began to suffer with the decline of manufacturing in the Northeast of the US. The end of the Cold War in the early 1990s brought a decrease in the demand for the defense technology that IBM and similar companies provided. When these companies contracted sharply in the 1990s Binghamton lost its high tech employers in addition to its manufacturing base. The local population has decreased by half since 1980 as people moved elsewhere to find jobs, and areas like downtown Binghamton began to suffer decay.
In 1965, Binghamton University, formerly known as the Triple Cities College, was included in the newly-formed State of New York University (SUNY) system. The university has gradually grown over the past fifty years, and Binghamton University has now emerged as the largest employer in the region. In 2007, the University opened its Downtown Center, close to the confluence of the Susquehanna and Chenango Rivers. When the Center was being built, remnants of a Native American village were discovered underground at the site. The patterns and curves of the floor design in the Center's lobby reflect the outlines of the structures that once stood as part of that village.
In the past decade, Binghamton has begun to re-invent itself. Start-up companies such as Diamond Visionics and Endicott Interconnect Technologies have recently come into the area. Binghamton’s downtown area is now being converted for new uses, including art galleries and artists' studios, residential space for students and locals, as well as an ever expanding number of restaurants and cafes, breweries, and shops. We hope you have a chance to explore some of these new enterprises during your stay.
But the city continues to face challenges. In the Fall of 2011, the Binghamton area suffered a devastating flood that destroyed over 700 homes. Downtown businesses, as well as the University Downtown Center, were severely damaged in the flood, but Binghamton is once again making a remarkable recovery. If you walk around downtown Binghamton, you will still see signs of urban decay, but you should also be able to see a new city emerging—a city full of friendly people, locally-owned restaurants and shops, and compelling histories.
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