You can sort of go home again

Can you really go home again if no one is there? Yes, you can, providing you don’t want to live in the space you used to inhabit (for about forty years it has been occupied by other people) and you don’t mind if there is no one really to call on. There probably are people in the Binghamton area who might know me and I might know them, but I don’t know where to find them, they don’t know that I’m here and if we remember each other at all we’ll probably confuse names, dates and facts. So instead former residents like me arrive and leave anonymously, and the closest you come to confessing that you are a native is to the waitress at Christie’s steakhouse in Johnson City, who receives the information with a blank stare.

View of Johnson City and Vestal from Traditions Resort, Johnson City, NY
View of Johnson City and Vestal from Traditions Resort, Johnson City, NY

“The Triple Cities” we used to call them, but Binghamton, Endicott and Johnson City are hardly the only trio of cities in New York State with the moniker. There is, for example, Albany, Schenectady and Troy. I was born in Schenectady and expect to be in Troy in October. Nor are they all real cities. Endicott promotes itself as a village. Endwell, where I grew up next door to Endicott, is part of the Town of Union (which includes Maine to the north) and may be bigger than Endicott. Across the Susquehanna on its southern side is Vestal, neither a city nor a village, but a town. Arguably Endicott was a city in its glory days of the 1950s. Back then the shoe factories lining the railroads were cranking out shoes by the railcar full. The smell of tanning leather was pervasive as you drove down North Street. Then there was also IBM, busy building the precursors to the information age: electric typewriters but also mainframe computers that read programs from stacks of paper cards and saved data to giant reels of magnetic tape.

The abandoned shoe factory eyesores are now finally gone. This is probably for the best, because they were ugly and safety hazards. If Endicott is to have a renaissance, it could not happen until these eyesores were demolished. Still, they should have kept one, prettified it up and sold tickets to tourists to see it. History sells in upstate New York. IBM is virtually gone, with only a couple of hundred employees in Endicott. The huge IBM administrative building still proudly proclaiming its name on North Street is still there, and it is easy to mistake for a high school. The boxy white concrete IBM buildings along McKinley Avenue remain as well. Not much has replaced these employment centers, which has resulted in the predictable result: lots of boarded up storefronts. When IBM mostly left, a company called Huron took over and is now marketing the former IBM campus to prospective employers. Arguably, Endicott would be a great value to any prospective employer. There is no rush hour to worry about, plenty of cheap real estate and there is never a problem with finding a parking space, except as I discovered at the George F. Johnson Memorial Library. Some things are new on Washington Avenue, Endicott’s old downtown, including an “adult emporium”.

In 2012, the Triple Cities are not exactly looking up but they definitely feel less bleak than they did when I last visited in 2000. It was perhaps exemplified by our choice of lodging, Traditions in the Glen, a four-star hotel, spa and golf resort occupying what used to be the IBM Country Club, before IBM vamoosed. The elite of the area, such as they are, seem to hang out here. It is a lovely resort, beautifully restored and feeling much like a scaled down and less pricey version of The Homestead, a huge resort we visited in 2010 in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. In the lobby you can see pictures of the country club at or before I remembered it, with pictures of IBM founder Thomas Watson, Sr. taking the first shot on the then new country club, or Bing Crosby with Jack Nicholson’s trainer swinging away on the course.

Unfortunately, it’s but a short drive of a mile or so from Traditions down Watson Boulevard where you will find suboptimal retail: an ugly old coin Laundromat, a Dollar General store and a Yum Yum ice cream stand that looks like it deferred about twenty years of maintenance. Much of my home town of Endwell is still a sad place. East Main Street in particular is distressed. And yet, there is community along East Main Street. Wander down Davis Drive and onto Stack Avenue, where my friend Tom and his family used to live, and you find a real family community just as nice, if not nicer, than my memories of it from the 1960s and 1970s. Nearby Christ the King Church has been sold to an evangelical faith, perhaps for hard cash to pay off various priest child abuse suits. It is now the Triumphant Life Church, and they must be doing well because the building has been expanded. The old parochial school across the parking lot where I suffered eight years of elementary school under the watchful eyes of frequently tyrannical sisters remains boarded up. Many of the windows are covered in plywood and the blue plastic veneer siding is fading and peels. Catholicism is dying in The Triple Cities, as evidenced by the consolidation of churches and parochial schools, and is being slowly replaced by evangelical faiths like the Triumphant Life Church. A high school in Endicott where I spent a little over a year is still there, but is now a junior high. Seton Catholic High School was relocated to Binghamton.

Yes, of course things have changed back home in forty years, but it looks and feels much the same. Some things are truly for the better. Formerly a community as white as Wonder Bread but with a heavy Greek presence (evidenced by the Eastern Orthodox churches in Johnson City), now real diversity can be found: Asians, blacks and other minorities have moved in, perhaps drawn to the dirt cheap real estate. Endwell is not exactly a city of color but it has become a loaf of spotted Pumpernickel. The local gas station on East Main Street is full serve, and an Asian teenage woman there happily pumped my gas. (Full serve does not mean they check your tire pressure and engine oil, however.)

The houses are newer in Endwell the further north you go. My old neighborhood along Scribner Drive feels reasonably well kept up. What is different is vegetation: lots more of it with forty years to settle in. Our old house at the corner of Scribner and Winston drives has been transformed over forty years. There is a lot of natural landscaping in the backyard and more trees. The garage has been turned into a room, and there is an additional driveway along Winston Drive. Otherwise the neighborhood remains inviting  and a healthy place to raise children, with Homer Brink Elementary (where I went to kindergarten) a few short and safe blocks down the street. Forty years have not eroded the terrain either. The hills of Endwell and Endicott remain steep and challenging, and doubtless it remains difficult to get to houses at the top of the hill after a snowfall. A four wheel drive vehicle is recommended for those homeowners.

For me the heart of Endwell is the intersection at Hooper and Country Club roads. All the retail establishments I recall are gone, but new ones have come to supplant them including  a large community credit union. The firehouse remains. A Dunkin Donuts has moved in as well, and today that chain and Dollar General stores seem to have taken over the Southern Tier. Still, I could retire back to this area because Johnson City has a Wegmans supermarket, and it is just like the Wegmans we have back near our real home. Surely, a community is civilized and shows fortitude if a Wegmans has taken up residence.

There was not time for a proper tour of the area when you arrive late in the afternoon and leave around noon the next day after taking time to do your laundry at an Endicott Laundromat. We merely drove through Binghamton. What we saw of Johnson City looked a bit more hopeful than it did in 2000, although my father’s former General Electric Plant, sold and resold a few times, is now boarded up too. Recent floods caused a lot of damage to an area that was already distressed. The area has been abused and kicked around, but it is hardly dead. It may be on an almost imperceptible rebirth. Its gentle green hills and usually benign Susquehanna and Chenango Rivers give it a peaceful and comforting feeling, interrupted only by the annoyance of swarms of gnats during the summer. It needs some company with bigger pockets than the Huron Corporation to believe in it again. I hope that someday true vitality returns to the community I will probably always consider my home.

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