A Tale of Two Binghamtons

“Everybody has to have a hometown.  Binghamton’s mine.” – Rod Serling

Regardless of my own feelings towards my hometown, I always considered it a point of pride that I grew up in the same city as Rod Serling.  His family moved to the area when he was two, and he lived here until he graduated from Binghamton Central High School in 1943.  After fighting in the Pacific during World War II and attending Antioch College, he became a prominent television writer, best known as the creator of the famous anthology series “The Twilight Zone.”  In the fifth episode of the series “Walking Distance,” Serling waxes nostalgic about a man who desires to go back to his hometown not as it is, but as he remembered it.  The park in the story, with its bandstand and carousel, is based on Recreation Park on Binghamton’s West Side, only a few blocks from where Serling grew up.

The Binghamton that Serling knew was a bustling metropolis nicknamed “The Valley of Opportunity.”  Thousands worked at Endicott-Johnson, IBM, Link Flight Simulator, and many other industries.  However, the winds of change were blowing by the time I was born in 1981, and would continue to blow through my youth.  By my freshman year at Binghamton High School (formerly Binghamton Central) in 1995, Endicott-Johnson had closed the last of their factories, and IBM and Link were among the many employers joining the exodus from the area.  My first-hand experience with the decline of Binghamton was one of many factors that drove me to leave what I had dubbed “The Cesspool on the Susquehanna” in 2004.  I swore that once I left I would never return, but fate intervened and after obtaining an engineering job, I moved back ten years later and have not regretted it.  Although there were some bright spots, I was dismayed that the degeneration of Binghamton had continued.

I follow a couple of groups on Facebook that focus on the history of Binghamton, and these groups are a treasure trove of old photos, news articles, and personal experiences.  It presents the good old days of Binghamton before the mass exodus of industry and people.  While I can enjoy this from the perspective of an amateur historian, it highlights a question asked by older generations: Why can’t we go back to the way things were?  In times of decline, it is easy to look back to the past with a sense of nostalgia and longing, but I am not one of them.  Time is asymmetrical: you can know the past but you cannot change it, while you can influence the future but you cannot know it.  Attempting to restore the past is meaningless, for overall tomorrow has proved to be better than yesterday, therefore set your sights on tomorrow.

I am aware that Binghamton does not exist in a vacuum, as other cities that have deindustrialized face similar issues.  Some have adapted to the changes in the times, while others remain chained to the past, unable or unwilling to move forward.  I fervently hope that Binghamton can unshackle themselves from the dead weight of IBM, EJ, and others, and embrace the opportunities presented by the growing presence of Binghamton University or the burgeoning medical industry led by Lourdes and United Health Services.  As the past fades behind us, we must be careful not to let ourselves fade with it.

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