"Bygone Binghamton" by Jack Shay with Betty Casey and Tom Townsend

March 5, 2013

History was not always kind to Binghamton, NY.  Binghamton was named for Pennsylvania politician William Bingham who owned the acreage but likely never even visited it.  It was tied into the state's canal system just in time for the railroad to make the canal obsolete.  Until the 20th century, Elmira rather than Binghamton was considered the principal city in New York's Southern Tier.  But even if the town doesn't have a major claim to fame (even Schenectady had a popular song written about it) it does have a claim to the attention of its residents and people elsewhere.  Binghamton has made important contributions to the world's progress -- Ed Link's flight simulation, Ansco's giant paper coating machine -- and it's done its part to advance many facets of modern life, from shoes to space travel.  For most of the past century the Triple Cities -- Binghamton, Endicott, Johnson City (despite that latter name only Binghamton is officially a city) --  has been a lively, productive metropolitan area, a pleasant place to live with a generous share of attractions, strivers and cool characters.  Its history and civic life have been rich and exciting enough to merit a new historical study, a packed, authoritative, anecdotal and often delightful book, more than a thousand pages long!  Move over, Syracuse.

 

"Bygone Binghamton: Remembering People and Places of the Past" is the work of Jack Edward Shay in collaboration with Betty Casey and Tom Townsend.  Shay is a native of Broome County who began a journalism career here before spending twenty years as a public information officer for the U.S. Department of the Interior.  Upon his retirement he settled again in Vestal, NY and began a decade of research and writing that became "Bygone Binghamton".  Betty Casey grew up in nearby Susquehanna, Pennsylvania and for 30 years was a community relations manager for IBM-Endicott.  Tom Townsend is also a native of Broome County and runs Adaptive Driving Services, Inc.A widely-travelled student of history, Tom did much of the work finding archival material.  The two volume study (in soft cover it all weighs  nearly four pounds) covers the extraordinary amd the everyday with an emphasis on the second half of the twentieth century.  Jack Shay explains in the introduction:

     Volume One deals with three general topics: food (restaurants, groceries, dairies, bakeries, penny candy and ice cream); work (factories like GAF, GE, IBM, EJ and the Erie Shops); and business (downtown shopping, stores, bars, car dealers, gas stations, hotels and newspapers and magazines). 

     Volume two also includes three general topics: leisure (movie theaters, TV and radio, musicians and musical events, parks and playgrounds, and all the activities we did when we were kids); notables (politicians, sports figures, actors and unforgettable people); and the spiritual side of life (family radio, churches, cemeteries and inspirational themes).

Shay, Casey and Townsend feel an obvious affection and great curiosity about Binghamton and environs and are not satisfied to let bygones go.  They tell the big stories about IBM and Endicott-Johnson and President Reagan's 1984 visit, but there's also space to remember the origins and operation of Little Venice Restaurant and Red's Kettle Inn and Frankie & Johnnie's luncheonette with its Curly-Que fries (now it can be told: the spuds were run through an apple peeler).  There are word portraits of distinguished persons -- Mayor John Burns, writer Rod Serling -- but also a chapter on "Masty Huba", a homeless wanderer for years around the streets of Binghamton who never amounted to much.  The authors spoke with more than twenty people whose memories of Masty add up to a story of human survival.

The ethnic diversity of the community is a major theme of "Bygone Binghamton". There are German clubs, Polish bands, Ukranian festivals and the introduction of an Italian food called a "hot pie" since the word "pizza" was not yet part of the American vocabulary.  The flow of life in "Bygone Binghamton" seems often to simply gravitate to the city's First Ward and life along Clinton Street.


Clinton Street had just the right mix of residential and retail establishments to transform it into a uniquely individual enclave.  Retail stores stretched along its 1.3-mile length, making it longer than any of the official downtowns.  It was the only throughfare in the southern tier of New York and the northern tier of Pennsylvania to spawn a decades-long bar crawl, the notorious "Clinton Street Run".  It had major employers... Churches, banks, funeral parlors, restaurants, specialty stores, meat markets and distributorships, hotels... And yet, despite it all, it was a neighborhood...and a relatively safe one.   (II, p.425)

The story of "Bygone Binghamton" goes on and on and the two books in their 1,246 pages of text (with a few photographs) bring back very special times and places.  Jack Edward Shay and Betty Casey join Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE.

Guests: 
Jack Edward Shay
Betty Casey
Tom Townsend