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The Past and Future of Binghamton

Death of the Square Deal

by JEFF HOWISON

Last Friday on April 3, 2009, Binghamton, New York, became the most recent example of what has become an increasingly ordinary occurrence in the United States: a profoundly troubled man, armed to the teeth with semi-automatic weapons, gunned down unsuspecting and entirely defenseless civilians in a public place. These events offer an opportunity to reflect on the larger changes that have defined life in the United States, particularly in Rustbelt cities like Binghamton.

Like other instances of these episodes (how shall we call them?), most of the killing here took place inside of a classroom. Although the gunman, Jiverly Wong, was in his early 40s, it has been widely-reported that he felt degraded and unpopular, largely because of his bad English, and that his decision to target his fellow students of English at the local American Civic Association (ACA), which was established in Binghamton in 1939 as an immigration services center, had something to do with these insecurities and resentment.

Also consistent with other recent examples of American killing sprees, the guns used in the shooting were acquired in full compliance with state law. Wong had permits for the semi-automatic 9mm and .45 caliber handguns used in the shootings, and is reported to have purchased at least one of them locally at Gander Mountain – essentially a Wal-Mart for hunters, “outdoorsmen”, and plain gun nuts. The store is full of rifles and handguns (real ones and toy versions for the kids), ammo, deadly bows and arrows, and camouflage gear. Its foyer is plastered with photographs of men and boys crouched over the carcasses of a wide assortment of dead wildlife: a lot of deer, black bears, and even a few wolves.

Despite the similarities between other shootings and the “Massacre on Front Street”, as it has been called in the local Press & Sun Bulletin, an important difference is that (with one exception) the victims were all immigrants to the United States. They had settled in Binghamton for a variety of reasons: the “normalcy” of small town life, the proximity to New York City, the low cost of living, the chance for economic security, or because of the state university here. In addition to two women working at the ACA, one of whom was born in Ukraine and the other the United States, there were two from Vietnam (including the shooter), one woman from the Philippines and one from Pakistan, a married couple from Haiti now survived by their two young children, four from China, and a visiting mathematician from Brazil. Layla Khalil was also present at the ACA on Friday morning in the English class. She came to the United States seven months ago after leaving her native Iraq out of fear for her personal safety and the well-being of her family. Mrs. Khalil is reported to have survived three car bombings in Baghdad, in addition to a potentially-deadly kidnapping. She did not survive Friday’s shootings. The profound and tragic irony bound up in this horrible and despicable act makes the killings even more heartbreaking.

Although a story appearing in the New York Times the day after the shootings describes Binghamton as “a town with few immigrants”, nothing could be further from the truth.  Located near New York State’s southern border with Pennsylvania in the Eastern half of the state at the confluence of the Chenango and Susquehanna Rivers, the city has been a historic center of immigration. There are sizeable communities of Eastern Europeans, Africans, Latin Americans, Middle Easterners, Irish, and Asians. Italian immigrants introduced the Southern Tier of New York to their version of marinated meat on a stick. It took hold, giving rise to the local delicacy of the “spiedie” (pronounced “speedy”), and every summer Binghamton’s annual Spiedie Fest and Balloon Rally draws thousands from around the region. Many of these immigrant communities were formed during the early decades of the 20th century when work was easy to find.

The legacy of the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company continues to define much of the city’s history and built environment, although the jobs are long gone. In the lore of Binghamton local history, it is said that immigrants arriving from around the world via New York City needed only to ask, “Which way, E-J?”, and employment, housing, education, health care, profit sharing, and the rest of the social contract with George F. Johnson’s company was just around the corner. The arrangement was part of the “Square Deal”, a phrase still etched in stone on the arches over Main Street, which runs from Binghamton through the nearby former industrial villages of Johnson City and Endicott to the West. For Gerald Zahavi, who wrote a book about Endicott Johnson, “the Johnsons built an ideology whose primary goal was the establishment of an industrial community in which the interests of workers and managers would be perceived as inextricably bound.” Part of the Square Deal was an absolute rejection of labor unions, and Johnson was fond of saying that “the employer is the natural labor leader”.

Local neighborhoods in the “Triple-Cities” of Binghamton, Endicott, and Johnson City are full of reminders of E-J’s legacy and the Square Deal. There is of course George F. Johnson Middle School, the C. Fred Johnson Bridge over the Susquehanna River (named for George’s brother), the thoroughfare Harry L. Drive (named for a different brother; the Johnsons often used only their first names and middle initials, shunning surnames), and an ample scattering of small municipal parks, some of which contain sizeable statues of “George F.”, or “Daddy Johnson”. In Recreation Park on the city’s Westside, a grandfatherly Johnson is seated, flanked by a child offering flowers on one side and a kneeling worker contemplating a shoe on the other. Underneath these two pillars of corporate paternalism, the inscription reads, “HAVE FAITH IN THE PEOPLE” and “LABOR IS HONORABLE”, respectively.

During WWII, shoe manufacturing reached its peak in Binghamton. As the company was churning out boots for soldiers fighting in WWII, E-J was among the largest vertically-integrated companies in the world. The company owned everything from the cows, to the tanneries, to the retail outlets and everything in-between. But in the immediate postwar decades, the slow decline of the local shoe industry began and by the end of the 1960s most of the shoe factories had been torn down. But with the decline of shoe manufacturing, these Triple Cities found a new benevolent corporation to replace E-J. In 1924, the Computing – Tabulating – Machine Company changed its name to International Business Machines, and a new “partnership” between corporation and community had begun. According to IBM’s website, Endicott became not only the company headquarters, but also the center of its education and training activities. The former IBM “schoolhouse”, reminding us to “THINK”, still stands across from the old art deco factories and offices. Instead of municipal parks, libraries, and paternalistic statues, IBM left something else in its wake. IBM’s legacy of using toxic chemicals in the processing of electronic chipboards has made downtown Endicott, birthplace of “Big Blue,” contaminated with harmful toxics, including, but not limited to, trichloroethylene or TCE, which has been the focus of an ongoing clean-up effort since 1979, when IBM first reported its spill. Most Endicott residences and businesses have since been equipped with “vapor mitigation systems” – pipes not unlike chimneys – to allow the poisonous underground plume to be released into the air instead of into homes and workplaces.

In the immediate aftermath of Friday’s shooting, it was initially reported that the shooter Jiverly Wong had once worked for (and had been fired by) IBM – a point that IBM was quick to refute, saying they had no record his employment. This confusion can be explained. Around 2000 – 2002, by which time IBM had largely left town, Endicott Interconnect Technologies, Inc. (EI) took over most of the site and operations of the former IBM compound in Endicott. It was a changeover that is largely unclear in the minds of the community, and even for some of the workers, many of whom were retained during the “changeover”. It is not uncommon for local workers and residents to refer to the buildings and current production activities as “IBM”, even though the factories no longer have any legal connection to the corporation. Both on the facades and within the buildings, IBM references and logos still abound. Wong apparently did work at the old IBM site during 2001 and / or 2002, so it makes sense that some knew him to have worked “at IBM”. According to Binghamton Police Chief Joseph Zikuski, it was Wong’s father who had been recently laid off by IBM, and Wong himself had more recently lost his own job at the small manufacturing site of Shop Vac Corporation in the township of Union (which is partially adjacent to the village of Endicott) when the company announced to workers on the day before Thanksgiving 2008 that the factory would be shut down.

The local reaction to the killings has been largely one of collective mourning and community support. In the first memorial services for the victims, city officials, local religious leaders, university representatives, and citizens gathered at the Islamic Organization of the Southern Tier for the funerals of Layla Khalil (of Iraq) and Parveen Ali (of Pakistan). There are many organizations in Greater Binghamton that have played their part in the healing process for the victims and city residents. But there is also an underside of local reaction to the shootings that goes hand in hand with the story of de-industrialization in Binghamton, and which needs to be brought to light.

In spite – or perhaps because of the historic diversity of Binghamton’s population, there has always been a reactionary and occasionally racist element in the city. Binghamton was briefly the New York headquarters for the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s, and to this day there are elements of a certain reactionary populism on issues ranging from nationalist anti-immigration rhetoric, to taxes, from gun control to explicit racism.  

An opinion piece in the Press & Sun Bulletin that appeared three days after the shootings, warned against “those around us who will take political advantage of sorrow for their own schemes and agendas” of pushing for stricter gun laws. “Because it is unreasonably difficult to secure licensing for a handgun [sic – apparently not for Wong], maniacs can walk confidently into public buildings assured that armed resistance will not be encountered….Had one or more of the people inside the Civic Association building been armed, the outcome might have been dramatically different.” Despite fears that Obama will send his liberal minions into the homes of law-abiding citizens to begin massive gun confiscation, there is a more insidious element of the reactionary response to the shootings.

One of the figureheads of conservative populism in Binghamton, Garo Kachadourian, was immediately on the scene snapping pictures and chatting with the Binghamton Police Department on the morning of the shootings. It was Kachadourian who dutifully informed the world (via MSNBC) about the recent troubles for “local” Binghamtonians. The anchor asked Kachadourian, “Has there been this kind of violence in Binghamton in recent years? Have you seen any kind of similar large-scale violence?” Of course, the most direct and accurate answer would have been, “No, there has not been”. Yet Kachadourian managed a thinly-veiled attempt at linking the shooting with a popular target of local reactionary discourse: the perception of increased crime as a consequence of black and Latino people emigrating from New York City and parts of New Jersey, bringing drugs, gangs, and a crime wave. Without flinching, Kachadourian replied, “Well, we have had some crime increases in the area, but nothing of this magnitude.”

This underbelly of area racism was clearly evident in the aftermath of a largely underreported incident a few years ago. In December of 2006, Johnson City police officer Matthew Romano claimed to have been stabbed by a pair of black men while on patrol in the Cavalry Cemetery. Flyers with a composite sketch of the suspect, a 20-something, dark-skinned, big-lipped and -eyed, wide-nosed young man with short dreads was posted in gas stations, restaurants, groceries, and pubs, not to mention being splashed across our television screens. The sketch would have been more offensive had it not looked so ridiculously laughable and amateurish. The wanted posters were taken down when Romano was indicted on a felony count of filing false information. It soon seemed clear enough that the attack never took place – at least the way that Romano described it. It was revealed during the subsequent trial that Romano was having marital problems and had been generally unstable during the time of the supposed attack. Romano was eventually acquitted by Judge Martin Smith in November 2008.

Doug Drazen, the Independence Party candidate for Binghamton mayor in the 2005 election, ran on a “law and order” platform and billed himself as the next “Rudy Giuliani of Binghamton”. He was embraced by local Libertarian-types, while playing to fears of “big government” and the supposed wave of black crime. He outperformed expectations when he finished only 1100 votes behind Matthew Ryan, the current progressive Democratic mayor of the city. Although Drazen saw himself in the mold of Giuliani, he more closely resembled the “Reagan Democrats” in their not-so-subtly racist outlooks on crime and immigration. It is worth remembering that it was not far from Binghamton, in parts of Pennsylvania, where McCain and Palin supporters outrageously displayed “Obama monkeys”, complete with mini-nooses, during the Presidential campaign of 2008. On I-81, just north of Binghamton, there is a prominent display of anti-tax, anti-Democrat road signs on private property urging energy companies to “drill here, drill now!” This has a double-meaning in these parts: on one hand, it refers to support for domestic oil drilling in places like the Artic National Wildlife Refuge; on the other, it has to do with the recent discovery that local property owners might benefit from the abundant natural gas reserves in this area.

Of course, the perception of the “wave of crime” has nothing to do with immigration or race, although on the surface there may appear to be a relation. Rather, Binghamton’s current social problems are directly traceable to its decimated economy. Like my former home of Toledo, Ohio, and so many other cities in the Rustbelt of the United States, Binghamton has been gutted and abandoned by the corporations that once made this place their home. In short, the Square Deal is gone and so is anything resembling a sustainable economy. The city is currently shrinking, and because of the collapse of Wall Street and New York’s state tax base, local residents can expect their tax burdens (some of which are already nearly double the national average) to continue to climb.

There is a connection between unemployment, economic and social instability, and violence such as the Massacre of Front Street. The era in which Binghamton will serve as a beacon for immigrants coming to the United States seeking a decent life and some chance at upward economic and social mobility is over. These horrific shootings last week underscore that point. In fact, the massacre is something of a microcosm for a larger unfolding story of social change. Christopher Voss, a retired FBI hostage negotiator explained about Wong’s actions, “In our industry, we have something called the double-whammy. It might be a job loss coupled with some other personal loss. My guess is that additional losses will be uncovered.” Indeed. There are endless potential “whammies” for the people of Binghamton, particularly for immigrants here.

Initial reports of Wong’s anti-Americanism were sensationalized. He apparently once told a co-worker at Shop Vac, “America sucks”. Another of Wong’s co-workers relayed an anecdote to the New York Times, “I asked him who he was going to vote for and he said, ‘I don’t really care, I’d shoot both of them’”. As the days pass since the shooting, it is becoming increasingly clear that Wong’s shooting spree had little to do with anti-Americanism. Instead we might think of the tragedy as an opportunity to reflect on the increasingly bleak prospects for the future of Binghamton, whether for “locals” or anyone else living here for that matter. Our immediate shock has turned to reflection.

Marshall Berman has suggested the concept “urbicide”, defined as the killing of cities. If Binghamton is to recover from this most horrific day in its history, we must deal with the larger social death that has slowly but steadily taken hold in our city and in other cities like it, and to address its causes and consequences. Only then will we find solutions to our many problems. May the victims of the “Massacre on Front Street” rest in peace knowing we are working toward that end.

JEFF HOWISON is a graduate student in Sociology at Binghamton University – formerly SUNY-Binghamton – and a resident of Binghamton, New York. He can be contacted at jhowiso1@binghamton.edu