Binghamton, My Battered Hometown

It was a year ago today when my hometown became the latest victim of seemingly random violence. I usually steer away from the phrase “senseless violence”, because it gives the impression that violence is sensible. One can argue that it is necessary, such as in self-defense, but not that it’s sensible.

In any case, I wrote this piece last year, and posted it elsewhere but I never actually posted it in THIS blog, to my surprise. So on the anniversary of the event here’s what I wrote. The * is to an article link that no longer works.
I grew up on Gaines Street in Binghamton, NY’s First Ward (or The Ward, as it was commonly referred to.) Gaines is a one-block street between Oak and Front Streets. When I walked to high school, I’d pass one house before heading south on Front Street. I’d go by the houses that were on my newspaper route a couple years earlier – the Evening and Sunday Press, back in the days when the city of 70,000 had two newspapers six days a week. Invariably, I’d look up Dickinson Street so see in the distance my elementary/junior high school, Daniel S. Dickinson. Then I’d go by the place I used to attend Bible study, followed closely by the American Civic Association, then turn right onto Main Street to get to Binghamton Central high School.

The ACA was not just a place I went by, though. My late father, Les Green, was active in the civil rights front and the Association was active in trying to bring different people together, so he had some relationship with the place, the specifics of which unfortunately escape me.

What I do remember, though, is the fact that my father, sister Leslie and I performed there at least once as the Green Family Singers, with a repertoire of folk, gospel and popular songs. More ingrained in my mind is the fact that in March of 1969, I had my 16th birthday party there. This was an extravagant act on the part of my parents, I thought, renting out the hall for my friends and me. (I specifically recall my father catching one couple making out in a closet.) I still remember some of the presents I received, including Judy Collins’ Who Knows Where the Time Goes.

Then on April 3, 2009, the place of some very pleasant memories became the location of yet another batch of senseless violence. Reading the coverage was not an act of disengaged voyeurism; I walked those streets shown on the television, probably a thousand times or more. And my hometown, now a city of 45,000, with but one public high school that was for a time in lockdown that day, became, most awfully, the lead story on the evening news.

Reading the reports, I couldn’t help noting that there are those who will always comment on a story to drive home their agenda. In the city’s now single local paper’s website*, along with expressions of sympathy, distress about the human condition, requests for more help for the mentally ill, and people on both sides of the gun control issue were xenophobic rants about immigration, as though that were the lesson to be learned. I happened across this list of recent mass killings – which I did not even have to look for – makes such a conclusion just bizarre to my mind.

I will save the whys for later. Right now, all I can do is grieve for my hometown in a way that words fail.

E is for Erie Canal

It was a crazy idea: dig a ditch virtually across New York State, deep and wide enough to carry produce to the market west of the Appalachian Mountains by boat safer and more cheaply than by land. When such a plan was first proposed by Jesse Hawley, a miller in the town of Geneva, New York, President Thomas Jefferson thought it was “little short of madness”. Some proposals as early as 1768 suggested a shorter canal, connecting the Hudson River with Lake Ontario near Oswego.

“It was not until 1808 that the state legislature funded a survey for a canal that would connect to Lake Erie. Finally, on July 4, 1817, Governor Dewitt Clinton” – formerly mayor of New York City and long-time advocate for the canal – “broke ground for the construction of the canal. In those early days, it was often sarcastically referred to as Clinton’s Big Ditch. When finally completed on October 26, 1825, it was the engineering marvel of its day.” Remarkable since 1) there were no engineering schools to speak of in the country, and thus no one with a true engineering background to facilitate the work, and 2) most of the work was done by men and horses.

From New York State’s history of the canal: “The effect of the Canal was immediate and dramatic and settlers poured west. The explosion of trade prophesied by Governor Clinton began, spurred by freight rates from Buffalo to New York of $10 per ton by Canal, compared with $100 per ton by road. In 1829, there were 3,640 bushels of wheat transported down the Canal from Buffalo. By 1837 this figure had increased to 500,000 bushels; four years later it reached one million. In nine years, Canal tolls more than recouped the entire cost of construction.”

The canal was enlarged several times, with lateral canals also being built.

The expansion in the early 20th Century was opposed by some, particularly in those Southern Tier cities that weren’t directly benefiting. “With the exception of Binghamton and Elmira, every major city in New York falls along the trade route established by the Erie Canal, from New York City (ranked fourth in population in 1800, but rose to first place) to Albany (doubled its population within a few years of the canal’s completion), through Schenectady, Utica (population increased from 3,000 to 13,000 in twenty years) and Syracuse (described as a ‘desolate’ hamlet of a few scattered wooden houses in 1820, became a city of 11,000 in 1840), to Rochester (changed from ‘one wide and deep forest’ to a prosperous community of 20,000) and Buffalo (a “wilderness outpost of 200 in 1812, became a gateway to the west and its population reached 18,000 by 1840″). Nearly 80% of upstate New York’s population lives within a 25 miles of the Erie Canal.” So it’s not surprising that the poster above was published in the county where Binghamton is located.

“With growing competition from railroads and highways, and the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, commercial traffic on the Canal System declined dramatically in the latter part of the 20th century.” In fact, the New York State Thruway parallels the waterway. Interstate 87 runs from New York City to Albany, much the same way Henry Hudson traveled 400 years ago. then Interstate 90 runs from Albany to Buffalo, just like the Erie Canal.

“Today, the waterway network…as the New York State Canal System…is enjoying a rebirth as a recreational and historic resource. The Erie Canal played an integral role in the transformation of New York City into the nation’s leading port, a national identity that continues to be reflected in many songs, legends and artwork today.”

The song The Erie Canal wasn’t written until 1905. I think that, for a time, every child in school in upstate New York was required to know the tune. Erie Canal was repopularized by Bruce Springsteen on the (Pete) Seeger Sessions album earlier this century. When I saw Bruce last year, I hoped he might do this song; cities always go crazy when the artist namechecks the city he/she/they are performing in; alas, it was not the case.

ABC Wednesday.


Coins of the Realm

The state quarters that the US Mint started putting out in 1999 should have been a natural thing for me to collect. I love the history that is told in the order of the release dates, which weas the order in which the states joined the Union. I KNOW a good chunk of the statehood dates. Once won $1000 because I could put these in chronological order: Oklahoma statehood, California statehood, Nebraska statehood.

Yet, for a full decade, I resisted, and I knew why. It was because I used to collect as a child. I knew just about everything there was to know about 20th century coins, from the years people were represented on them (Lincoln-1909; FDR-1946; JFK-1964, but the latter was quite easy). I knew about the penny being made with steel during World War II because copper was needed elsewhere. I knew about the Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco mints; in the day, the latter two were marked as D and S, respectively, but the Philly wasn’t marked at all.

Then one day, when I was about 13 or 14, many of my coins disappeared. They were not lost; they were stolen. And I had a pretty good idea who took them, too – the son of friends of my parents from church. But I couldn’t prove it, and my parents were afraid of falsely accusing the boy. Still, no one else outside the family could have had access. I had shown this kid, four or five years my junior, my collection of half dollars to keep him busy while our parents chatted.

The theft just sucked the joy out of coin collecting. Forever.

Well, until this year when my colleagues Mary and Alexis decided, just as the 50-state quarters were all released, to start collecting. Their unbridled joy with the process was contagious, and I found myself wrapped up in the process, especially when Alexis ordered online – we couldn’t find them in stores anymore – the coin holders. Oh, my! It was the same navy blue cover with lighter blue on the inside that I used to keep my coins as a child, published by a company called Whitman. I didn’t remember the brand name, but the look was unmistakable.

First thing I learned in my new hobby: the S coins were only available as proof sets. Second thing was that I had to look carefully to distinguish the P quarters (now marked as such) from the D quarters.

In relatively short order I was able to complete my P set, since the Philly mint distributed its quarters to the banks east of the Mississippi. The D quarters were a bit trickier. Even after my sister, who lives in San Diego, mailed me 19 D quarters as a birthday present, I’m still missing 7 D quarters: PA, MO, AR, TX, WI, WA and HI.

I also have not yet seen any 2009 quarters of either variety; the DC coin is already out, with the Puerto Rico coin due out later this month. I will continue to empty my pockets seeking these elusive coins.

Oh, California statehood took place in 1850, the year after the Gold Rush. I can still recall this map in fifth or sixth grade. States were green and the territories brown; there was a big brown gap north and west of Texas, but California was an oasis of green.
Nebraska statehood. I knew it was after the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854; didn’t specifically remember that it was 1867. Why I remember the Kansas-Nebraska Act, I just don’t know.
Oklahoma was the easiest. From the Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein musical, I knew it was in 20th century. But it had to be before New Mexico and Arizona in 1912, the latter which I remember because of Barry Goldwater running for President in 1964 and the questions about whether he was a natural-born citizen. Oklahoma statehood turned out to be 1907.

BTW, Jaquandor has started reviewing the coin designs here and here.
Top 5 Worst Coin Investments

How Much Is My Penny Worth?


20 Women I Admire

I have opted to list just American women, merely as a way to limit it. It is NOT a list of THE 20 Women I Most Admire. Actually, it was the first 20 that came to mind.

Abigail Adams
The wife of the second U.S. president and mother of the sixth used her “intellect and lively wit” to prod progress for women “in her many letters which were preserved.”

Jane Addams (pictured) “founded Hull-House in the 19th century and led it well into the 20th. She was also active in peace and feminist work.”

Clara Barton
She was a “pioneering nurse who served as an administrator in the Civil War, and who helped identify missing soldiers at the end of the war, is credited as the founder of the American Red Cross.”

Rachel Carson
With Silent Spring, she “wrote the book that helped create the environmentalist movement in the late 20th century.

Judy Collins
“Part of the 1960s folk revival and still popular today,” her music affected me greatly even before I received “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” for my 16th birthday – 40 years ago! I also had a chance to see her live, which was a true joy.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg (pictured)
A progressive voice on the Supreme Court in spite her recent cancer.

Katharine Graham
She was the Washington Post publisher who “took over the family business after her husband’s suicide and saw it through the Watergate scandal.”

Billie Jean King
Not only a fine tennis player, she worked hard to get women players better pay.

Laura Linney
My favorite working actress. Here’s a tease for the award-winning John Adams miniseries on HBO, which I have not yet seen. It features Linney as Abigail Adams – a twofer!

Jessica Mitford
She wrote The American way of Death, an expose of the funeral industry, which has a profound affect on my view of life…and death.

Mary Tyler Moore
The star of two of my favorite television shows ever (The Dick Van Dyke Show and her eponymously-named show), she has also been a speaker on what they used to call “juvenile diabetes” and stem-cell research.

Toni Morrison (pictured)
Possibly the author I’ve read the most.

Rosa Parks
There’s so much myth around her defining act. She wasn’t just tired, as this narrative shows.

Eleanor Roosevelt
The wife of FDR took “positions on issues like civil rights…often ahead of her husband and the rest of the country. She was key in establishing the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.”

Margaret Sanger (pictured)

She responded to “seeing the suffering caused by unwanted and unplanned pregnancies among the poor women she served as a nurse” by taking up “a lifetime cause: the availability of birth control information and devices.”

Gloria Steinem
The editor of Ms. magazine. I was a charter subscriber. What more is there to say?

Harriet Tubman
The “Underground Railroad conductor during American slavery was also a Civil War nurse and spy, and an advocate of civil rights.”

Sojourner Truth
Best “known as an abolitionist…she was also a preacher and spoke for women’s rights. She was one of the most in-demand speakers of the mid-19th century in America.”

Madam C.J. Walker (pictured)

She was the first great black entrepreneur, turning her hair care product sales into a business empire.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias
A multi-sport athlete, she excelled in most of them.

Quotes from


Q is for Quadricentennial

Q turned out to be one of the easier letters for me, for 2009 marks the 400th anniversary of a trip taken by Henry Hudson which directly led to the founding of Albany, NY, where I’ve lived for the past 29 years. In 1609, Hudson was looking for an easterly passage to Asia, commissioned by the Dutch East India Company.

After crossing the Atlantic Ocean, his vessel, the Halve Maen (Half Moon), after first sailing down to the Chesapeake Bay with a sister ship, eventually traveled into New York Harbor and proceeded up what is today called the Hudson River. It made it about 150 miles, as far as what is now Albany before he was forced to turn around by waters that were too shallow. He realized that the river that would come to eventually bear his name was not a westerly passage to Asia.

Eventually, on the western shore, a settlement was established in what became the cqapital of New York State.

But this is not just a celebration of one city but of an entire region. Check out this site, or better still, this one for a list of events during the upcoming quadricentennial year. Also, check out this video, which will explain things somewhat.


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