On Memorial Day weekend, I woke at the crack of dawn and boarded a bus destined for Binghamton, New York to see an old friend for the first time in five years. To me, that city meant little more than name on a highway sign. My friend was visiting his family in Western New York. Since Binghamton sat equidistantly between my friend’s and my respective home bases, we agreed to rendezvous in New York’s Southern Tier.
Since we had no plan for the day (aside from catching up), my friend suggested that we visit the local planetarium at the Roberson Museum and Science Center. Having just launched a company producing custom globes (Global Creations), he might have been searching for insight and inspiration.
The Roberson Museum and Science Center is an eclectic, catch-all museum with science, nature, history, and art exhibits. The Roberson Mansion, the former home of a local timber merchant and banking executive, is the centerpiece of the institution and the Mansion holds a small, interesting collection of works by local artists. Those paintings and watercolors reveal the look and texture of the Binghamton area and its people prior to industrialization. They also show local artists attempting to mimic or master the artistic schools and trends of their day. Again, interesting.
Adjacent to the museum’s entrance sits a gallery-sized model train set presenting a nostalgic image of Binghamton during the city’s postwar glory. That downtown Binghamton had a movie palace, restaurants, pharmacies, and a variety of retail. Attractive architecture and well-crafted buildings completed every street. An elegant Lackawanna rail station greeted visitors and returning residents. During its economic and cultural prime, Binghamton appeared to be a fine place.
While watching the model train glide along the tracks, I reflected upon this exhibit and wondered why museum guests were drawn to it. The train set displayed the memories of many older residents and possibly the current aspirations of younger ones. Such residents might dream of the Binghamton of yesteryear–industrious, prosperous, and promising. They want to survey their hometown and know that they live in a place deserving care, respect, and affection. They want to know that they themselves matter.
This swath of New York State voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Binghamton and many other regions of American have been forgotten and abandoned as the country has moved toward a different economic model. Politicians have done little to address or alleviate this situation. Business leadership doesn’t even pretend to care. And the less said about tech sector gurus, the better. During the election campaign, Trump visited struggling small industrial cities through the Northeast and the Midwest and promised to bring back their jobs and their downtowns.
It’s increasingly clear that President Trump never had a thought or plan for economic or cultural revitalization beyond his campaign speeches and zingers. Still, visitors come to the Roberson Museum and watch the train circle through a past Binghamton. They want that town back.