Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Where the Neighborhood Ends and the 'Hood Starts

Since the dog was added to our family, one feature of every day, weather permitting, has been the walk of the dog. He goes outside several times a day, but since we don't have an enclosed yard anymore, and he's a mid-to-large sized dog with a pretty good appetite, he needs to go on at least one fairly long walk a day. Since I've gotten serious about losing weight, this meshes perfectly with my wishes, as well, and so for a couple of months now, we have been traveling the streets of the West Side every day where the temperature hasn't been seriously cold.
Especially since I got him a vest, the dog actually doesn't mind when it's cold, and he positively loves snow (not so much salt on sidewalks and roads; it stings the paws of dogs like a brain freeze affects humans' heads. I really wish people wouldn't use it, and that those that feel they must used it a little less liberally). What he doesn't like, especially being short-haired, is rain--he will shake like he is having convulsions if it is a steady rain and refuse to go beyond the neighbor's yard before heading back in, and in sprinkly weather, any time I pause when we're walking, he turns around and starts trotting in the direction of home. I normally walk him either when I first get home from work or in the afternoon, but yesterday, since it was raining pretty hard at those times, it was 7 at night before the weather and my available time complemented each other enough to walk him.
I try to vary the routes up every day, going in different directions and trying to add another street or block to the route from the last time we went that way. Yesterday, I was planning on taking in another block of the area between West End Avenue and Cleveland Street, specifically turning off West End at Garfield to traverse the long block to Cleveland, then go down that street to Division Street and come back to West End. I never knew, until a few weeks ago, that Binghamton has a number of streets named after Presidents. I've lived here nearly ten years, and Harrison is the cross street closest to my house, and I was dimly aware of Cleveland because it ends close to the softball field where Sabrina has been playing games for over a decade. But I didn't know of Garfield and Grant until last month, and it also has dawned on me that the first street on the Johnson City side of the municipal border probably was once part of Binghamton, because it's Lincoln Street. And while I'm on this digression, I really, really wish that municipalities would not use the same name twice for thoroughfares. The street two blocks away is named Park Street--and there is a very long thoroughfare called Park Avenue on the South Side. One of the side streets off Garfield is Grant Street--and there is a Grant Avenue on the East Side. There is also Rugby Road and Rugby Place, and Florence Street and Florence Avenue, on the West Side, too.
But anyway, last night, as I turned the corner from Floral onto West End, I remembered something I had forgotten; the guy that used to live upstairs had been mugged on this section of West End a couple of years ago after dark. I wasn't scared, and I know if I were up to no good, I wouldn't be likely to mess with someone with a decent-sized dog on a leash. But I did start to pay more attention to the surroundings than I had been. And almost immediately, as we approached Garfield, I saw a young man walking up West End from the other direction turn onto Garfield, as well. We were still six or seven houses away from the intersection, so I wasn't all that concerned at first. When we got to Garfield, I saw the kid. He was walking down the middle of the street, and was still about five houses ahead of us, even though he was definitely walking slower than he had been on West End.
And here comes another digression. One of my pet peeves is when people walk in the street when there are sidewalks on that street. In inclement weather, I can understand it, to a degree; there a lot of properties where, for whatever reasons, the sidewalk doesn't get shoveled, and on most streets in Binghamton, there are stretches where the sidewalks are cracked or unlevel, and as a result there is quite a bit of puddling, occasionally quite deep. That was my first thought--that there must have been some serious puddles on the sidewalk. And then I noticed something else: there were two functioning streetlights for the length of the entire street, which is probably 150 to 200 yards long. Two. It wasn't exactly well-lit in the middle of the street, but it was considerably brighter than the sidewalks were. So I figured the kid was just exercising common sense, and Wimmer and I started walking down the middle of the street, too. I still wasn't concerned.
Until I noticed, halfway down the street, that we were catching up, that the kid had slowed almost to a crawl. I really couldn't come up with a good reason why that would be the case, and so I slowed the dog down, too, and shortened the leash. The kid eventually moseyed his way to the intersection with Cleveland, and turned, slowly, to the left--in other words, in the direction that he had been coming from on West End. I thought this was very odd; I suppose that there are a few explanations that could account for that, but it didn't pass the immediate logic test. That was the direction I had been planning on going, but I saw when we got to the intersection that he was barely moving forward in that direction, and that made up my mind. Now thoroughly suspicious, but still not all that concerned, I just figured we would turn right and go back to Floral and go back home that way, especially since the rain had picked up some and the dog was becoming unhappier with walking.
And after we had walked about halfway to Floral, I glanced over my shoulder--and I was shocked to see that the kid was now walking in our direction, about three houses behind us, and at a normal or faster walking speed. I briefly thought about stopping and confronting him--and then realized that Cleveland was even more poorly lit than Garfield had been. I decided that discretion was the better part of valor and decided to hurry the dog up and get to Floral. Which I did, and we turned right. It was a longer distance than I wanted it to be before we would reach the gas station at the corner of Floral and West End, but I hustled the dog along, and made it quite obvious that I was looking over my shoulder every house we passed. The kid kept pace, and turned in our direction on Floral; in fact he was gaining on us until he nearly slipped and fell on his ass on a slick lawn he was sidestepping a puddle on. We finally reached the well-lit gas station--at which point the kid, about two houses behind, suddenly crossed the street and disappeared down Carhart Avenue.
I walked back up Floral a block to Grand Boulevard, and went down to my street and then home. And I had never really noticed before--but walking on those streets is like walking in a lit-up house compared to the level of light on the other side of West End. It's really, really noticeable, if you're looking for it. Obviously, someone in the City planning departments has made that decision, and it's easy to speculate why--the area roughly bordered by Grand Boulevard, West End Avenue, the river, and Kneeland/Schiller Streets is one of the two nice, moneyed neighborhoods left in Binghamton (and actually, you can extend that area to the streets on either side of Riverside well past Rec Park, too; imagine a Nebraska shape, and you wouldn't be too far off) , not quite as nice as the area of the South Side between General Hospital and the Vestal line, but close. I imagine it's lit well because there's more tempting targets for potential thieves, and that the area is filled with people that vote and expect the city government to be responsive to their concerns. Don't get me wrong; I"m not complaining about living in within that area.
But I was really shocked by how apparent the difference was, and how abruptly the aura and the ambiance changed. The little bit I knew of that side of West End has been limited to area around the softball field, and my memory is that the part of the neighborhood around the park is as nice or nicer than mine. But it's also a good five or six blocks from where I was last night, and it's not the same atmosphere, not even close. Some day if I'm feeling ambitious, I might do some research as to where the actual border is--I would guess Stokes Avenue all the down to Margaret, which is the city line with Johnson City, but I don't know that for certain. Maybe it's Division Street, and maybe the street has that name because it's been the unofficial border for a long time now.
And those borders change as time passes. My active addiction ended less than two decades ago--and at that time, the area of Binghamton between Main and Leroy that was east of Laurel Avenue was definitely not part of the "bad" part of town, and today most certainly is. The early years of the runaway/homeless program I used to run, there was a real difference between the areas of the South Side of Johnson City divided by Floral Avenue--and now, that difference has quite visibly eroded. When those of my generation of recovery were starting to find their way in the "real" world, almost all of us found apartments and houses on the South Side of Binghamton; around the turn of the century, the entire South Side was still middle class. Now, as I mentioned, the areas close to the river are not, and the lines of "good" neighborhood south of Vestal Avenue/Evans Street are shifting eastward almost by the month.
And I have no illusions about where I live, either. My street is overwhelmingly geriatric. In twenty years, this part of the neighborhood will look nothing like it does now. In fact, demographically it has already started changing. When I first moved here in 2007, this entire street was populated by Caucasians. There are now African-Americans and Asian-Americans dotted through the immediate blocks, and the apartment buildings on Schubert Street are almost all populated by students from the university--mostly Asian and Caribbean, from what I can tell. So far, the quality of life around here has not dipped at all, and it may actually improve some in the immediate future because some of the older people that have departed in recent years really weren't keeping their properties up like they once did.
But not likely. I am thinking of two properties in particular, two house down on either side of me. Both have had young Caucasian families move in, one three years ago and one this past fall, And neither one of them is even remotely interested in taking care of the property the way the previous residents were. One apparently doesn't own a shovel or a rake; the leaves from his many trees are still all over his yard, and the only way snow has been removed from his sidewalks and driveway this year is by melting. It's a couple, too, that have to be in their late 20's or early '30's; they are capable of doing it, they just don't. And there isn't a lot the rest of us can do about the lack of interest in taking care of the property. It doesn't have to look like a magazine cover, but for God's sake, it doesn't have to look like an abandoned property, either.

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