A renaissance North of Main in Binghamton
Student volunteers help support rejuvenation of a Binghamton neighborhood
For the past 30 years, a neighborhood in downtown Binghamton has been plagued with a reputation for being dangerous. People were hesitant to live north of Main Street, and those who were there before the problems began struggled to figure out what to do. In the last few years, however, this neighborhood, now known as NoMa (North of Main), has begun to see a renaissance led primarily by those who live there, aided by city officials, local nonprofits and businesses, and several groups and individuals from Binghamton University.
Mary Webster moved to NoMa’s Edwards Street in 1990, and has been a driving force behind bringing the community together since. Drug and later gang activity were evident, and a sector of residents was fearful of the neighborhood becoming ever more dangerous.
This was the impetus behind the creation of Safe Streets, a grassroots neighborhood-watch organization, which has evolved into the 501c3 nonprofit organization that now primarily serves as the fiscal sponsor for the current NoMa neighborhood association.
In the early days of Safe Streets, Webster and her neighbors kept watch from their porches, passing along tip sheets to the police with descriptions of suspected drug activity. Eventually, Safe Streets took on a more organized approach, including residents, landlords, business owners and representatives from the city. As its reputation grew, more local organizations and nonprofits got involved.
“As volunteers, we didn’t have the knowledge, skills or time to do the work ourselves,” said Webster, “but we could identify the problems and bring the experts together to solve them.”
One of Safe Streets’s biggest accomplishments was the creation of Walnut Street Park in 2013, which gave residents a clean, safe place to gather. The park, part of the Design Your Own Park project led by David Sloan Wilson, distinguished professor emeritus of biological sciences at Binghamton University and president of the Binghamton Neighborhood Project, was a true collaboration. Local business owners purchased the lot and funded construction costs. The PricewaterhouseCoopers Scholars (PwC) from the Binghamton University School of Management raised over $20,000 to purchase and install playground equipment, flowers and a mural. The city of Binghamton planted trees and provided ongoing maintenance to the park, and Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo secured a $100,000 New York State Community Capital grant, part of which funded the installation of lights in the park. In many ways, Walnut Street Park led to a new iteration of community development in NoMa.
An inclusive neighborhood plan
Webster and others from Safe Streets next approached Binghamton University, asking for help in rebranding and organizing their growing cohort. George Homsy, associate professor of public administration, and Siobhan Hart, then assistant professor of anthropology, became involved, and the neighborhood officially became NoMa, not just “that area north of Main Street” that people avoided.
Homsy and Hart saw that the residents needed a neighborhood plan to help them get organized. Homsy, whose second career was in city and regional planning, took the lead.
“I was excited to go in there and say, ‘Yes, we will do this, and we will commit to doing it for a long time,’” Homsy said. That was in 2015, and five years later, he is still very involved. He began the neighborhood plan process by holding open meetings at Walnut Street Park, hoping to get initial ideas and buy-in from other residents of the neighborhood, who were not involved in the original Safe Streets organization.
“When we started out with any kind of crime or safety issue,” said Webster, “the road always led back to the people and social issues. We had to do more outreach — we had to involve people. One of our problems was we weren’t a particularly diverse organization.”
Homsy and his students interviewed an array of neighborhood residents during events in the park, including the Fall Fest, which has become a neighborhood institution that draws a large number of residents each year and is made possible in part by student volunteers from Binghamton University.
“We came up with a plan,” said Homsy, “and one of the 10 or 12 things that came out of it was [the residents] wanted an indoor gathering place — they wanted a community center.”
NoMa Community Center at 85 Walnut St.
Because of the train tracks that constitute the northern border of the neighborhood, NoMa is effectively cut off from amenities like The Boys & Girls Club of Broome County, which is only about two blocks from Walnut Street Park, but is basically inaccessible. To the east, the Chenango River makes access to amenities like the Broome County Public Library and the YWCA and YMCA difficult.
With support from the United Way, NoMa reached a deal with the Salvation Temple Church to rent a building on its campus known as the Mansion to house the new community center. The center got off to a great start, holding free breakfasts on Saturdays, arts and crafts workshops, after-school programs, Lego nights, movies and more. U.S. Census representatives came in to recruit Census workers. Utility companies explained their billing process, a tenants’ rights organization gave advice and the Rural Health Network provided soap and quarters to families who had trouble affording laundromats.
“Then COVID hit, of course, and the whole thing came tumbling down,” said Homsy.
Operating during a pandemic
Just prior to COVID-19 hitting the area, NoMa received a Town Gown Advisory Board grant, funded by the city of Binghamton and Binghamton University, that provided a salary for a part-time community center coordinator who must also be a resident of the neighborhood.
Homsy and others identified Brandy Brown, who had started out attending the arts and crafts workshops and then ran them as a volunteer, as a great fit. It’s been a difficult road for Brown, who started her coordinator role in March 2020, when public health precautions curtailed many activities.
There have been some successes, though. Ascension Lourdes is active at the community center, providing weekly virtual or social-distanced wellness, fitness and yoga classes. Binghamton Food Rescue distributes food in the parking lot every Saturday afternoon, and volunteers provide soup and sandwiches for residents.
Brown’s greatest personal accomplishment is NoMa’s Closet, a collection of clothing left behind by a previous tenant that she has organized and provides to neighborhood residents for free. She also organized a successful donation drive of handmade scarves and hats to give away this winter and has plans for a pantry of personal hygiene items in the future.
Binghamton University students have also been active volunteers during the pandemic, holding virtual festivals for families, helping sort clothing for NoMa’s Closet, writing letters to elderly residents during the holidays and more.
“The students have been like little fairies and angels,” said Brown. “Every student who came to the community center to help out really helped, and not just by physically being there, but by being personally invested.”
Homsy agrees that it’s important for the students to really dig in and understand the systemic issues that face their neighbors.
“Students need to see something different,” he said. “I want students who are interested in public service to understand that when they do public service, they don’t necessarily do it for people like them. They do it for people who look different, people who talk differently. You can come in with resources from the city, the University, the state, the county, whatever. But you really have to hear what local people want.”
Once the pandemic is under control, Brown has big plans for the community center.
“I want it to be a learning experience, “she said. “I want it to grow. I want people to come in and get educated on finance, culture and being independent. I want it to be a place where people are nurtured and they become better than they were before they came. I want to help people to build confidence in themselves.”
For now, though, Brown is content with what she’s been able to accomplish. “It’s just good to have a safe place to go with people who actually care.” That sense of caring — of community — is something the majority of the residents seem to agree with, despite their diverse backgrounds.
Webster, who has recently taken a more passive role in the organization, sees this as the motivation behind the last 30 years of work she’s put into the neighborhood, and it accounts for the shift from the Safe Streets neighborhood watch to NoMa’s neighborhood development.
“We had this idea that we would create community,” Webster said, “but the truth of it is that there’s already a community here. We just all have to find our place in it.”