My first hint of the on-campus attitude toward those who live in Vestal and Binghamton was when one of the student volunteers at my college orientation, in an attempt to emphasize the consequences of binge drinking, said that we should avoid being incapacitated around the Binghamton “townies.” Another adviser stepped in to gently correct her terminology and both agreed that drinking heavily around anyone is unsafe, but the judgment about Vestal and Binghamton natives that floats around campus became clear.
Only 7 percent of the class of 2023 hails from Broome and Tioga counties, in contrast to the 49 percent of students from the New York City and Long Island areas. Students experience culture shock when those raised amid a grid of skyscrapers and concrete are suddenly transplanted to Binghamton University’s campus, where the only educational building taller than four or five floors is the massive Glenn G. Bartle Library Tower, and where the separation between student living spaces and an expansive deciduous forest is measured in meters.
The majority of college students also come from a background of relative affluence, although this reality is beginning to shift as the general population recognizes that an undergraduate degree is no longer a marker of the intelligentsia but a tool for economic survival. A 2015 study from the Pell Institute found that only 9 percent of the college-age kids in the lowest-income quartile will receive a bachelor’s degree by the age of 24, as compared to 77 percent of the college-age kids in the highest-income quartile. It also indicated that from 1965 to 2015, the percentage of those in the lowest quartile who had secured a bachelor’s degree within the age threshold has generally not increased, an unfortunate and surprising reality considering the recent push for accessible education in the last decade.
With 33.3 percent of Binghamton residents living below the poverty line, a devastating number compared to the statewide poverty rate of 15.1 percent, many of the students at BU are strangers living side by side to a city where one out of every three citizens is choked by economic destitution. More than just living minutes away from the city of Binghamton, many upperclassmen live literally right next to the people who are the subjects of classist ridicule that circulates around campus. They have just as much of a stake in the welfare of the greater community, because just like “townies,” they patronize local businesses, attend local events and are impacted by the local government. Tracing that prejudice of “otherness” to the cultural and economic contrast between the BU student population and the Vestal and Binghamton civilian population isn’t a stretch, but that doesn’t make it any more acceptable. The derogatory nature of the word “townie” and its associated philosophy of cultural superiority and elitism are offensive and, like all prejudices, have the potential to creep into actual oppression if not carefully managed.
The Town-Gown Advisory Board (TGAB) was created to foster positive relations between the University students and those living in the surrounding communities, and their board includes members from the University, the city of Binghamton’s local government and the commercial sector of Downtown Binghamton. One of their active proposals, the Bus Stop Improvement Program, is especially promising for combating toxic “townie” culture.
The academic autonomy, the lack of parental oversight and the sudden induction into unfamiliar learning and living communities are only a handful of transitory changes experienced by college students. While the challenges of acclimating to new people, new places and new academic expectations cannot be undervalued, it is the challenges presented by the newfound lack of mobility that cause strife within the student body — and the greater Binghamton community. Transportation opportunities are limited; cars and Uber rides are expensive, parking is cumbersome and the on-campus bus system is less than reliable. This may seem like an ultimately inconsequential issue to have, but the lack of student exposure to the areas surrounding BU’s pocket of campus, tucked away in a forest, exacerbates the rift between the student body and the local community. The Bus Stop Improvement Program was set in motion to help combat the discrepancy between campus and the city with the addition of shelters to several stops along the Broome County Transit and Off Campus College Transport (OCCT) routes, incentivizing students to exercise their bus privileges. With the TGAB’s initiative to improve the ease and comfort of utilizing the bus system, hopefully the BU students will be able to shake off their apprehension about Vestal and Binghamton. In doing so, they would move away from the mindset that embraces hurtful, prejudiced terms like “townie.”
While the efforts of the TGAB are certainly a movement toward a more cohesive, healthier Binghamton, it is only a small shift on the periphery of the true issue. The plain and ugly truth is that “townie” culture is fed by prejudice and ignorance, the same prejudice and ignorance behind the more violent, destructive manifestations of class strife. If the students at BU refuse to shake off their entitled and hurtful attitudes toward locals, they’re welcoming a future University that is plagued by bitterness.
Madelaine Hastings is a freshman double-majoring in English and economics.