The Columbian Geography of Binghamton

As state employees and school children around the country enjoy their four-day work weeks, we at MAPA are hard at work deconstructing Columbus day, like any credible archaeology blog must. I am back, with my colleagues Andy Pragacz, to talk about Columbus commemorations. Thanks to BlackLivesMatter activism followed by far-right reaction, monuments, particularly of Confederate soldiers, have seized national and local news, bringing many archaeologists into the controversy: Rosemary Joyce and Paul Mullins, to name a few.

As Columbus Day approached, many statues of Christopher Columbus were similarly ­­­­­­­­­questioned. Baltimore’s monument to Christopher Columbus, the first monument to the man in the United States, was smashed in August of this year.

After recent vandalism of similar monuments in New York City, police are guarding the Columbus Circle monument in Manhattan from future attacks. Some in Minneapolis have suggested that a statue of Prince should replace their Columbus monument. In our own city of Binghamton, the statue of Christopher Columbus that adorns the Broome County Court House was spray painted “murderer” twice in as many weeks.  Binghamton residents tossed vegan bologna at a portrait of Cristobal Colon in Columbus Park, temporarily renamed Bologna Park for the occassion.

Columbus statues outside the Broome County Court House in Binghamton, NY with "Murderer" spray painted in red paint. Photo credit: Katie Seeber

Columbus statues outside the Broome County Court House in Binghamton, NY with “Murderer” spray painted in red paint. Photo credit: Katie Seeber

The Columbus of  1492 is not the Columbus of 1890, or 1920, or 1960. Throughout American history, diverse actors have mobilized Columbus myths to reflect or challenge beliefs about Americanism and the American nation’s boundaries.  In the early post-Revolutionary years, Columbus represented a non-British, yet still white European source of American identity. His “conquest” of the New World served as justification for Manifest Destiny and the continued destruction of Native life. Later, Columbus-the-first-American competed with Columbus as a representative of Catholic-Americanism and then Italian-Americanism, to combat defamation of these groups.

Columbianism peppers Broome County’s historic geography.  Columbianism, an ethnicized or religious form of “patriotic Americanism,” goes beyond monuments and statues. Cities and towns throughout the US designated streets and parks in his honor, and Knights of Columbus signs are mounted on principle thoroughfares, and yearly celebrations overtake city centers.

Endicott, New York, boasts both a Columbus Avenue and a Columbus Street. Not only does Binghamton celebrate Columbus with a prominent bronze bust atop a seven-foot granite pedestal on the Broome County Court House’s east lawn, the city also lauds Columbus in Columbus Park, Columbia Avenue, Columbus Street, and another street called Columbus Park East. At one time, Endicott also had a Columbus Park with plaque and Binghamton City School District called an elementary school Christopher Columbus.

Columbia Ave on Binghamton’s Southside and Columbus Street in the First Ward were added to the list of streets in 1897. At that time, one could ride a carriage down Columbia Avenue via Westerly Way to Christopher Street, or arrive at  Downs Avenue from Lake Street using Columbus Street. While the Southside is heavily Irish and the First Ward Catholic, none of these streets were likely named to represent the Catholic or Italian communities, but in honor of the pan-European Columbus popular in the years after the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. In the early 20th century the Knights of Columbus, a national Catholic fraternity, encouraged official recognition of Columbus Day by state and federal governments.

Dominated by Irish-Catholics seeking to square Catholicism with Americanism in an era when anti-Catholicism and scientific racism motivated immigration restrictionists, the Knights marked Columbus Day annually (Schlereth 1992:956-960; Kauffman 1990). In their initiation ceremonies for example, the Knights of Columbus reenacted Columbus’ first voyage, signifying the Knights’ rejection of Old World norms in exchange for American Patriotism (Kauffman 1993:262-263).  In Binghamton, the Knights used Columbus Day 1904 to solemnly honor departed members. Reinforcing the Knights commitment to Americanism, the ceremony ended with a hymn familiar to all American Protestants of the ere, “Gently Lord, Oh Gently Lead Us”(Binghamton Press [BP],13 October 1904)

By the end of the 20th century’s first decade in Binghamton, Columbus Day meant parades followed by events over several days, organized by Italian fraternal societies. The Society Prince Del Piemonte, so named for the northern Italian region, organized some of the first, inviting local dignitaries and elected officials (BP, 12 October 1908). In 1909, the year New York State adopted it as a state holiday, the Democratic and Republican candidates felt compelled to participate (BP, 12 October 1909). After WWI, parades in Endicott featured thousands of revelers. Organizers used these parades not only to subtly announce their electoral influence and Americanism, but also to advocate for local and federal governments. The 1919 and 1920 parades featured a demand for the US to allow Italian annexation of Fiume, a port city in the northern Adriatic Sea (now the city is called Rijeka and is part of Croatia) (EB, 14 October 1919; 1 October 1920). By the late 1950s, the organization of the official parade in Binghamton fell to the business community, which included many Italian restaurants and Italian run operations.

Columbianist monuments in the post-WWI era were also instituted by organized by representatives of Italian-American communities. In both Binghamton and Endicott, organizations like the Sons of Italy used Columbus as a figure to reflect American-Italian Americanism. In the late 1920s, Christopher Columbus School opened on Hawley Street in Binghamton in the heavily Italian area north of downtown. Triangle Park, at the intersections of Roosevelt, East Main St, and Broad Avenue in Endicott was renamed Columbus Park in 1934 (EB, 18 September 1934), after years of lobbying for a recreation space named after the “Discoverer.”  In 1959, Binghamton opened Columbus Park blocks away from Christopher Columbus School at the instigation of the school’s students (BP, 2 June 1959).  Manifesting the militarism of the Cold War, a decommissioned Navy fighter jet was installed in the Park in its inaugural year (Friedrich 1959).  Columbus Park East and Columbus Park West replaced Sherman Place (formerly Whitney Street) at the request of property owners “abutting” the street several years later (BP, 14 September 1962).

Binghamton Sanborn Map, Volume 1 1952. Updated 1960.

Binghamton Sanborn Map, Volume 1 1952. Updated 1960.

The pattern of physical Columbianism is not unique. Towns across New York State celebrate Columbus with mundane reminders emblazoned on signage and yearly festive events. Columbus is uniquely present, like Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin, in our daily lives. He is part of the banal vernacular of Americanism. While each iteration expresses a form of Columbianism, each also has its own history and space, which means each is a unique expression and configuration of ideology and power.

Next we explore the Italian connection to Columbus, and what we think should be done with the monuments.

 

Binghamton Press (BP) [Binghamton, New York]

 1904  Columbus Day Services at End. 13 October. Binghamton, New York.

Binghamton Press (BP) [Binghamton, New York]

 1908  Celebrate Columbus Day. 13 October. Binghamton, New York.

Binghamton Press (BP) [Binghamton, New York]

 1959  [Miscellaneous Communications]. 2 June. Binghamton, New York.

Binghamton Press (BP) [Binghamton, New York]

 1962  An Ordinance Changing the Name of Sherman Place to Columbus Park East and Columbus Park West. 14 September. Binghamton, New York.

Endicott Bulletin

 1919  Columbus Day Parade Staged Here on Sunday. 14 October. Endicott, New York.

Endicott Bulletin

 1934  Sons of Italy Pay Tribute to Discoverer. 18 September. Endicott, New York.

Friedrich, Charles.

 1959  Low Bridges Just 1 Obstacle in Towing Surplus Jets Here. Binghamton Press 4 November. Binghamton, New York.

Kauffman, Christopher

 1990  The Knights of Columbus: Lay Activism from the Origins through the Great Depression. U.S. Catholic Historian 9 (3): 261-274.

Kauffman, Christopher

 1993  Christopher Columbus and American Catholic Identity: 1880-1900. U.S. Catholic Historian 11(2): 93-110.

 


Maura Bainbridge is a PhD canidate at Binghamton University whose research focuses on sites of labor struggle in the United States, particularly comparing Homestead, Pennsylvania, Ludlow, Colorado, and the Pullman district of Chicago. She is interested in contemporary archaeology, community archaeologies, and post industrial landscapes.

 

 

 

 


IMG_6181 Andy Pragacz is a Binghamton area activist, instructor, and scholar. He is currently a PhD student at Binghamton University in the Sociology department. His activist work centers on anti-mass incarceration, anti-racism, expanding worker’s power, and exposing the cruelties and insanity of the capitalist world-system. He edited a local leftist newspaper, The People’s Press, for three years and contributed original research and articles on corporate welfarism, fracking, and the Broome County jail.

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