A long time ago, between the fall of 1999 and the spring of 2000, I wrote for a tiny college paper that you've probably never heard of, called Pipe Dream. I wrote articles for its Release section, doing a handful of music and video game reviews before other ventures started occupying enough of my time that I couldn't stick with it. There was an editor there, whose name I've long-since forgotten, who said something quite memorable to another Release writer around then: "You can't publish what you don't know." Apparently, sadly, the days of insightful editors at Pipe Dream have long since faded away.
Recently, a Pipe Dream staff writer -- ahem, "senior columnist" -- named Alyssa Mercante published this article to the campus paper where I once ground my writing teeth. In it, she recalls her four years of life at Binghamton University, four years that she decided to spend touring bars and socializing with the intoxicated denizens of the city where I live, Binghamton New York. Her reaction to those memories left her describing a "love-hate relationship" with the city. But to the local residents that read it, all they saw was hate, hate, hate. And I happen to agree with the latter party.
Shy of cheap beer, Mercante failed to point out anything positive about the city, and her article, and the subsequent fallout she's getting from it in the comments section beneath her scathing text, highlight the reason why. She spent her four years of college visiting a tiny sampling of bars and seemingly interacting with the purest form of undesirables that Binghamton has to offer (many of those undesirables? Her fellow college students). She didn't write about local theater (there are a few), or the Binghamton Philharmonic (yes, we have one), or the zoo (the fourth oldest in the nation), or local cuisine, or art, or music, or our city's impressive architecture. Instead, she opted to focus her efforts (four years worth of them, apparently) on getting drunk, eating fast food, and socializing solely with her fellow college students, avoiding local residents as though they carried the plague.
The saddest part of reading her rather shoddy article is that Ms. Mercante isn't alone in these assertions... in Binghamton, or elsewhere. I've had the displeasure of interacting with a number of people over the years, some students at Binghamton University, and others being local residents, that have expressed similar views of the city. I've also met people that live hundreds or even thousands of miles away, who will gladly say the same thing about the places where they live. All of these people share one trait, and it never fails to make itself blatantly evident rather quickly: they only experience a tiny bit of what Binghamton, or their hometown, has to offer, and they narrow-mindedly crutch their thesis on that tiny swath of what they take in. You probably know what I'm talking about... chances are, you've heard the same thing from the same sorts of people where you live.
Mercante's polarizing article has drawn the wrathful ire of Binghamton's community; the "townies" that she playfully and crudely refers to as "creatures" in her article, as well as countless students and alumni that have read the piece and found it just as sickening as anyone that will still live here in the summer. It surely wasn't her intention (unless Ms. Mercante is far more insightful than I'm currently willing to give her credit), but both the article and the angry comments it received highlight something miles away from her intended discussion: Binghamton residents (aka "townies") and college students at Binghamton University rarely get along.
Some (not all, or even most, but some) BU students arrive in Binghamton and decide they hate it right off the bat. You can safely chalk up much of their disapproval of the city not on the city itself, but rather, on them. They're afraid, having never moved away from home and the comforts their parents provided for them. They're excited, anxious for all of the most entertaining moments from "college life" movies to kick in. And they're confused... they don't know anything about the new city they've just moved to, or what to do, or where to go. All they can really do is rely on the advice from older students, who themselves were in the same predictament not long before. So, over the years, you get college kids that focus more and more on the same scenes, and with each passing year, those students find themselves experiencing less and less of the city or its people. After four years of that, you end up with Alyssa Mercante, who hasn't taken in the city, opting instead to spend four years of her life in an isolation chamber, one that's filled to the brim with crappy dance music and seedy figures.
Mercante and her ilk are the rather obvious antagonists in this story, but I honestly think they're more Travis Bickle than Hans Gruber. I largely pity them more than I'm angry with them. It's true that she drove herself into this situation; many students take in more of the city's culture, and leave with a stronger impression of it as a result. But it's quite sad to occasionally be reminded that some college students live out what should be four years of intellectual and cultural exploration and growth as the sad, shallow, nameless faces in the meat markets that are the bars they frequent, living life weekend by weekend and cherishing little of the college experience beyond the threshhold of their sobriety. And I grow sadder still when I consider the fact that in a few years' time, Mercante and others like her will, someday in the future, look back on college not with fond memories of adventure and intrigue, but as time they've lost forever, and will never get back. Time that was wasted. Time worthy of buying a Delorean with which they could maybe tell themselves to try something else.
I don't know Alyssa Mercante. I couldn't tell you anything about her or her passions, other than the shameful article she wrote. But she quite strongly reminds me of an ex-girlfriend I had. She, too, was a student. She had a similar opinion of Binghamton, too. She even sort of looked like Mercante, which a friend pointed out to me as I was half-way through writing this article. I only went on three dates with that girl before I decided I'd had enough of her negativity and lack of sobriety, and broke up with her (on her birthday, which was a bit cold... sorry Ashley). Mercante comes from the Googlebation age; I won't be surprised if she finds this someday. So I'll say to her exactly what I said to Ashley way back in the late 90's: visit Binghamton for a weekend when you're 30, after you've put some travel notches on your belt, and you've grown up a bit. But where I told Ashley to call me (like I said, it was a pretty mean break-up), I'll tell Alyssa something different: write another article about it then. And I'll bet you $20, with inflation, that your opinion will have vastly changed.
In the meantime, some BU students will continue hating Binghamton, and some Binghamton residents will continue hating BU students. The local community and the university have a tremendous amount of work to do if they ever hope to bridge that divide. And sadly, I don't think they ever will.