Money, Gentrification and the Story of the Johnson City “Art District”

In downtown Johnson City, only a block off of Main Street, lies a relic of an earlier era. A huge brick and stone structure, built in grand classical design, hulks over the road, slowly crumbling into picturesque oblivion. The Goodwill Theater was built in the 1920s by the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company for the entertainment of their employees and the townsfolk in general. From all reports, it was a glorious old vaudeville and film theater, a true community gem. I myself, however, can only read old reports and listen to the stories of the elderly because the theater has been shut, ruinous for as long as I have been alive.

However, all is not lost for the structure as recently an organization called The
Goodwill Theater Inc is working hard to resurrect it from the dead. In the pursuit of this goal, the organization has gained a $10,000 2004 NEA Challenge Grant, $72,750 from the US Congress for internal renovations, $225,000 in 2004 from the Governor’s office for acquiring the land, another $225,000 in 2000 from the Governor and possibly other grants that I am not aware off. The total is more that $632,000, no paltry sum, but perhaps not enough for the structure. Luckily, the building only cost $78,000; the group was also given the former police station, which is on the same street.

The organization’s eventual goal is “an arts district with theaters, a professional-level school for the fine arts, studios, galleries, cafes and retail space. Preliminary cost estimates range from $20 million to $40 million…”*

I am relieved that someone is finally taking an interest in the classic buildings of downtown Johnson City. All my life, I have taken detours to look at the outside of the Goodwill building and think of what it was and what it could someday be. I relish the thought of seeing it open and restored to its former glory.

However, I am deeply disturbed by the long-term plans of Goodwill Incorporated. This organization, headed by Naima Kradjian who recently lost a race for Mayor of Binghamton, seems to care little about the people of Johnson City. None of its money comes from the village or organizations within the village; it has received Congressional grants, gifts from the Governor and aid from the National Council on the Arts, but it has not yet been embraced by the people of Johnson City. Even its little local fundraisers all occur in posh Vestal across the river. The Mayor seems, as usual, to go along with whatever idea has fallen into his lap and doesn’t require any work or thought on his part. Have the people of Johnson City been asked whether they want to turn downtown into an “arts district”? Do the people who live and work in downtown Johnson City want to cater to bored professionals from across the river? Perhaps they do, but neither Ms. Kradjian nor I know, as they’ve never been asked.

The people of Johnson City tend, in general, to be poor immigrant families or elderly ex-factory workers, not exactly the most powerful groups in our society. Many of us deeply love our little town and many are willing to work to make it glow again, but to bring about one small group’s vision on another town is cultural imperialism. Once again the great centralized bureaucracies of the world, the state and national governments, have begun funding change without knowing what they are doing. This is the effect of the faceless bureaucracy.

Behind much of this “vision” for a new Johnson City is the recent success of the First Friday Art Walk in Binghamton. On the first Friday of each month, the galleries and cafes of downtown Binghamton open up for an evening bash. I have attended these events and found them entertaining. I would estimate that several hundred people came out to look at art, sip wine, eat cheese and feel “cultured.” I do not disagree that First Friday has had a positive effect on blighted Downtown, but I hesitate as to whether it can be a solution on a broader scale.

The purchase of fine art requires money, something that already has to be in the neighborhood. Broome County can support one Art Walk a month, but I doubt whether a competitor would be able to survive. Plus, the bringing in of outside artists does little to give “culture” to any but the precious few who can purchase their art. We will always be too far from NYC and too small to bring people from the greater world into our valley to buy art and so we will always be selling to ourselves. Any “high art” endeavor would be risky indeed.

What I am driving at here is that I feel that the Village of Johnson City can do much more with $20-40 million. Art is certainly desirable, but lets make it public art that everyone can enjoy, made by local artists who represent our lives. A few thousand dollars worth of murals painted by local spraypainters and up-and-coming traditional artists will go much further to livening up downtown Johnson City and improving the lives of the people who live there than millions of dollars worth of art in some private gallery. The revival of the Goodwill Theater is a damn good idea, but lets have it show movies and plays that the people who already walk by it every day can enjoy. Despite a prevalence of Eastern European and Southeast Asian communities in the neighborhood, there is no forum for movies and shows from those areas and in those languages within our region. Is this what the people want? Perhaps, I would reckon it is a better guess than a swanky café and a private arts school, but I suggest we ask the people themselves.

The “refined” people of the region have become fixated on “art” as the solution to local problems of late. Limited successes in the First Friday endeavor have greatly encouraged them. But in the end, I am afraid that by catering to this small minority of local residents and their desire to mimic the urban lives they see in Sex and the City we will be pouring our precious monies down a deep, deep hole and betraying the majority of residents, who do want to see a revived downtown, but want to do it in a way that everyone can enjoy equally.

-Posted by Jesse

*Much of this information comes from “JC arts project gains ground” in the Press & Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, NY) on January 15, 2005 by Greg Erbstoesser


Jervis Peddler said...

No, 'in general' the Johnson City villager is not from an immigrant family or elderly ex-factory worker -the general Johnson City villager is working class and middle class service sector wage slave.

Jermis Loomis said...

I'd like more stories on my home town -Johnson City. I haven't been back home since the late nineteen-hundred and eighties and am eager to learn what is going on.

Anonymous said...

Jon Englert

From my back window I can see the GoodWill Theater. Genrification of this area will only serve to push out the people who live here and make this area unaffordable. I love where I live and I am here because of the cost and flavor. These "schemes" are best left to develop on their own without bourgeois forcing. We have our share of Bohemians here and they are doing just fine!