When One Turns Off the Southern Tier Expressway
Journeys into Hidden America - Narrative from On the Road
New York's Southern Tier is an area rich in heritage. If the hills could talk, the stories would not cease. Unfortunately, too many of these stories about the richness of the area remain untold or unknown beyond.
The Southern Tier is the counties of New York west of the Catskill Mountains along the northern border of Pennsylvania. It generally includes the counties that border Pennsylvania west of Delaware County, but definitions of the region vary widely.
The area was initially built by the river and the railroads. Originally part of the Iroquois Confederacy, it was settled by former colonists after the Revolutionary War.
The region became home to prosperous farms and small factory towns (with the exception of larger Binghamton) during the first half of the 20th century. But declines in U.S. manufacturing hit the region hard and it suffered even more than other parts of upstate New York and northern Pennsylvania.
The region's addition to the Appalachian Regional Commission, often credited to the influence of U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, provided economic stimulus over the last 40 years. Government funds built the Southern Tier Expressway (recently designated I-86 in addition to NY-17), highway links to the New York State Thruway, encouraged the growth of state colleges at Wellsville, Alfred and Binghamton and sought with mixed success to attract business interests relocating from the New York Metropolitan Area and urban Western New York.
For two decades, the region has tried to remake itself as a tourist destination and relocation area for retirees from big Northeastern cities. Meanwhile, agriculture and manufacturing struggle to compete regionally and globally.
We passed through Owego recently on our way to Ithaca. And we were impressed enough to write this posting about it.
When we first approached we were wowed by our first impression -the stately Court Street bridge led us across the Susquahanna River - a commercial area whose building back porches lined the river and whose anchor was a large building (the county courthouse) with gentle hills behind.
We crossed the river with great anticipation. The bridge led to the intersection of Court Street and Front Street - a town square with the court house behind straight ahead. Hanging baskets. Inviting streetscape. Classic buildings and some quaint shops had us ex cited for what lay ahead.
Adding to this sense of anticipation was the snarl of traffic we encountered. Though we were on a timetable to reach Ithaca, we were intrigued to want to discover what was drawing the crowd.
Turns out the traffic snarl was attributable to large trucks at an extended traffic light - the rigs passing from the interstate to points north along Route 96 in the Southern Tier and the Finger Lakes region beyond.
And that downtown did not last. There were buildings around the corner, but they had a tired look - nothing like the inviting enticing appeal of those just two blocks back. It seems the street had been left disappointed itself - by business that had given up on it - many moving to strip malls or sprawl outside town. We left disappointed as well - out of town and on our way north before we knew it.
Turns out that Owego is, in fact, an historic place. We read that The Hiawatha Farm, Waits Methodist Episcopal Church and Cemetery, and Vesper Cliff are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Owego’s landmark historic downtown is lined with 19th century storefronts made for leisurely shopping and strolling. There are many unique specialty shops - antiques, collectibles, whimsical gifts, colorful home accessories, and stylish clothing and jewelry. In addition, visitors can browse galleries and gardens, tour museums, see a play, or take in an outdoor concert. And, as the tourism folks tell us one can soak up the sun in riverfront parks, watching the Susquehanna River flow by. And there are dining opportunities: from regional Italian, Mexican, and new American cuisine, to burgers, pizza and ice cream. Finally there are several Bed & Breakfast inns offer lodging for mid-week getaways or restorative long weekends.
We would have lingered had we only known to do so (those unspoken stories).
Today there is a trend away from the sprawl - shopping is moving either on line or back into downtowns and Main Streets. Just off the Interstate, but buffered by the river, gentle hills and a heritage that has yet to be heard, Owego seems well poised for days ahead.
There have been to many false starts for places like Owego. This next time may be different. We hope so.