What does it mean to be an Upstate New Yorker (or a “York Stater”)? This is a bit trickier of a question than it appears at first glance. Some people (like those in St. Lawrence or Hamilton Counties) are quite obviously York Staters, but what about people who identify themselves as “Western New Yorkers” or “Central New Yorkers;” even more problematic, what about folks in the Hudson Valley, an area rapidly becoming a peripheral part of the New York Greater Metropolitan Area? In a place like Dutchess County communities of farmers live side by side with brand new neighborhoods of weekend commuters from the City looking to escape into the picturesque countryside. Are both of these groups of people Upstaters? Are they both Downstaters?
One classic method of defining Upstate from Downstate was to simply draw a line, which was often the northern borders of Westchester and Orange Counties. Others place it at that point where the weather suddenly starts to get cold. The problem with any arbitrarily drawn line is that times change. Commuter colonies have moved as far north as Poughkeepsie and climate change warms even Upstate winters.
We could say that, instead of drawing a line, that Downstate New York is that area populated by people whose livelihoods are drawn from, and attentions directed towards, New York City. One could simply take a census poll and see how many of the local residents work in the City, or have retired from there. The areas with a majority of City folk are Downstate and the rest are Upstate.
There are two problems with this method. First off, is that even within these statistical Downstate areas (like Westchester, Orange, Putnam and Dutchess Counties) there are pockets of those whose eyes are not turned towards the bright light to the south. There are communities within these areas that have what would be considered a fundamentally Upstate character.
In addition, while defining the region as the “rest of New York that is not part of the City” might function for areas like Ulster and northern Duchess Counties, its is not really a workable identity for Buffalonians or Watertownians. An identity forged by not possessing a quality, in this case a cultural orientation towards the City, is a weak one indeed. For those of us seeking to create a stronger sense of Upstate identity, we should instead seek positive qualities, in other words, we should define Upstate by what it is, instead of by what it is not. This is a similar to the reclamation of identity by minority groups; the Black (and other ethnic) and Gay Pride, not to mention much of modern Women’s Liberation, movements often focus on building positive identities not based around what the minority group is not (white, straight and male). While I certainly do not believe that the plight of us York Staters is identical to that of oppressed peoples of color, gays and women, the analogy can help us to understand that the current Upstate identity is a psychic wound in the minds of Upstaters.
There are many factors that we can use to shape our identity independent of that city to the south. The first is the bounty of our natural landscapes. Upstate New York is home to two of the greatest parks in the United States (the Catskills and the Adirondacks) and one of the most extensive systems of smaller state parks in existence. Across the state outside of the parks, we are a land of beautiful scenery and a resurgent forest.
Our historical heritage is also rich. In a previous post, I touched upon the religious history of the Burnt-Over District, but our history goes far beyond that. Especially in comparison to relatively recently developed areas (like the far West and Alaska), towns in York State are old, possessing a rich patrimony of architecture, traditions and artifacts. Not a town exists in our state that does not possess architectural and historical gems.
This historic heritage is related to our cultural heritage. A friend of mine from Nebraska who spent the last summer in the Adirondacks was amazed at the regionalism of our state. In many of our cities there exist distinctive forms of cuisine (I think of the Binghamton Speedie and the Buffalonian Sponge Candy) and each town has a unique ethnic mixture that is often still strongly felt. The fact that my home town of Johnson City was mainly populated by Slavs while Endicott to the west was a place for Italians to settle is still important today. Any discussion of upstate ethnic/cultural heritage cannot leave out the tremendous wealth and depth of historic, artistic and cultural heritage possessed by the native Haudenosaunee peoples of the state.
While it is important to celebrate agreeable attributes, there also is a value in accepting our flaws within our identity. The path of ignoring one’s flaws leads only to blind nationalism and suffering. We are a land with many problems: poverty, decay of infrastructure, the flight of our youth to the Sun Belt and the accompanying graying of our populace, decline of wealth and manufacturing, left-over pollution from earlier industry, and an archaic, stagnant state and (often) local government. Our towns suffer from disinvestment, apathy that accompany our seemingly unstoppable decline into nonexistence.
These are some of the blocks with which we will build our identity, for being “Upstate” isn’t so much a statement about geography as a declaration of a state of mind, a way of being. It is time that we articulate this peculiar worldview and take pride in who we are because those who don’t know who they are will never be able to take control over what they will become.
Posted by Jesse
Note: The image on this post was taken from Wikipedia's article on Upstate New York, which is an excellent discussion of some of these topics. It is a public domain image.