Defining Upstate

York Staters recently received an email that raises some important, fundamental questions about our mission here and the definition of Upstate New York itself. I spoke to the emailer, Em, and she[1] agreed to allow her questions and my response to be posted here for public discussion. So, here is Em’s email and my response:

Hi All,
I grew up in Buffalo and went to school in Ithaca and Syracuse. I had never heard the term Upstater until I moved to New York City (at the age of 39). To me, Upstate is anything up the Hudson. Then it's the Finger Lakes region (and then a bit of Leatherstocking) and Western New
York. Where is this York thing coming from? That's totally Redcoat. And have you read this amazing book : "Voyageurs" by Margaret Elphanstone that tells the story about, basically, the War of 1812, as they also do at Old Fort Niagara and Fort York at Niagara on the Lake CN. We folks from Buffalo are not Upstaters, we are Western New Yorkers, the beginning of the Midwest.

The question of the definition of a York Stater is a touchy one that has always remained in the back of my mind while writing in this blog. Buffalonians have told me that they’re Western New Yorkers, some Syracusians say they’re Central New Yorkers and many folk from the North Country adamantly believe that they’re the only Upstaters.

To call for an Upstate awareness is not to ask for an invalidation of other regional identities (Western New York, Central New York, Adirondack, etc), but to recognize the fact that we all have incredible commonalities. Unlike their neighbors in Canada or Erie PA, Buffalonians are tied to a state government that is increasingly dominated by the City of New York and has created a distinct political culture that we share across the board. New York politics effect Buffalo in distinct ways that her non-NY neighbors do not experience but have parallels in her fellow Upstate cities.

Current politics aside, Buffalo’s history has always been within the same orbit as the Finger Lakes and Central NY in particular. Historical accounts of the region open with all of Upstate New York (minus the Adirondacks) as the heartland of the mighty Iroquois Empire. White settlement throughout the region was predicated on the same treaties and wars that broke that early empire. Furthermore, Buffalo was shaped by the Erie Canal experience, one of the distinguishing historical events that binds much of Upstate together, from Albany westwards. Buffalo was likewise a part of the Burnt-Over District
and the profound social experimentation that swept through the region between the 1820s and 1860s (those interested in this fascinating period of UNY history might start out with this “Timeline of Innovation” that I drew up).

We are also climactically and economically similar to one another: relatively small cities with distinct local cultures (often flavored by waves of European immigrants whose descendents maintain ties to their heritage---unlike much of the Midwest) surrounded by farm and forest-land. This cultural pattern is continued somewhat to the south (Erie and Scranton-Wilkes Barre are similar) but is distinct from New England Uplands, Ontario and the Boshwash
Atlantic Seaboard, which we border in the other directions.

As I wrote in my early essay, A York State of Mind
, I am hesitant to define ‘Upstater’ in the purely negative terms of “someone who lives in New York but not in New York City,” but instead to celebrate the distinct historical legacy, governmental burdens, climate, ecology, economic and settlement patterns that define our region. Thus, while we recognize, and celebrate, the regional differences throughout the state, we also call for a celebration of our cultural unity—and for the further development of that unity in order to protect our way of life.

As for the term "York Staters" in our mission statement
we explain that it is an old (early 19th century) term for inhabitants of NYS outside of the City (who were called New Yorkers or just Yorkers). We have rehabilitated the term for several reasons: it is catchy and easy to remember, it has historical significance and, perhaps most importantly, it allows us to express the fact that we have our own identities and lives independent of NYC without necessarily surrendering the name "New York" (which we also have right to) to our neighbors to the southwest.


[1] I’m running with a gender assumption here, please accept my apology Em if you’re actually male. I get this problem all the time with my gender-neutral name.


NYCO said...

Much as I respect the desire of WNYers and CNYers and Adirondackers and North Country folks to define themselves as breeds apart... as long as there's a New York City, there's an Upstate, and they're all part of it.

However, I read an article recently (sorry, lost the link) which wonders if the new divide is not "Upstate/Downstate" but rather "East/West" - since it notes that people in the Hudson Valley are a lot more optimistic about the future of the state than people are farther west.

Personally, the dividing line for me is no longer a mystery:

Downstate: Economy is thriving, you know a lot of people who have nannies (or work as nannies), and you pay $500,000 to live in a small suburban home.

Upstate: Economy is in the crapper, all your friends and family have left for North Carolina, and you pay $90,000 to live in the same size suburban home as the downstate people who pay $500,000.

joe said...

'york state' is farmer dialect, check out wyoming county or sullivan county or Tompkins and you'll hear: "Ni'York State".

sean said...

i like the idea of "york staters." to me, upstate is anything beyond the powerful ring of communities surrounding new york city. i can't buy pataki's argument, for instance, that his peekskill upbringing makes him an upstate guy; nor do i accept the historians who describe franklin d. roosevelt, beloved as he was, as an upstate governor. their careers and politics were intertwined with manhattan.

really, to me, upstate begins with albany and rolls west. i am old enough to remember a time before the great decline when the term mattered less because the distinct regions were strong enough to revel in their own histories and economies: that's back in the time when buffalo was still barely past full consideration as a major city, and rochester retained its own formidable and potent civic economy, and cooperstown and its leatherstocking district carried a green and powerful sense of place that was as intrinsic to statewide history as gotham itself. the alliance of place has accelerated in meaning only as the great decline underlined the faults in the political machine, and made those of us upstate begin to realize how we've gradually become the colonies - and thus need a collective identity as a means to a result.


Charley said...

There's NYC and then there is the rest of us - upstate. When ever I travel and say I'm from NY people always assume NYC, they have no idea that huge parts of NY are rural. I've lived in both CNY and WNY and they have distinct personalities but they are both upstate to me.