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 agreed to allow her questions and my response to be posted here for public discussion. So, here is Em’s email and my response:
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.
 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.