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Where The Hell Is Upstate NY?

Storm King Art Center in Cornwall-on-Hudson
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Storm King Art Center in Cornwall-on-Hudson Ben Bern's flickr

Last week, the NY Senate passed the state budget just before deadline; the centerpiece of that agreement was a measure to gradually raise the minimum wage across the state to $15/hour. But the deal included a series of "safety valve" conditions on when workers outside of NYC may reach that minimum wage, a band-aid that allows wiggle room for the executive branch to shut off the money valve outside of the city "if the economy turns."

We almost didn't even get that conditional deal, due in part to an inability on the part of lawmakers to identify what exactly constitutes "upstate NY." As Politico New York wrote before the budget was passed, the deal didn't provide any legal clarity on a long-debated question. "Upstate" has almost as many definitions as it does references in state laws, which left many of us wondering: where the hell IS upstate anyway? What divides downstate and upstate? And what is the cultural significance of the designation?

To take a step back first: "upstate" wasn't used in the NY Times until the end of the 19th century—it first pops up in reference to The Popocratic States Committee meeting on September 28th, 1896. For the next couple of years, it was routinely used, but always spelled "up-State" or "Up-State," and almost always in reference to political representatives from outside of the city (one example from a June 30th, 1901 article about party in-fighting: "Radical Democracy, which claims to control several up-State counties, can hold the key to the situation"). The first time the term appears without the hyphen or capitalization is in an August 15th, 1913 story about the wife of former Gov. William Sulzer, who was "ill from the nervous shock of the impeachment of her husband." The story refers to then-Acting Governor Glynn as "an upstate man who has a habit of thinking and acting for himself." That spelling was not widely used by the Times until at least 1917, but from then on, its meaning and usage shifted with every mention.

Nowadays, the term gets thrown around pretty flexibly: for some people, Syracuse would seem like an obvious marker, but the Wall Street Journal points to Rome, the New Yorker picks out Gardiner, and others identify it as anywhere with useless space. The Washington Post doesn't think Rye is upstate, but what about any place north of 23rd Street? Certainly anywhere near Albany is considered upstate, right? What about Rochester, where Kristen Wiig grew up terrifying innocent Canadians? Is upstate anywhere above Westchester? Does anyone even know where Dover Plains is beyond the Metro-North station?

As someone who grew up in southern Westchester, I've never thought of Poughkeepsie or the "Lower Hudson Valley" (including Westchester, Putnam, & Rockland counties) as upstate—neither does Wikipedia. To me, upstate seemed far, far away from my hometown, where it took less than 40 minutes by Metro-North to get to Manhattan. But for a lot of New Yorkers, including our very own Native New Yorker Jake Dobkin, they more than qualify: "Everything above 14th Street is upstate to me," he says. "But I guess if I were forced to consider it, everything above the Tappan Zee Bridge seems upstate to me."

But can three-quarters of New York, the fourth largest state in the country, legitimately be considered (and governed—hence the minimum wage debate) under the same designation? There are 8.5 million people in the five boroughs and over 11 million more spread out throughout the rest of the state—and that's to say nothing of the extreme difference in density between NYC and the rest of the state.

In talking to colleagues and friends, there seemed to be three major recurring views on the question:

  • a) Everything outside of NYC is upstate. Hard-liners called this an "Us v Them" mentality on the part of New Yorkers. Some were more generous about considering the greater "NYC sprawl zone," which leads to...
  • b) Everything north of NYC except Westchester and Rockland counties is upstate. This reasoning, while somewhat vague, actually seems to be the one most regularly cited by politicians such as Gov. Cuomo, and as Politico summarized it, "includes only those MTA-serviced regions where a significant percentage of the population uses the authority’s trains to commute to jobs in Manhattan."
  • c) Everything above Dutchess County is upstate. Basically, everything you can't get to via Metro-North (Wassaic being the final stop/most northern region). As Politico NY reported, "This is closely mirrored by the statute that created the state’s Energy Planning Board, which includes Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Rockland and Westchester in the 'Downstate region,' as well as Ulster (which lacks a Metro-North station)."

But it's even messier than that, and harder to define: that's why a few Yonkers city council members signed onto a pro-Cuomo budget letter from self-identified "upstate" politicians, and also why Cuomo was able to devote $4 billion of his $10.4 billion plan to boost the upstate economy to the Tappan Zee Bridge.

So as I typically do whenever I'm running into trouble with state boundaries, I turned to eleven of New York's most respected academics and historians to try to cut through the political malarkey and get to the heart of the matter. And their general conclusions: upstate is a state of mind and attitude as much as anything, all relative to where the beholder is standing. The urban/rural divide in NY has given New Yorkers a conceptually mis-weighted (but perhaps appropriate) sense of ownership over the term "downstate." Upstate also has moved farther north over the last 200 years—back in the 19th century when upper Manhattan was still largely farmland, it wasn't outrageous to consider a trip to what is now 204th Street to be the country (there ya' go Jake).

Also: the state is probably far too large and complicated to divide into just two parts. Managing a state based on an upstate/downstate divide leaves out the large western portion of NY, which has its own unique identity (at least one historian divided the state up into eight parts).

Read all the responses from our generous contributors below. And a special thanks to NYU Professor of History Jonathan Soffer, who was so inspired by the topic, he wound up writing a short essay ("more creative than historical, and cranky in places"). You can see that at the bottom of the page.

Susan Lewis, Associate Professor of History, SUNY New Paltz:

Where upstate begins depends completely on where you are in the state. For kids from Long Island, New Paltz is upstate. In New Paltz, the Adirondacks are upstate. Personally, I think you have to be above Albany to be upstate. This leaves the whole question of the western part of the state open. Is Buffalo upstate? Not exactly. How about Rochester? I think you are safe to consider anything above the Mohawk Valley/Erie Canal line as upstate New York. And, as you get further upstate, you enter "The North Country."

Gretchen Sullivan Sorin, Distinguished Professor and Director, Cooperstown Graduate Program, College at Oneonta, SUNY:

A couple of things come to mind. I think "upstate" has changed over time. When Manhattan was young one had only to go up to what is now Harlem and later up to Inwood to be in the country. The Dyckman Farm, the last farmhouse in Manhattan, was once several hundred acres in upper Manhattan. It was out in the country, but is today about half an acre on Broadway at 204th Street—very urban. In the 18th and 19th centuries the country was where you escaped to to get away from the mosquitoes, the heat and the cholera in the summer. City folk still escape to upstate. Upstate is the place they drive to on Friday nights after work. Popular destinations are Columbia County, Sullivan County, Ulster County, even lower Delaware County. The downstaters leave their cars at the train stations and then drive them to their second homes upstate on Friday nights.

Living upstate is also about rural pride. Upstaters separate themselves from city folk. We upstaters know how to drive in the dark. We can drive in the snow...

What constitutes downstate and upstate are about self identity and perception. During the summer when there are lots of folks from the city upstate describing the downstaters is a popular pastime. "They drive like they've never seen cows before!" And, of course these are stereotypes. Downstaters see themselves as more sophisticated. Upstaters see themselves as self reliant. Downstaters see upstaters as hicks. Upstaters see downstaters as loud, brash and crude, etc.

There is also a divide based on rural and urban interests. For example, I remember a debate about kids swimming in upstate reservoirs that are used for NYC drinking water. Upstaters thought the objections to swimming in reservoirs was ridiculous. NYC residents thought, "this is our drinking water. We don't want kids swimming and maybe peeing in it!" Of course they failed to realize that whole town were flooded to create the reservoirs. During the fracking debate there were similar upstate/downstate concerns.

So, I guess this rant is to say that upstate/downstate is not necessarily a physical place. It's a state of mind, an attitude, an identity.

Myra Young Armstead, Professor of History, Bard College:

I want to reinforce Gretchen's historical approach to the question. As someone who focuses on U.S. urban history (I'm teaching the course right now), I often point out that in 1804, Alexander Hamilton built his "country" residence on what is now roughly 142nd Street in Harlem. It was wild and wooded, and conformed to the British notion of aristocrats having a country estate on the one hand, and a "townhouse" within London.

I'm also reminded that as the nineteenth century wore on and serial epidemics of cholera and yellow fever hit major U.S. cities, in places like New York, those who could afford to escape (the better off and wealthy) did so by fleeing the city. They went "upstate." Here's one quick reference from the NY Evening Post, quoted in the NYTimes: "The roads, in all directions, were lined with well-filled stagecoaches, livery coaches, private vehicles and equestrians, all panic-struck, fleeing the city, as we may suppose the inhabitants of Pompeii fled when the red lava showered down upon their houses."

One can approach this question as a political or economic historian. If so, think of the great opposition to the "Clinton's Ditch" (the Erie Canal) that came from NYC ca. 1817 before the canal was completed. This was an early example of an upstate-downstate divide where certain downstaters felt overtaxed by a project that ostensibly seemed, at least conceptually, to benefit disproportionately upstate development.

Thinking as a social or cultural historian, I think upstate-downstate corresponded to a rural-urban divide (for the antebellum period). This was certainly true in the Hudson Valley at least, and that popular imagination of the state's landscape was present as early as the first decades of the nineteenth century.

Owen Gutfreund, Associate Professor of Urban Policy and Planning, Hunter College:

I have always understood the terms "upstate" and "downstate" to be driven by the cultural, economic, and political divide between the NYC metro area and the rest of the state. So, these days, that means that everything up to Rockland (west of Hudson) and Putnam (east of Hudson) are downstate. Orange and Dutchess are borderlands.

Amy Godine, Independent scholar, Adirondack History:

Perspective is everything, I guess. I live in Saratoga, and write about the Adirondacks. Adirondackers, in my experience, almost never use the term "upstate" except to distinguish themselves politically from the downstate bogey, as Owen suggests.

And even the designation, Adirondack, can be problematic (and not to be confused with the North Country, a much broader, more amorphous designation that takes in the borderland near Canada on the north and west of the Blue Line, or with the self-enclaved Champlain Valley).

Cultural historians, seasonal or "newer" residents, and the environmentally engaged, might confidently reference the Adirondacks, but so-called "natives" with deep family roots in the region seem to me to identify more comfortably with their county of origin (and in Franklin County's case, with one half of the county). So it's age, and class, too. But upstate as a handle? I dunno. It's so....meh.

Kenneth Cobb, Assistant Commissioner, NYC Department of Records:

I do not have any ‘official’ or authoritative position on the subject, and can only comment anecdotally. I agree with many of your contributors—it seems like the upstate/downstate definition varies according to where the subject is located; i.e. most people in NYC seem to consider “upstate” anything north of the Bronx/Westchester border. But I grew up in Poughkeepsie and did not consider the mid-Hudson valley counties as “upstate”—if anything, we were “downstate,” along with the counties just north of NYC—Rockland, Orange, Westchester, Putnam, and Dutchess. Maybe also Ulster and Columbia, but again depending on your perspective, they might be considered upstate.

Joseph Meany, Former State Historian, New York:

"Where are you from?" asked the buckskin-clad mountain man re-enactor at the Fur Trade Symposium at Bent's Fort, Colorado, last year.

"I'm from upstate New York," I answered, intending by that to say that I was not from New York City.

Actually, I love New York City. When I was in graduate school there (in the Bronx) I thought of upstate as everything north of the Bronx—in other words, everything not New York City. (Except Long Island, of course. "The Island" has an identity all its own.) You got to upstate from Fordham on the Major Degan Expressway.

So I don't think the urban/rural dichotomy works. After all, the residents of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Schenectady, Albany all live in urban environments in upstate. No, for me "upstate" means New York State other than New York City.

Kenneth T. Jackson, Barzun Professor of History, Columbia University:

My view is that upstate is that part of the state that is not NYC and not its immediate suburbs, meaning Westchester, Putnam, Orange, Nassau, Suffolk, and Ulster. So there are three New Yorks—the city, its suburbs, and the rest of the state. The cutoff would probably be north of Brewster and about Poughkeepsie.

Jameson Doig, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Politics and the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University:

I respond as a long-term New Jerseyan, so I might be a bit out of the loop. During the Pataki Administration (and often before and since), as I recall, "upstate" was viewed by pols and journalists as beginning just above Westchester and Rockland Counties; the term was used to suggest that upstaters were deeply (and perhaps rightly) suspicious of New Yorkers, meaning those who lived in NYC or benefited from the commercial activities there. In that division, poorer parts of NYC (South Bronx and southern SI) were assumed to be part of "downstate," as was Suffolk County.

I believe that, under this view, the western part of NYS is part of "upstate."

To me, the main purpose of asserting a division of this kind was psychological/rhetorical: If your self-perception was that you lived "upstate," you were suspicious of voting for someone who was "downstate;" and if you were running for office, while living in Albany or Syracuse or Buffalo (etc.), you might gain votes by asserting that you would protect "upstate" NY from the contamination of NYC and its near environs. I believe Sayre and Kaufman (Governing NYC, 1960) pointed out that a mayor of NYC was never elected to state-wide office (especially as governor) and S&K viewed this an illustration of the general point made just above.

Laurence M. Hauptman, SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History:

I work with Native Americans in western and Northern New York. To me upstate starts with Albany north to Canada and west to Buffalo and Lake Erie. It also includes the Southern Tier from Binghamton to the Ohio border. Governor Al Smith considered it any where from Yonkers north and west! So do people where I grew up in Brooklyn. Yikes!

New York is at least 8 states in one:

1. Maritime Long Island: Suffolk County, historically New England
2. New York City: ethnic, diverse New York
3. Hudson Valley: east bank, historically New England
4. Adirondack, New York and Tug Hill Plain: forest dweller individualists
5. Western New York: Midwest Western New York
6. Ontario Plain: similar to southern Canada
7. Mohawk Valley
8. Delaware Valley through Southern Tier: similar to northern Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio

Jonathan Soffer, Professor of History and Chair, Department of Technology, Culture and Society, NYU Tandon School of Engineering:

Growing up in Albany—both my parents native and lifelong Albanians—I embarked on a love affair with New York City at age four. It started when they took me to see Camelot at the Majestic Theater. We sat in the second row, and my experience of Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet singing fifteen feet away hooked me on theater—and on urban life—forever.

One of the best days of my life was moving into the grim cinderblock walls of Carman Hall on Columbia’s Morningside Campus in 1974. I very, very quickly identified as a New Yorker. My personal attitude toward Albany and Upstate in general was and is closer to that of Ed Koch, who once described Albany as “small town life at its worst.” And that was one of the nicer things he said about Upstate. When my mother very kindly offered to buy me and my wife a plot in the Albany Rural Cemetery, I did my best to convey, veiled by all the politeness and gentleness that I could muster, that it was the last place on earth I would want to spend eternity. She was hurt, and perhaps some of my upstate readers will be too. But personally, I’d rather have my ashes scattered in the Gowanus Canal.

That’s my autobiographic view. My historical view is somewhat different, but certainly questions the benefits of the city's relationship with Upstate, an artifact of a federal system of debatable benefit to the development of cities. As to the term Upstate itself, I did a bit of research this morning in newspaper databases and was surprised by the results. The term, so far as I could find, is rarely if ever used in New York newspapers before 1891, and becomes common (hyphenated at first as “up-state”) only after 1898, specifically in contradistinction to the consolidated Greater New York.

It’s true, as some of you have noted, that in the early Republic country estates still existed in Northern Manhattan, or even Greenwich Village and Chelsea, but the urban-rural political split was already going on in the 1780's over the US Constitution was pretty profound, as Sean Wilentz points out in Chants Democratic. It continues to the present day.

But it wasn't always the zero-sum tax revenue game that Cuomo plays with DeBlasio. Myra gave the example of Tammany opposition to the Erie Canal, which benefited both the city and state economy. But I think that particular example was more rooted in the factionalized and very personal politics of the second decade of the nineteenth century. I’m working on a book on Tammany and New York’s infrastructure and I’ve recently been reading the canal editorials of the diplomat, journalist and playwright Mordechai Noah (1785-1851), a Tammany leader. The evolution of his position on the canal from opposition to qualified support, as construction succeeded, I believe the initial opposition had less to do with taxes, than with opposing anything that was connected with DeWitt Clinton or that might in some way benefit him politically. But, with few, if any experienced engineers available, it was quite reasonable of Noah to wonder whether New York had the technological ability to pull off the biggest canal project in history to that date.

New York City has always been a city of immigration and diversity and cultural ferment. Fermentation, and its regulation has literally been the center of much political struggle between Protestant and dry Upstate, and wet, diverse New York, for much of its history. Of course the political consequences and the evolution of capitalism have affected the specific issues in contention: slavery and the cotton economy, patronage, corruption, or more recently the fiscal and economic drain and questionable benefits of New York City’s legal subordination to the State of New York, under Dillon’s Rule—the government of our city-state is completely subject to the whims of upstate legislators in Albany, whose interest is mostly in imposing their morality, hijacking our tax revenue, and discriminating against our schools and universities.

The city has so little power that recently the City Council couldn’t even lower the speed limit on its streets without permission from the State Legislature. The trouble with advocating independence is that New York cannot afford to lose its major benefit from being part of New York State—the Upstate water reserves that assure the city of the best water system of any of its competitors as a World City, even through the next century of climate change. So Downstate is stuck to Upstate, and we will just have to make the best of it. Upstate New York is a nice place to have a water system so long as they aren't allowed to frack it up, but I wouldn't want to live there.

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