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FAMILY | Upstate Is Literally Undefinable in New York

FAMILY | Upstate Is Literally Undefinable in New York

If you ever want to start a bar fight, just ask two New Yorkers where “Upstate” begins. It’s like trying to figure out which style of pizza best exemplifies New York (Sicilian? Roman? Neapolitan? Neapolitan-American? The $1 Slice? New Brooklyn? Deep Dish?). No one knows for sure, but everyone has an opinion.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, here at New York Makers we often think (and write) about what certain geographical regions signify. New York City has long been shorthand for whip-smart glamour; the Hudson Valley, for lush bounty; the Finger Lakes with escape, and, more recently, wine; the Hamptons, the ne plus ultra good life.

But what, exactly, is “Upstate”? Is it a clearly defined geographical boundary, a state of mind, both, or neither?

We decided to find out. Our answer is clear as mud, but here goes.

Inauspiciously, the state’s legislature is unsure, and in various cases even defined it differently, as Wikipedia notes. (Sometimes legislation includes Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam in the “Downstate” area; others say Dutchess and Orange aren’t Upstate because they’re served by Metro-North; sometimes Columbia County is ousted from the Upstate club. Other laws proclaim Sullivan and Dutchess are Downstate, while Ulster and Columbia are Upstate.)

One version of what Upstate is. Graphic and article appeared The Washington Post.

Riiiight. When lawmakers fail, we turn to the public.

According to Public Policy Polling’s 2016 survey of 1,403 New York voters, 25% of respondents believed everything north of New York City is Upstate, 29% said north of Westchester, 22% said north of Poughkeepsie, 7% said north of Poughkeepsie excluding Buffalo, 9% said something else and 7% were unsure.

The PPP raised one of the key issues by mentioning Buffalo, without directly addressing it: where does Western New York fit in the equation?

The Washington Post conducted a similar poll of 1,000 people via Google Surveys, and their findings were even more distressingly diffuse, but also seemed to indicate that most New Yorkers believe Upstate (no matter where it begins) generally lives in the Eastern half of the state. Left with 900(!) options, WaPo clustered the responses into a heat map, and found that the vast majority of poll-ees believe Upstate begins either in Westchester County or Albany.

Ok. So we can give Western New York the boot.…But where can the line between Up and Down be drawn? When the general public fails, we turn to our friends.

A casual survey of our local pals garnered equally contradictory answers.

A Manhattan-turned-Brooklyn-resident and marketing director at Pfizer opined that Upstate “to me is everything past Westchester.” A Connecticut teacher who spent more than a decade in New York City thinks of Upstate as “Saugerties and north,” adding that anyone who could get out of the Manhattan/Westchester “rat race” and head Upstate should.

Two friends (a university administrator who lives in Queens a college professor, Brooklyn) cited Poughkeepsie as the official dividing line, while another Brooklynite said “even Yonkers” felt like Upstate to him. (Artists!) A Manhattan-turned-Hudson food line curator proclaimed the “start of Columbia County” to be the line.

Two Saratoga Springs natives (a real estate agent and an accountant) voted for “anything north of Hudson” as the dividing line, while an Albany resident (lawyer) proclaimed the state Capitol to be the official marker.

Sigh. When our friends fail to render an even vaguely unanimous answer, we turn to the clarion call of a Higher Authority. But my parish priest just smiled beatifically and shook his head knowingly at me when I asked.

As a last resort, I turned to journalists’ Associated Press bible. Yet even the AP Stylebook, the stern taskmaster to whom journalists turn for guidance when legislation, studies, common sense and God fail them, is uncharacteristically vague, generally referring to Upstate as anywhere in the state north of Westchester County.

Interestingly, when reading between the lines, many of the answers contained compelling observations about the nature of the question itself. Does Upstate reside within a geographical boundary, or is it more…a state of mind?

One friend, a Manhattan-turned-India-turned-Saratoga Springs resident said that to her, “Upstate means fresh air, long summer nights, bike rides, lake life, crisp apples, cool fall nights and looonnnggg winters. Family too.”

Others concurred, sharing that, more than crossing a physical dividing line, Upstate was a mental state, associated with (depending upon whom you asked): farmers, non-tourists, sell-outs, weird crunchy people, earnest families, fans of twee, non-strivers, people who hate Connecticut and Westchester.

Another globe-trotter (she’s lived all over New York State, Florida, Norway and backpacked almost everywhere else) summarized it thusly: “Upstate is not New York City. It’s New York, without the City. It’s literally family to me, because this is where my mother, my husband and my children live, but it also embodies what family is and what I want it to be.”

Camping trips in her backyard, eating the fresh eggs gathered from her mother’s farm, her sons holding hands while jumping into lakes at sunset. Upstate is earnest, it’s crunchy, it’s twee, it’s everywhere, it’s all in your mind.

Show your Upstate pride:


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