October 26, 2021

Where does downstate end and upstate begin?

Upstate Quandary

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Professor Scott Anderson from the SUNY Cortland Geography Department talks about the differences between upstate and downstate New York at his office in Old Main on Tuesday.

CORTLAND — Ask three New Yorkers where upstate begins and downstate ends, and you’ll get four answers, said New York Times writer Jonathan Wolfe last week.

So we did. We asked five New Yorkers. We got six answers.

None of Wolfe’s sources seemed to hail from any further upstate than Dutchess County — and is anything south of Kingston really upstate?

We got serious upstaters: two from Cortland County, one from Canton, which is just about a sneeze from Canada. And just to be polite, we got someone from Long Island and a transplant from Boston.

So where does upstate start? Really, it doesn’t involve topography. Actually it’s got almost nothing to dowith mountain ranges or lines drawn in the dirt.

It also doesn’t matter where a person comes from, because all ideas are different. Anything that isn’t part of New York City is upstate, said Harold Hall of Cortland. Cortland is upstate, he said. Even Cayuga County.

“Central (New York) and upstate are the same thing,” he said. He didn’t mention Long Island.

The Long Islander, Sean Quinn, a junior international studies major at SUNY Cortland, at least doesn’t see Yonkers as upstate. “Anything Westchester or north,” he said.

Dillon Dallaire of McGraw looks farther north when thinking upstate. For him, upstate is the Utica region, he said.

Now, Harrison VanBuren is undoubtedly as upstate as an upstater can get. The junior geology major at SUNY Cortland is from Canton, about 20 miles from Canada. “That’s actually upstate,” he said.

Being from as far north as he is near the border with Canada, VanBuren thinks it’s funny when he hears people say upstate is anything above New York City. For some people, Cortland is as far north as they have been.

The debate goes back further than last week. Try the 17th century.

“It is the state’s historic question,” said Scott Anderson, a professor of historical geography at SUNY Cortland. He’s the transplanted Bostonian.

The explanation of where upstate New York begins is rooted in politics, socioeconomics and even ethnicity, Anderson said. Some people see the answer as everything north of New York City, he said.

That’s where the divide first began when the state was first settled, Anderson said. It was split by two communities — Albany or New York City.

Following the American Revolution, New York City filled with immigrants, while a lot of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants moved north. The area became split politically, conservatives in upstate and liberals downstate, Anderson said.

Along that divide, upstate today would be anything north of Westchester County, Anderson said.

Anderson then pointed to a map. First Buffalo, that’s western New York. Next Binghamton, that’s the Southern Tier. His finger then landed on Cortland. “Where we are is Central New York,” he said.

The Adirondacks are the Adirondacks, Anderson said.

The answer to the age old question for Anderson? That’s answer No. 2. “More often or not, I describe the Albany area as upstate,” he said.

So take it from upstaters. The differences aren’t geographical.

Those terms, “upstate” and “downstate,” well Anderson said those will never disappear: “The geography is not changing.”