It was suggested in an article published last week, titled “Binghamton is not part of upstate New York,” that much banter occurs about upstate during the first month of the fall semester. Specifically, the article tried to focus on what “is” upstate and what “is not” upstate.
In doing reconnaissance for this article, I observed that South Carolina also has a region that’s considered to be upstate. Upstate South Carolina has an interesting situation because the number of counties considered “upstate South Carolina” is effectively summarized with the existence of an organization called the “Ten at the Top.” Although there isn’t an array of subregions within upstate South Carolina that I could deduce, it happens to be a part of “Char-lanta,” which is considered a megaregion with a population of 22 million people.
In New York, there do exist unique subregions, such as Western, Central, Southern Tier and Capital District and more environmental zones like the Catskills, Finger Lakes, Hudson Valley, Mohawk Valley and Adirondacks. It would be complicated to assert that upstate New York functions as a region in the same way that upstate South Carolina functions as a region.
Social context matters. When the original article said it’s paradoxical for Binghamton to be called both a part of “upstate” and “the Southern Tier,” it’s getting caught up in semantics. Plus, in 2015, the Southern Tier Regional Economic Development Council won $500 million of New York state funds from the Upstate Revitalization Initiative. It’s also important to note that the Chenango Canal once connected Binghamton to Utica and also that Binghamton University started as a satellite of Syracuse University.
Danika McMurray, a senior majoring in political science, is from the Triple Cities area and is a graduate of Union-Endicott High School (the Triple Cities area includes Binghamton, Johnson City and Endicott). She told me she believes that Binghamton falls into upstate more so culturally, given that it’s more similar to cities like Utica or Syracuse, rather than cities downstate like Yonkers or the Bronx. I think she is absolutely on point.
In the 19th century, the cholera epidemic swept major cities like New York, and those who could afford to leave did so by fleeing. They went “upstate.” In the summer of 1832, the New York Evening Post wrote: “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.” Upstate very well would have been considered Westchester and everything north, at a time when the towns along the Hudson River were the most developed. It was only during the 20th century that the rural character of Westchester would transition into the mostly suburban county known today.
There is no singular definition of upstate New York like there seems to be in South Carolina, only working definitions. It’s widely agreed that downstate consists of New York City and Long Island at the very least.
Geography can be both relative and absolute. It’s absolute in the sense that there are mountains where there are mountains and oceans where there are oceans. It’s relative because we need maps in order to frame, study and make decisions in, by and about such things. Fields that use maps include planning, civic engineering, parks and recreation and really anything with a spatial aspect. In relative geography, maps are a medium of communication with one foot in art and one foot in science.
Having lived in a few areas of New York state and a couple of other states, I know quite well the importance of understanding geography in all possible ways.
In a Gothamist article titled, “Where the Hell is Upstate NY?,” one contributor writes:
“What constitutes downstate and upstate [is] about … perception.” This is to say that upstate and downstate are not necessarily a physical place. “It’s a state of mind, an attitude, an identity.”
It’s up to you.
Benjamin Levine is a junior double-majoring in geography and sociology.