Where, exactly, is “Upstate New York”?

For a native of New York’s metropolis, the Adirondacks are equally remote as the Alps; Binghamton is a much bigger schlep from the Bronx than Boiceville; and Beacon, unlike Bolton Landing, is a day trip. Yet let a Manhattanite ask a Catskills homesteader where she dwells, or a Franklin County hunter where he hangs his .30-30, and chances are good that they will both say “Upstate.” Ditto the residents of Binghamton, Beacon and Bolton Landing.

So where, exactly, is Upstate? Where does it begin? What are its boundaries? In which part of Canada does it terminate?

A quick consultation with Wikipedia, that millennial repository of the world’s wisdom, gives us this: “Upstate New York is the portion of the American state of New York lying north of the New York metropolitan area. The region includes most of the state of New York, excluding New York City, the lower Hudson Valley and Long Island, though the precise boundary is debated.” It goes on to say: “Downstate New York is a term denoting the portion of New York State…in contrast to Upstate New York.”


Thanks to such piercing clarity, we can now begin to appreciate the magnitude of the problem. Since the “precise boundary” of Upstate New York is “debated,” we cannot with any exactitude determine where Downstate ends and Upstate begins. The conundrum, I need not add, keeps more than a few of us awake at night.

Oh, we can eliminate certain communities from consideration as Upstate localities; living in West Hempstead, for example, you’d have to be exceptionally pretentious, or utterly delusional, to say that you shared a bioregional affiliation with the good burghers of New Paltz. And yet…does New Paltz itself qualify as Upstate? At what point does the mid-Hudson Valley (up) become the lower Hudson Valley (down)?

Nobody seems to know. But everybody is willing to go to the mattresses to settle the question.

Take the response to the recent declaration by gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon. Asked to weigh in on the subject, her considered opinion pissed off a lot of Hudson Valley One readers: “I don’t think the Hudson Valley is Upstate,” she said. “Once you get to Ithaca, by around there, you’re starting to get Upstate.” Right, and Kingston is part of Connecticut, and Troy is a city in Asia Minor.

Shortly after reading Nixon’s comment, Washington Post reporter Philip Bump polled 1,016 New Yorkers as to where they stood on the question. Rounding the latitude and longitude of each response to the nearest tenth, Bump found that “the longitudinal responses were weighted along the Albany-to-New-York spine,” while in terms of latitude, the most common responses were Albany and Westchester County. Hence, the two points at which New Yorkers are most likely to see Upstate beginning are either just outside the City or at the northern end of the Hudson River Valley.

“For those curious, there is a correct answer,” Bump concludes. “Upstate begins north of Poughkeepsie, where the Metro-North Railroad’s Hudson line ends. If you can commute to New York City, you’re not Upstate. North of Poughkeepsie, you can’t.” Except that, technically, you can commute to the city from north of Poughkeepsie, if you’re willing to gradually empty your life savings for a daily ride on an Amtrak express from Rhinecliff or Hudson.

Another way to address the issue is to assign degrees of Upstatedness. For instance, if you reside in Rosendale, you are two degrees of separation from Brooklyn and virtually Upstate; if you have a gallery or a bistro in Columbia County, you are snugly (and in all likelihood smugly) Upstate; and if you live in a town where the main diversion is cow-tipping, you are way the fuck Upstate.

But after due deliberation, the best answer seems to be: Upstate is not a geographical locale, but a state of mind. To illustrate, here follow some observations reflective of that mental state, culled from respondents to my own very loosely and lazily conducted poll:

“Upstate starts where croissants become croissanwiches, and cookies are the size of your head,” avers the author and dramatist Laura Shaine, living cozily Upstate in Stone Ridge.

According to Karen Phillip, it has to do with accent: “If you say CAW-fee, you’re not an Upstater.” (Phillip, of Kingston, also wants to know if western New York is Upstate. In a word, no: Western New York is part of Ontario.)

For Nina Shengold, writer in the Vly, Upstate is “wherever mulch is pillow talk.”

“Upstate is hanging on to your landline for no good reason but always checking your iPhone,” says Steven Kolpan, an erstwhile video artist and wine professor now biding his time in West Hurley. “It’s buying Amazon but thinking locally. Somehow finding the balance between sanctimonious and humble.”

Then again, if we take the long view – the geologic view – the distinction between Upstate and Downstate becomes rather silly. Some 248 million years ago, the land on which we now refrain from eating gluten in trendy restaurants or receive aromatherapy treatments at Wellness Centers was part of a vast, impacted single continent, an impossibly conglomerated giant land mass that spanned from pole to pole. There was no Upstate, no Downstate, no Catskills or Adirondacks and no New York. And guess what? If we flash forward another 248 million years…well, the smart money says that’ll once again be the case.

There are 6 comments

  1. p.c.

    The answer is Albany! New York has a triangular shape that lends itself to a northern part, a southern part and a western part. Anything south of the parallel that runs along the southern tier is downstate. Anything north of the relatively straight East-West line former by the southern shore of Lake Ontario is Upstate. The rest can be divided up a few different ways, but no one uses the “state” suffix, which is what we’re debating here.

    I think it’s acceptable for a someone in the city to say “I’m going up state” because it expresses the direction they’re moving. The trouble comes when that term is used to objectively describe a region of the state.

    1. Your Local Assessor

      Upstate New York is all the region where a NYC fireman cannot live. Any county where a NYC fireman lives legally is downstate.
      Upstate New York is all the region where the assessment rolls are unintelligible and inequitable. Downstate New York is where income capitalization is used according to state law for commercial real property.

  2. Alex

    I think where the metro north ends is a good indicator, i’m comfortable saying north of Poughkeepsie is upstate. However, my long Island friedns would say anything north of Riverdale is upstate. Alternatively you could use a simple gun store to starbucks ratio to determine, if a county has more than 1 gun store for very 2 or 3 Starbucks it’s probably upstate.

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