Upstate, Downstate

Exploring a New York state of mind

When I went to university, I learned something I hadn't expected: I didn't grow up where I thought I did.

I grew up in a small town in southern New York. It's in the middle of Orange county, west of the Hudson river, about an hour and half's drive from Manhattan. We didn't visit New York City often; my parents didn't like driving there. Instead, I spent my days in a picturesque town in downstate New York.

Whoops, I did it again: I called Goshen "downstate". That's how I considered it when I was growing up. Look on a map of New York state and you'll see that its capitol, Albany, is just about halfway between the state's southern and northern extremes. So anything north of Albany must be "upstate", right? My unchallenged assumption made perfect sense, at least to me.

Then I went to a university whose population was dominated by students from Long Island. To my surprise, I learned that my sleepy little hometown, a hundred miles south of Albany, was "upstate". How in the world did they figure that?

Just for a little visual enlightenment, here's a map of New York, with the counties of NYC & LI colored. (They're the tail that's wagging the state.)

[New York State diagram]

Here's the scoop. To the residents of New York City and Long Island, the rest of the state is upstate. Wait, that's not right. It's not "the rest of the state"; it's "everyplace else". There's a subtle but important difference between the two definitions. The former considers a specific area, even if it's only vaguely defined. The latter treats upstate NY as the negation of downstate: "anything not here". It doesn't matter that by this definition 92.7% of the state is upstate; downstate vs. upstate is a matter of culture, not geography.

This odd notion makes more sense if you consider population, not area. Even though NYC & LI are only 7.3% of the state's area, they have over 53% of the population. Here are the statistics.

Region Area (sq. miles) Area % Population Pop %
New York state 47,214 100 19,011,378 100
NYC (Kings, Queens, New York, Bronx, & Richmond counties) 354 0.7 7,393,859 38.9
Long Island (Nassau & Suffolk counties) 3,102.8 6.6 2,688,904 14
NYC & LI 3456.8 7.3 10,082,763 53
Orange county 816 1.7 334,199 1.8


Whither the West?

Out of curiosity, I asked a few NY natives about this subject. I tried to discover a few key facts:

  • Where is their border between upstate and downstate?

  • If Goshen is upstate, how are cities like Rochester and Buffalo considered?

The results varied. Some had a fixed geographic border between upstate and downstate, while others held to the cultural definition. (Cultural) upstaters tended to have a more northern border than those from the NYC/LI area. Border locations ranged from the northern border of Westchester county to Albany.

The western cities were generally considered upstate by those from the NYC/LI area. Those who grew up in the western part of the state tended to identify their area as "western NY".

Making this even more interesting, my little upstate hometown is becoming downstate. A lot of people who work in NYC are moving to central Orange county. I wonder whether they'll bring the downstate along with them.

Image created using the Tiger mapping service.

Last updated 2 April 2003
All contents ©2003 Mark L. Irons