Nobody Knows Where ‘Upstate New York’ Actually Is

Is this upstate? Photo: Anthony22/Wikipedia

Governor Cuomo and legislators in Albany are considering a plan that would raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, but do so faster in New York City than upstate. But there’s been an unintended consequence of such a proposal: a reignition of the debate over what exactly constitutes “upstate.” It’s unclear, for instance, whether Westchester County (or Long Island, for that matter) would get to $15 an hour on the same schedule as New York City. Even among Westchester politicians, there’s no agreement over how the county should be classified.

Assembly Democrats have argued that Westchester shoud follow the same schedule as New York City. Assemblywoman Shelley Mayer of Yonkers says that “Mine is not an upstate community. It’s a downstate, urban community on the border of the Bronx,” adding, “the cost of housing is slightly more for a two-bedroom apartment in Yonkers than in the Bronx. So it’s a fluid border.”

But another letter, signed by “elected officials from across Upstate New York” and supporting an increase to $15 upstate no later than 2021, includes signatures from several Westchester politicians, including two Yonkers city councilmembers.

The inclusion of those Yonkers politicians prompted Jon Campbell, a Gannett reporter covering the state government, to tweet, “I gotta say out of bounds. I mean … Yonkers literally borders the Bronx.” And in recent days, Campbell has been following the debate on Twitter (using the hashtag #whereisupstate), especially in the wake of newspaper articles that referred to Rye as “upstate.” Perhaps the most robust conversation this time around took place Monday in response to a tweet by Washington Post writer Philip Bump, who noted that no one seems to know what “upstate” means, and then solicited comments on whether western New York counts.

A couple of Twitter users suggested that anything north of New York City is considered upstate. Another says it’s anything north of Westchester. Another, anything north of Putnam County. Yet another suggests it’s anything above Albany, and that “Western NY doesn’t exist.” One user suggests that western New York is indeed its own thing, but also says that “Buffalo, Syracuse, that’s upstate.” (Responded Bump to that one: “How the hell is Buffalo upstate but western NY isn’t?”)

For what it’s worth, Politico last week looked into instances where “upstate” is mentioned by state law, though even there definitions vary:

Among those who have spent a significant amount of time north of Yankee Stadium, there are two definitions that appear with the most frequency. One of these defines “upstate” as any county north of New York City that isn’t serviced by Metro-North. This is closely mirrored by the statute that created the state’s Energy Planning Board, which includes Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Rockland and Westchester in the “Downstate region,” as well as Ulster (which lacks a Metro-North station).

The other common definition is narrower, and includes only those MTA-serviced regions where a significant percentage of the population uses the authority’s trains to commute to jobs in Manhattan. This can be found in the 2013 law that detailed the plan for constructing casinos upstate and excluded Putnam, Rockland and Westchester. A section of the transportation law that distributes the state’s gas tax to counties for highway funding creates the largest map of downstate. The “upstate region” defined here excludes Columbia County, whose northernmost point is only 20 miles from Albany.

So, to recap: “Upstate” means whatever you want it to mean, and everyone else insists that you’re wrong.

What Are the Boundaries of Upstate New York?