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Friday, June 24, 2011

Are Rochester and Buffalo Upstate?

By Dick Hirsch

Geography never commanded the attention that was centered on reading, writing and arithmetic, but it was always one of my favorite subjects.

That is probably why I have become so discouraged by the inept teaching of geography in schools in New York State. This is especially true among those who live and work in what many of them simply call The City.

The City, capitalized, of course, is New York. That is the preferred title for many New Yorkers, especially among those who assume that The City is the only superior place. I have never supported that designation, but since it apparently makes them happy I never complained, until now.

For years I have been trying to explain where I live, in general terms, to those who I meet who happen to live in The City.

But they don’t get it.

“Buffalo,” I say.

“Oh,” they reply, “you’re upstate.”

“No,” I always try to explain, “Buffalo is near Niagara Falls.”

Niagara Falls is always a convenient reference point since most people have a general idea of its location.

“Right,” they respond, “you’re upstate near Niagara Falls.”

That is the problem: I keep being told that I live upstate. It is an issue for all who live in New York outside of The City. I’ve heard that upstate location referenced in private conversations with New Yorkers, read it in newspapers and magazines, and listened to it on radio and television broadcasts. The recent news coverage of the special election in the 26th Congressional District, covering parts of Rochester and Buffalo, brought national attention to the area where I live.


The network and cable coverage succeeded in making an ambiguous situation regarding geography even more bewildering. In the wake of the election I had a call from a usually well-informed friend who lives in The City. He was phoning to assure me that he recognized the significance of the election results.

“The loss of that seat in an upstate district that is normally Republican is going to...”

A conversation with him is often lecture-like and this time he began, using his most authoritative pundit style, recounting his version of the importance of the election. But I interrupted to once again try to explain that Buffalo is far from upstate, at least 300 miles away. He has never understood. Like so many others from The City, anything on the west side of the Hudson River is upstate.

For me, the confusion started years ago when I met one of my college roommates who lived across the bridge in what he called simply “Jersey,” although he had the New York City instincts. He immediately concluded I was from upstate. I was a callow youth and what did I know about the uncharted areas of New York State geography. Maybe I was from upstate, but I had never heard that term at home. That was a long time ago, but it is a description that has continued and it has become a source of some aggravation.

“My friend, Dick, is from Buffalo,” I heard as I was being introduced last winter, “and he says they really don’t get that much snow upstate.” I gave up; it wasn’t worth explaining that I know very little about snowfall totals upstate because I don’t live upstate. I’ve heard governors and senators locate us upstate, but I should commend Sen. Chuck Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand because they both seem to know where they are when they visit in Buffalo. Being from The City, Schumer deserves a special commendation.

Some businesses in the area seem comfortable with the name and have adopted it as their own. Consider these listings from the Buffalo White Pages, all preceded by the word “Upstate:” Chiropractic, Distributors, Farms, Ford, Graphics, Home Care, Laboratories, Medical Physics, Transplant Services, Pharmacy, Rebar, Steel Systems, Window Cleaning. Those are just examples of Upstate” businesses from the Buffalo directory. There are others; you get the idea.

Exactly where is upstate? I am likely to get an argument from geographers, but my map seems to indicate upstate is the area along the Hudson north of New York City, including cities like Albany, Troy, Schenectady, Saratoga Springs, Glens Falls and nearby communities. In addition I would mention four other locales: the North Country, including Watertown and Malone; Central, featuring Utica and Syracuse; the Southern Tier, with Corning, Binghamton and Elmira; and Western, starring Rochester and Buffalo. Coming soon: the supposed whereabouts of downstate.