What Is Upstate New York Anyway? Writer Kathleen Norton Finds Out (The Final Word Opinion Column)

On location: Defining where we live depends on who you ask

We could have just died.

There we were, passengers on a plane full of northerners headed south when one guy opened his big mouth. He complained to the attendant about the itsy-bitsy bag of pretzels he’d just been handed as if those pretzels were a personal insult.

“Idiot! He’s showing off his ‘New York,’ ” my husband said to me out of the side of his mouth.

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The attendant went back to the galley, said to her coworker something like, “Bless my magnolias, that man must be from New York City!” and then rolled her cart to the next row, where we sat.

“I am sooo sorry,” she drawled in an accent sweeter than a peach at a Georgia fruit stand in August. “And where y’all from?” she asked.
We froze. We didn’t want to say “New York” and associate ourselves with The Idiot. So we played our “Upstate” card.

“We’re from Upstate New York!” we chirped, then babbled about trapping chipmunks in our garden, seeing sheep on a daily basis, and nearly hitting a bear with the car. We told her that in our part of New York, people say “roads,” not “streets,” and that there’s an apple orchard in our yard.

But the Georgia peach didn’t care about the sheep or roads or bears. She asked just one question — the one that has dogged mankind (or at least Poughkeepsie) for eons. “What’s Upstate New York?” she said.

Excellent question, Georgia Peach, excellent question. What is Upstate New York?

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Well, it depends on who you ask and where they’re from. So I went to that monument of 21st century credibility — Wikipedia — to see if there is an official answer.

It said that “Upstate New York” is an “ill-defined region to the north and west of New York City.” It went on for 20 more paragraphs about what may or may not be Upstate New York.

After slugging through that, I’m pretty sure that much of the Hudson Valley is part of Upstate New York, though we’re not as “upstate” as some places, and more “upstate” than others.

I also wondered if they really had to use the term “ill-defined.” Doesn’t the Poughkeepsie area have a bad enough identity crisis?

Anyway, nobody seems to be able to say exactly where Upstate New York begins or ends. Nonetheless, we Hudson Valleyites must remain judicious in playing our Upstate Card.

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When you are visiting family on Long Island, for example, and you want to stir the flatlanders up a bit, you can stop a barbecue in its tracks simply by announcing: “We have a septic tank under our backyard.”

They will back up about 10 steps and cancel any future plans to visit you.

However, if you are passing through Lake Placid, you must never, ever boast about being from “Upstate.” Lake Placid-ites will laugh, stomp on your face with a snowshoe, and eat you for breakfast. Then they will pick their teeth with a bone from a bear that they went out and killed with their hands — not a bear than they accidentally hit with their car.

So, yes, Hudson Valley. We are Upstate New York — give or take a septic tank or a wandering bear. But just be careful how you throw that term around.

» More from writer Kathleen Norton


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