Once you get out of the New York City that most Americans are vaguely familiar with, say, north of 123rd St., “The City” starts to fade into “Upstate”. There’s not a sharp borderline, but even 50 years ago when That Girl was a hit sitcom, going to Brewster to visit her parents was definitely going upstate.
That leaves about 50,000 square miles or so of New York (the state) as Upstate.
And it’s been economically dead for a long time: a macroeconomic zombie.
There was an interesting piece about Upstate New York the other day, in, of all places, Utah’s The Deseret News. It opens with a one liner:
Upstate New York is becoming Detroit with grass.
I hate to break it to the writer, but it’s the other way around: Detroit is becoming Upstate New York with less grass.*
I was a kid when it first dawned on my that my hometown was going down the toilet, and quickly at that. Somewhere between 1975 and 1978 I know I had to start making excuses to people from other places about why Buffalo was just as good. And we’re not talking resort locations. Instead, this was why Pittsburgh couldn’t be that good, or why would anyone want to move to Sacramento.
I’m motivated to write this post because one of the author’s sources got it wrong:
“It all began in 1959 when the interstate highway system was completed,” says Carl Schramm, professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Syracuse University. “That was also the year commercial jets went into service and half the homes in Florida were air-conditioned.”
Schramm’s a much bigger fish than me. And he’s right about 1959. But the reason is the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. This is the system of canals that allows ships to get around Niagara Falls (and other smaller falls, and rapids) to go from Duluth all the way to the open Atlantic.
The reason this is a big deal is that most of Upstate New York thrived on the basis of transshipment. Buffalo was the interior port of New York City: ships came east and transferred their loads to trains bound for New York City, while goods came west on the trains, and loaded on ships bound for Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee (but also Erie, Sandusky, Windsor, Sarnia, Bay City, Traverse City, Muskegon, Gary, Racine, Sheboygan, Green Bay, Sault St. Marie, Marquette, Superior, Duluth … and probably in a small way, my eponymous town of Tofte, Minnesota). And Buffalo got that way by being the terminus of Erie Canal, which linked to the inland ports of Rochester, Syracuse, Rome, Utica, and many others.
So, in 1959, they bypassed the reason for the existence of a the populous ribbon running through the middle of Upstate New York. It’s been dying ever since.
For perspective, consider this great chart of relative size of large metropolitan areas. Find Buffalo: it has a hump in the 1950’s. Now go across to the present day, where the comparably sized cities are Seattle, Phoenix and San Diego (larger original here).
Let that roll of your tongue: Buffalo — the Phoenix of the 1950’s.
The author is right about the rest: bad weather, tax and regulatory policies that satisfy those from the City but hurt those from Upstate, New York’s unusual method of financing Medicaid, and the fleeing of the big industries that anchored all those cities. So let me be perfectly clear: the St. Lawrence Seaway bypassed something that everyone wanted to bypass anyway.
I think the author is a little wrong also about the politics involved. Yes, New York is a blue state. But the bigger problem in New York is the domination of the state’s political system by three officeholders: the governor, the Speaker of the Assembly (legislature, and the majority leader in the State Senate. It was huge news in New York when one of them was arrested for fraud a few months back. I won’t go into the details, but if you’re number 4, you may as well not bother; I actually know a former # 4, and he hitched himself to Hillary because he wasn’t moving up any further within the state.
Don’t believe me? They let an upstater serve as Speaker last year … for 12 hours. That was between the fraudster and 20 year veteran from Manhattan, and the new guy from The Bronx. They let another upstater serve for 3 days in 1991. The last upstater to serve a long term as Speaker left office in 1959. Senate Majority Leaders are much the same, although Wikipedia doesn’t make it easy to figure out what they represent. Governors? Don’t even bother looking for one from Upstate.
I actually don’t have much of a problem with this set up. Politics is politics, and if New York was a success story I’d be lauding these troikas.
But it isn’t.
Upstate New York is a victim of a political system based around New York City. And really, Upstate isn’t a zombie at all: it’s more like the victim of a vampire … already cold and quickly fading away.
* Funny story. Many western Mormons do a pilgrimage of sorts: they go to the northeast and midwest to follow the trail that the early Mormons followed for the 20 years or so before they emmigrated to Utah. My friend and colleague GP did this with his family about ten years ago. While passing Buffalo, instead of going through on the interstate, they decided to bypass it on U.S. highways. This took them through the suburbs I know well. When he returned, he told me that he never understood why riding lawn mowers were invented until he saw how big the lawns were in that area. That’s one thing Upstate has going for it … nice lawns.