The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Here’s where New Yorkers think Upstate New York is

People downstate. (Associated Press)

Cynthia Nixon’s primary challenge to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D-N.Y.) has meant wading into tricky, controversial waters. Take, for example, her interview with the New York Times Magazine over the weekend. Sure, she advocated for the legalization of marijuana and pushed for changes to funding systems in the state. But in New York, among Democrats, those are noncontroversial to the point of sleepiness.

But she also got hit with a make-or-break question, the minefield of New York politics: Where does “Upstate” New York begin?

“Upstate” is a concept that defies easy boundaries. Most people would agree that New York City isn’t upstate, both because it’s the most southern part of New York and because “upstate” is generally meant to mean “not New York City.” Most people would also agree that Saratoga Springs, located far to the north, is upstate. It’s where the line between them is drawn, and how, that people start getting mad.

Just as I got mad when I read Nixon’s response.

“I don’t think the Hudson Valley is upstate,” she said. “Once you get to Ithaca, by around there, you’re starting to get upstate.”

With all due respect: What on Earth are you talking about.

As both a native New Yorker and a current resident of the state, I think Ithaca seems obviously too far north, not to mention awfully west. It’s about smack in the middle of the state, meaning that the space between Ithaca and New York City just goes nameless somehow. It’s baffling, at least to me.

But, then, who am I? Just some jerk who works for a newspaper that isn’t even based in New York and who makes maps of stuff. What do New Yorkers as a group think constitutes the starting point of “upstate”?

Public Policy Polling asked a version of this question in 2016, about the time of the New York presidential primaries. They gave people four options, as follows:

There wasn’t much agreement. But this also takes a question about which New Yorkers have notoriously nuanced views and boils it down to four options. The question relies on very finely articulated boundaries and involves navigating the fact that upstate radiates outward from New York to both the north and the west. “Upstate New York” competes with “western New York” in its own vague differentiation (which Public Policy Polling tried to get at by carving out Buffalo).

So I decided to let New Yorkers answer the question in their own words. To do so, I turned to Google Surveys, a Google tool that allows users to pose a question to people in particular geographic areas. Beginning on Sunday (shortly after reading Nixon’s opinion), I asked 1,016 New Yorkers: Where does “Upstate New York” begin?

When you ask 1,000-odd people the answer to a question, you get a lot of variation. Some is subtle, such as “Albany” vs. “near Albany.” Some is dismissive: Got a “do not care,” 40 “don’t know” replies and one “no.” Others made jokes: “my house,” “upstate someplace,” “Peoria,” “San Francisco.” Others identified very specific locations in and around New York City: 14th Street, the George Washington Bridge. Six people said that upstate started at 125th Street, meaning that the Bronx is in Upstate New York.

After going through the responses, I was left with about 900 valid responses. Here is where New Yorkers think “upstate” begins, with circles scaled to the number of responses in each place.

Note that I did keep some presumably joking answers that were at least possibly valid. “Canada” makes the cut (I placed it at Cornwall, Ontario), as does “Long Island” and “The Hamptons.” Neither Long Island nor the Hamptons are upstate, but if some other jerk tried to mess with my survey, who am I to complain?

A few things stand out. The first is that many answers were centered just north of New York City; another big cluster was in and around Albany. If we view the responses as a heat map, those two places stand out.

On that first map, there’s also a decent-sized grouping around Syracuse, which is not much better a response than Ithaca. Ithaca, by the way, was the answer given by 10 people. I also tagged respondents who said “the Finger Lakes” as Ithaca, because Ithaca is about the southeastern-most point in the Finger Lakes region. In total, 16 respondents said “Ithaca” or “the Finger Lakes” — less than 2 percent of the total. More people said “Buffalo” than that, and saying that Buffalo is where “upstate” begins is like saying that Nebraska is where the United States begins.

What’s interesting about that heatmap is that it reveals that most people see upstate as starting somewhere in the eastern part of the state. If we round the latitude and longitude of each response to the nearest tenth, it’s clear that the longitudinal responses were weighted along the Albany-to-New-York spine. In terms of latitude, though, the vertical starting point, it was Albany and Westchester County (the county just north of New York City) that were the most common responses.

It suggests that these are the two points at which New Yorkers are most likely to see “upstate” beginning: either just outside the city or at the northern end of the Hudson River Valley. (We’ll note that the nature of this survey is that it results in responses from a group that isn’t random, so we can’t assume it’s representative of the state overall from a statistical standpoint.)

For those curious, there is a correct answer. “Upstate” begins north of Poughkeepsie (pronounced puh-KIP-see), where the Metro-North Railroad‘s Hudson line ends. If you can commute to New York City, you’re not upstate. North of Poughkeepsie, you can’t.

Of course, it’s easy for me to take a firm position on a controversial subject like this. I’m not running for governor.

Here are the coded responses from the survey. (By “coded,” I mean that “north of the Bronx,” “Westchester” and “Westchester County” are all unified into one response.)