New York City residents, who are famously and proudly insular, often see New York state as two broad regions – “the city” and everything else. To them, upstate New York is a remote region that begins on the mainland, past the Bronx and beyond the most distant reaches of the 2 and 5 trains.
Graphics designer Britni Cavanaugh is unapologetic about her city-centric view. “I used to live on 112th Street on the outside of the known universe,” she says. “That might as well be upstate, too.” Cavanaugh moved to Kansas City six months ago. By her definition, that must be South America.
But cross over the Bronx into Yonkers and Westchester County locals see things a bit differently. Don’t tell the people who live there it’s upstate. For them, it’s as much an emotional line as it is a geographic one.
Mario’s Short Stop is a hot dog stand in Yonkers, just over the Bronx border. It’s across from Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway on Central Park Avenue, a thoroughfare whose stream of shopping malls make it as far removed from the place it’s named for as it can be. At Mario’s, Central Avenue – as it is more commonly known – is split down the middle by Interstate 87. If you look south down 87 from Mario’s, you can see the Bronx. Indeed, you can almost smell the Bronx. But if you look north, are you seeing and smelling upstate? Nello Fabrizzi, who mans the grill at Mario’s, says no.
“From the city, they think it’s upstate, but it’s not,” he says. Fabrizzi believes upstate doesn’t begin until “way, way up” past Westchester. “There is no way this is upstate, it’s more country up there: They got that Southern accent.”
James Cornacchio is a retired firefighter who lives in Fleetwood. He’s a regular at the stand and tells me that he thinks people who call Westchester “upstate” need an old-fashioned geography lesson. “They don’t know the area that’s why,” Cornacchio says. “They probably don’t even know where they’re at. Ask them where Alaska is.”
Dan Offner rolls his eyes if you ask him about Westchester being upstate, because it brings to mind his years at SUNY Stony Brook on Long Island, where Long Islanders and Manhattanites taunted him as an upstater. “It’s offensive in the fact it’s ignorant,” says Offner, a 25-year-old who’s originally from Yorktown. Today, he works as an editor for the Farmingdale Observer and Levittown Tribune, community newspapers on Long Island. As a journalist, he’ll tell you he knows a bit about fact-checking. “It’s not something that’s based on fact. They can’t prove that you’re upstate.”
An obvious question arises from the defensiveness. Whether or not Westchester is upstate, why is upstate taken as an insult? Offner says it comes down to the intent of the user. “They immediately think that (people) who live upstate are boonies, backwoods hicks or something like that,” Offner says. “That’s ridiculous, that’s absolutely ridiculous. There are wooded areas, but I don’t know too many hicks.”
A friend of mine who used to live in White Plains is an amateur rapper who goes by the name LYPHE. I recently asked him to rap me his thoughts on Westchester being upstate and he obliged by freestyling a few verses. “Upstate is the place where you see/All the farms with cows like Albany,” went one line. “Westchester is where the raps are raw/No overall pants or chewing straw,” went another. He came up with those lyrics and others while on break from his job as a bank branch manager in Maryland.
Rachel McCain, a graduate student at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, says there is plenty of evidence that Westchester isn’t upstate and the proof has nothing to do with geography. “(You hear) upstate, people think close-minded,” she says. “Westchester, we’re still as open-minded as New York City. We have malls. We have sidewalks.”
Of course, there are towns tucked away in the Adirondacks that have malls and sidewalks and even open-minded people. Catherine Snopkowski now lives on the Upper East Side but is originally from Buffalo’s suburbs in Erie County, seven hours northwest of Westchester. When people refer to Westchester as upstate, she says she corrects them.
Still, she doesn’t get why some Westchesterites are so touchy about the upstate tag. “If it’s because it’s inaccurate, that’s OK,” Snopkowski says. “But if it’s something else, maybe they should go and visit these places.”
So, is one of those upstate places they should visit the town Snopkowski is from? “No, I’m from western New York,” she says.
Follow Mark Lungariello on Twitter, @marklungariello.