Friday, July 20, 2012

18. Upstate vs. Downstate: The Great Dichotomy

                                                                            Daniel Case

Rural tranquility vs. urban congestion -- how could there not be antipathy?  In New York State the dichotomy pitting the upstate communities and countryside against the downstate megalopolis goes back centuries, if not all the way to the founding of Nieuw Amsterdam.

"New York City is pie for the hayseeds," proclaimed George Washington Plunkitt, a self-styled Tammany philosopher who delivered talks on practical politics from a bootblack stand at the county courthouse in the early twentieth century.  So convinced was he that the hayseeds of Albany were plundering the great, imperial city of New York, that his fondest dream was that the city would secede from New York State and become an independent state on its own.  And to keep the hayseeds from moving into the new state and trying to take it over, he proposed that they be forbidden from coming below the Bronx without a passport, and that their stay in the city be strictly limited in time.

Of course upstaters have seen it differently.  In the 1870s they viewed things like this:


                                      THE  GREAT  DICHOTOMY
                      Upstaters                                                 Downstaters

            Lovers of calm and quiet                          Bustlers, makers of noise

            Believers, visionaries                                Skeptics, cynics, infidels

            Big houses with deep lawns                      Narrow houses with no lawns

            Virtuous hearthbound matrons                  Sidewalk Circes and Cyprians

            Rustic simplicity                                       Urban wiles

            Upright Republicans                                 Corrupt Democrats

All of which suggests Eden before the Fall vs. Babylon.

Today this scheme of things would need a bit of updating, but not too much.  One might replace "Narrow houses with no lawns" with "Soulless high-rises," and put "Pricey Call-Girl Rings" for  "Sidewalk Circes and Cyprians."  And some mention should be made of the desolate upstate economy, as contrasted with the thriving affairs of New York, and the city's reputation (now in fact declining) for crime.  And the political corruption in Albany, keen awareness of which downstaters share with the universe.  But the basic contrasts remain: calm vs. bustle and noise, believers vs. skeptics, virtue vs. vice, simplicity vs. wiles, Republicans vs. Democrats.  To which many more items could be added, stereotypes all, and all certainly subject to challenge.  But the dichotomy is fueled far more by opinion than fact.

This dichotomy is repeated in many other states, though always with differences.  In Illinois, Chicagoland is pitted against the more rural downstate counties.  In Maine, a friend informs me, coastal highway U.S. 1 divides the state; the coastal towns and offshore islands to the east are more liberal, while the great mass of the state to the west is more redneck and conservative.  In North Carolina, my inmate buddy Joe explains, the Research Triangle of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, together with the city of Charlotte, are liberal, but the rest of the state is -- or was -- Jesse Helmes country, nursing the anti-abortion and anti-gay sentiments of the right.  California, on the other hand, is (perhaps in many ways?) bipolar, with San Francisco and Los Angeles vying for power and influence.

A perhaps relevant quiz (especially directed to past and present New York State residents, though anyone is welcome to take it):  (1)  Which state was the first to repeal its sodomy laws by legislative action?  (2)  When did New York State do the same?  (Answers at the end of this post.)

The notion that New York City would be better off as an independent state dates back at least to January 1861 when, with the South seceding, Mayor Fernando Wood proposed that the city, to preserve its profitable business ties with the South, leave the Union.  Since then, though often dismissed as fanciful, the idea keeps rising from its ashes like the phoenix.  In 1969 Norman Mailer and columnist Jimmy Breslin ran in the Democratic primary on an independent ticket, vowing to make the city the fifty-first state.  (A colorful but quixotic campaign; they didn't even come close to winning.)  The city's near bankruptcy in 1975, provoking President Ford's refusal to bail the city out -- which in turn provoked the Daily News's famous headline FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD -- only intensified the antipathy on both sides.  The subsequent creation of the Financial Control Board, with the mayor and governor and other officials sitting on it together to monitor the city's finances, reinforced resentment of Albany's interference, though the city's finances had in fact been botched for years.  Since then those finances have much improved, and the Board's authority has been reduced, but the mayor still spends much time in Albany petitioning the governor and legislature, and as recently as 2003, and again in 2008, Councilman Peter Vallone of Queens introduced a bill in the city council calling for the city's secession, complaining that the state takes billions from the city in taxes and gives back only pennies -- a complaint that finds resonance with many.

Footnote:  Secession can be contagious.  In a 1993 referendum the borough of Staten Island, feeling sidelined and ignored, voted 2-to-1 in favor of secession from the city of New York.  Another recurring proposal, another wing-singed phoenix.

Personally, I have always felt that the city, given its commercial and cultural preeminence, shouldn't begrudge the rest of the state a modicum of business and attention.  If I mail my estimated state tax payments to an address in Binghamton, why shouldn't Binghamton get a little business?  The location of many state prisons far upstate does pose problems, since most inmates are from downstate and their families have trouble visiting them, but a prison is often the only thriving business those communities possess.  And when, even as the Twin Towers were rising majestically here in the city, many New Yorkers assailed Governor Nelson Rockefeller's construction of the Empire State Plaza as a two-billion-dollar boondoggle, I didn't think it inappropriate for the state capital to have such a grandiose project: a plaza of marble and steel buildings rising on a six-story marble foundation visible from miles away, with shade trees and gardens and reflecting pools, towering above the lively but hidden "underground city" of the Concourse.  I have seen the Plaza many times and marveled at it.  Up there in the provincial hinterland Governor Rockefeller managed to create a colossus of dazzling modernity.  And why not?  In the Empire State we do things BIG. 

                                                                                               Kurtman 12208

Still, our differences persist.  When friends from upstate visit me, they are fearful of riding the subway alone.  When an acquaintance of mine bought property upstate for an annual summer getaway, on arriving there after a long winter absence he often found some objects missing.  Neighbors assured him that the thieves must have come from the distant wicked city, but he and
the sheriff knew better.  Why would a New York thief go all the way up there to steal, when the city offers a myriad of targets close at hand and one can disappear into its crowds?

And if the city is allegedly a hotbed of vice and corruption, and its residents have always been obsessed with business, upstate New York, that realm of believers and visionaries, has produced some strange ideas over time.  There, in Seneca Falls in 1848, the first women's rights convention was held, promoting a cause that was truly revolutionary for its time.  There too, filibustering campaigns to conquer Canada were hatched in the 1830s, all of which proved ludicrously futile.  And there strange cults flourished.  Shaker communities appeared, and in the town of Palmyra Joseph Smith claimed to have discovered the Book of Mormon and so went on to found the Church of Latter Day Saints.  And a farmer named Miller, having studied the Bible closely, predicted the end of the world at midnight on April 23, 1843, causing believers to don ascension robes, go to high places, and await the Second Coming.  When the Great Event failed to materialize, Prophet Miller recalculated the date as October 22, 1844, prompting a second round of anticipation, disillusion, and dismay.  Small wonder that busy Gothamites took a few minutes off from their commerce-driven pursuits to scoff and mock the faithful.

For the hardy few:  I have told the story of the Millerites in a poem, "The Midnight Cry."  For anyone interested, you can find it as the first (and for the moment only) item in the new post "Poesy."  This  is only for the adventurous, since the poem, while based on fact, goes so far as to use the antiquated adornment of rhyme.  But who reads poetry today?  Other poets, who nurse the sneaky suspicion that their own work is better than the stuff they are reading.  Still, for the curious there it is.

Thought for the day:  Envy the creators: their navels hiss, their armpits sing.

Answers to quiz:   (1) Illinois, in 1961.  (As a native of Illinois, two of whose recent governors
now languish in state prison, I can at least be grateful to it for this repeal and Abraham Lincoln.)
(2) Though rendered invalid by a judicial decision in 1980, New York's sodomy laws are on the books to this day.  Repeated attempts by Democrats to repeal them were blocked in the state senate by upstate Republicans.  Ah, the dichotomy again!

Next week:  Grandpa Al Lewis, actor, gadfly, personality, liar.  The Grandpa of the Munsters, a  colorful and cantankerous guy, unique.

                                                                                     © 2012  Clifford Browder

1 comment:

  1. Hey Cliff I learned somthing! what's up with that?
    Thanks henry