Sunday, May 3: E pluribus

After a rocky start — and perhaps because they have no choice — there are at least now stabs of cooperation among our extended New York State family. It’s still unclear how any of this makes for a rethought post-pandemic food distribution system, but downstate politicians are now realizing that upstate people can be a valuable asset in a crisis.

“We cannot have hungry families in New York City, and farmers upstate dumping their product because they cannot sell it,” [Queens State Sen. Jessica] Ramos said. “Together with our farmer partners, we created our own network, and we will convert our district office into a food distribution hub to provide our neighbors with fresh produce and meals.”  Ramos, who chairs the Senate Labor Committee and led the effort last year to pass legislation granting farmworkers overtime pay and other labor rights, visited upstate farms to gather feedback on the bill. Torrey Farms, one of the farms that donated food to the senator’s office, mentioned that donations included onions planted by Ramos when she toured the farm last year. 

This relationship didn’t just happen yesterday, as the article notes, and the effort has an impressive reach, from Queens to the Hudson Valley to Western New York. We’re pretty good at producing stuff that people can eat right away with minimal processing: in the top 10 nationally for dairy, apples, onions, potatoes, strawberries, cherries, cabbage, sweet corn, tomatoes, grapes and maple syrup. (By the way, “victory cheese” is now a thing.)

Ironically, as the initial shock of the pandemic wears off and New Yorkers are moving to find their own short-term solutions to the crisis, one has the growing sense that old relationships that were assumed to be there are in fact not really there, or may be negotiable.

Every single issue that matters to New York today has almost nothing to do with Republican or Democratic party lines, whether it is food security, public health, or decimated budgets. Like a stream finding its own course, the flow of public action throughout the state no longer runs between the same old rocks. Albany has seemed unable to keep up with events, and there may be other local political cultures that are unable to adapt. Local political structures that invested heavily in mastering the old statewide and national games may be increasingly left behind as they wait for things to “get back to normal.”

And the response of various Upstate local governments has been surprisingly varied. Central New York leaders reached out to each other right away, without waiting for instructions from Cuomo. Many years ago when I had a healthy “Upstate blogroll,” I tried to search out fellow bloggers from all over. I always wondered why it was so bloody hard to find Buffalo bloggers who were interested in talking to people from other parts of the state. The blogs were out there, but it was clear that the Buffalo bloggers were very engaged with their own territory, their own polarized city and county politics, and national politics as well. Now when the “What is Upstate?” question has not only become fashionable again, but a vital issue of emergency governance, you find out that many people in Buffalo actually believe that they are not part of “Upstate” at all, that there is something somehow besides “Upstate” that is “Western New York,” its own special animal that apparently exists outside of the whole up/down continuum.

It’s struck me that perhaps “Upstate New York” deserves independence from the Buffalo area as well, which is a whole new paradigm of state political triangulation. While the New York Times looks abroad to wonder why some regions across the world have mysteriously done better with the pandemic than others, I have yet to see any stories on the mystery of why the Buffalo area has done so poorly in this pandemic relative to other Upstate cities. If we are all under the Upstate New York sun, this is relevant, and we need to know why. Is it just simply a matter of scale? Are there special demographic factors unlike those in Rochester or Syracuse? Unique issues relating to city and intra-regional governance? Something about the political makeup of the Buffalo area that makes people social distance less? Or has Buffalo just had bad luck and bad timing beyond its control?

Probably when all is said and done, New York’s ESDC regions will slide back into irrelevance, but it sure is refreshing to be “Central” New York for a while instead of “Upstate.” It’s been great to be reminded that Ulster and Dutchess counties are distinct from Rockland and Westchester, a fine point that often escapes people up here. Although this may slip away too, it’s good to have recognized — and, through the ESDC designations, now have a language to express — that we are not all the same. (Our county executive now throws the words “in Central” and “in Mohawk” around regularly.) Ex uno, pluria. My point ultimately being that you cannot have a true “unum” unless you actually have a true “pluribus.”