3 Upstate conversation-killers, and how to get past them

Blogging is conversation. Upstate blogging is conversation about Upstate New York. But sometimes, bloggers and public officials both make comments that seem to cause conversation go off into predictable yet unproductive directions.

I thought of a few of these “roadblock” statements, which not only infect conversations about New York from time to time, but also represent assumptions that may underlie the way our local politicians behave. For each roadblock, I’m also suggesting two common reactions that help kill conversation. You could call them the “hostility-based” and “fear-based” answers. I also make suggestions for “third way” responses that (one hopes) could begin to transcend the traps that the other two answers represent.
You’ll note that this response is not always a gentle one, at least on the surface. In my opinion, though, sometimes you need to be bold to advance a conversation past the same-old same-old. (Your opinions on an effective third response could be different.)

And the three killers are…

Conversation Killer #1: “Without Downstate’s money, Upstate New York would be Kentucky.”
Heard: Whenever people try to begin serious conversation about solutions to Upstate New York’s economic, demographic or legislative reform problems.
Hostile response: “Oh yeah? Well, what about all the NYC welfare queens and illegal immigrants on Medicaid?”
Fear response: “That’s true. We can’t forget that without Wall Street, we’d be lost. (More hot towels for your bath, Speaker Silver?)”

Just to be clear, I don’t mean that this is a conversation-killer in the context of conversations between Upstaters and Downstaters — it’s a conversation-killer between Upstaters alone, as well — in our conversations — and that’s why it is so damaging. This is Killer #1 because there is truth behind it: Downstate’s economy is great and Upstate’s economy sucks, and Upstate lives too much on federal and state pork. But there’s also truth to the kneejerk emotional reaction that provokes the hostile answer, because “Kentucky” (and no offense to Kentucky) is simply being used as a raw pejorative. I really think that most New York legislators, of any party and of any region, have internalized this conversation killer to the point where no one ever attempts to get beyond it. (I think New York politicians have internalized all of these deadly notions, but this one is the most pervasive and most damaging.)

And it is a tough one. The culture of Albany wants to keep Upstate dependent, because dependency is easy; and so it’s foolish for Upstate to either blindly deny or patiently resign itself to this state of affairs. But someday Wall Street money is going to be
insufficient to support the entire state (and there may not be the will to do it), especially during a protracted economic downturn. Upstate should seek increased economic independence from Wall Street, before Wall Street seeks economic independence from it. And I think it is important to use “Wall Street” and not “NYC” or “Downstate” as part of any new responses to this old conversational roadblock. Which opens up new vistas on just what this region’s situation really is (since Wall Street is just about the only place more corrupt than Albany right now). Let’s be specific: what exactly is driving this wealth engine that Upstate is currently so reliant on? How healthy is that wealth engine, really, and how much of that wealth is real? That’s what has to be learned — and that has to be part of the new response to this old conversational roadblock.

Conversation Killer #2: “My Upstate city will be great again one day…At least we’re not [their] Upstate city/town/village.”
Heard: From bloggers or forum commenters who think someone from the other city isn’t reading; or said or implied in speeches by public figures at ribbon-cuttings or community roundtables.
Hostile response: “Oh yeah? Well, we have tastier wings and cooler architecture and hipper students and a better sports team!”
Fear response: “C’mon, can’t we all get along?”

For me, the correct response is some form of “You ought to be ashamed of yourself.” (Addressing the speaker directly, not the city or locality they represent.) This sort of talk can and should be politely (but forthrightly) challenged when it occurs on a blog; but it is not to be tolerated from public officials in any way, shape or form. This sort of snarking was cute back about 180 years ago when Upstate cities needed to outbrag each other in order to attract the interest of the canal building companies and typewriter manufacturers; but in my opinion it has no place in the current century, where the city-to-city differences in the degree of civic flailing are almost microscopic. Any local politician who openly says anything like this ought to be smacked down publicly. And media outlets should not be allowed to get away with it either.

Conversation Killer #3: “Upstate’s weather sucks, and no smart person would endure it.”
Heard: In the same circumstances as Conversation Killer #1; or, from former Upstaters now living in warmer climes who for some reason still like to hang around Upstate local blogs and comment boards.
Hostile response: “Oh yeah? Enjoy your hurricanes, floods and brush fires. If you hate snow, you’re a wuss.”
Fear response: “Shh. The snow isn’t so bad – and our summers are so wonderful.”

This conversation-killer relies on raw emotion more than the other ones do (loving or hating weather, gaining power or not having power over conditions we can’t control). Here is a situation where I think some basic facts are a more appropriate response. Like the fact that although Upstate weather can reach extremes, the annual pattern is usually stable and predictable. Four seasons, no catastrophic surprises. Municipalities are prepared, or at least concerned, about annual costs of coping with the weather pattern. And in a time of uncertainty over climate change, it’s likely that Upstate’s climate change will not be as dramatic as in some other areas. The correct response is to point out the stability and predictability of Upstate weather, taking the long view. And if you have a receptive audience, try pointing out the fact that humans have lived powerful and productive lives in Upstate New York since at least the last Ice Age. If you really want to freak them out, point out that the history of civilizations in some drier and warmer regions of North America have involved mysterious and possibly climate-related disappearances (ie, Anasazi, Chaco culture…) “We’ll be OK. Thanks for your concern.”

Are there any Upstate conversation-killers you have noticed and would add to this list? How do you think they should be responded to?

I won’t be available for the next couple days, but I would be interested to hear your thoughts and reactions.

6 thoughts on “3 Upstate conversation-killers, and how to get past them

  1. Robinia

    My dear, you are brilliant. That is some superb work, right there.

    I always respond to the weather issue with the goods on the importance of water access in the coming century (harkening back to the importance of water access in all previous centuries, save the last half of the twentieth). Then I kick into gear about the usefulness of “library weather” which is defined as days that you would not do research or attend rather dry lectures if you could go swimming outside. Edifying.

    As far as #1, I always respond to that with an idiosyncratic, personal response: “Yeah, I’ve had a lot of success promoting community economic development initiatives with the help and support of the Appalachian Regional Commission, it’s a great funding source, would you like me to help you learn how to apply?” Only works for Southern Tier and Catskill Counties, but it is a showstopper third way in those places.

  2. Phil


    #1 Evil government overlords are taxing us poor hardworking wretches to death and killing any hope for businesses to locate in N.Y.

    #2 Anti-taxers are just greedy people who don’t want to pay their fair share.

    Taxes are public investments in things that benefit us all and none of us can do alone: education, public infrastructure, public safety, public health etc. Howewver, like most things, the devil is in the details. Our society has become so complex that its hard to monitor exactly where the money went, what was done and whom to hold accountable. However, that’s exactly what we need to do–it’s not a simple solution, it’s a difficult and time comsuming one.

  3. Mike

    We have to embrace our weather and stop apologizing for it. Do you ever hear people in Colorado complain about their winter weather? When people attack us about our weather, point out that winter is beautiful and allows for alot of fun things to happen: skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and outdoor ice skating. Plus, our weather is not markedly different than Boston, Toronto, Chicago, or Minneapolis/St.Paul. All of these are cold weather burghs that are growing. The weather isn’t an impediment to our growth, it is just an excuse. I think the larger impediment is the lack of a job creating entrepreneurial culture.

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  5. aaron

    I’m a transplanted Buffalonian living in New York right now. I love Buffalo, and tell people all the time about who much I enjoy upstate and how’ it’s really not the backwater midwest that a lot of New Yorkers think it is.

    But I’m most curious about convseration breaker #1. Because I’d like to believe it’s not true- and although I agree with the idea that it would be ideal for Upstate to remove itself from the potentially unhealthy and detrimental wall street money- but I don’t know how you suggest we break out of this road block. Reconsidering what makes a healthy economic relationship or a state is interesting, but doesn’t get to the crux of the issue which is maintaining investment without over-taxation. and although I support the idea of a separate North-New-York in principle, I don’t see a readily available solution.

    Either way though, I like your blog and will be keeping an eye on it-

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