Recently, a fine report by USA Today Network writer Jeff Platsky detailed what daily life confirms — “The Graying of New York State,” sadly and especially in the 50 Upstate counties north of New York City.
Since 2010, Platsky wrote, 42 of those counties have fallen in population, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. This rises from a trifecta: In the last decade, millennials moved largely to The Apple; residents 55 stayed to age or die; while about 1 million other people left New York, more than any state.
The late Yogi Berra, the forever heart of the New York Yankees, once said, “It’s always dangerous to make predictions, especially about the future.” Not always. The Census Bureau projects the number of Americans 65 and over to double by 2050. At its current rate, writes Platsky, “Upstate New York’s older population will increase at a greater pace.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo feigns to be a bystander. In fact, he has been a pernicious force, abetting graying’s trend. His excuse that long, cold winters have driven Upstaters away is absurd — worse, dishonest. Statistically, Upstate winters are shorter and more temperate than 20, let alone 50, years ago. Instead, we are being taxed and spent to death.
NO STATE TOPS New York’s annual property tax and education tax, brutalizing a middle class crucial to its once leading every state in industry, shipping, agriculture, finance, manufacturing, and — true — tax relief! Cuomo’s regulations have sired high living costs that let other states narrow their yearly wage deficit. In addition, his wild leftism has encouraged some to leave, feeling like strangers in a foreign land.
Other reasons beyond the temporary occupant of his office explain why in 11 largely rural counties, more than one in five people are 65 or older; in Hamilton County; one in three; in Upstate overall, about one in five. These grounds involve a growing trend toward the superficial, where style trumps substance. Some of it is harmless. If the rest doesn’t worry us, then worry us it should.
Upstate has lost population because America has turned more nationalized. Television long ago ceased to mean only ABC, CBS, and NBC. Now cable TV includes a universe of offerings, girded by the internet, social media equally glittering. The result is to obscure, even squelch, local media, dimming the knowledgeable array of thought so vital to a community — diversity of belief already dimmed by the death of 500 daily U.S. papers in the last half-century.
Papers that remain, mostly but not exclusively liberal, increasingly find print’s effect in small towns and cities in a non-reading age frayed. Moreover, local TV news — still major players in a community — find it hard to compete with Chris Matthews of MSNBC or Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. Local goings-on seem tamer, their meaning dimmer, than the studio panache and celebrity élan of hosts and guests coming by air from Washington and New York.
CROSS NEW YORK, past one farm or through one small town to another, tracking the Thruway or into the Southern Tier, and you meet other institutions that built Upstate towns and small cities and that are now alarmingly at risk. For centuries, churches have molded decency and morality. Others include volunteer fire and police departments, the Knights of Columbus, the Grange, Masonic Lodge, Hadassah, American Red Cross, the Eastern Star, and other volunteer service groups. Government didn’t forge them. Americans did.
Upstate once teemed with small burgs that were self-contained, having a grocery store or more; car dealership or two; men and women’s clothier; appliance store; home furnishings; restaurants and churches; post office and filling stations; above all, kids. Now, a drive cross-state often finds downtown sliced to a liquor store, tanning salon and antique shop, the rest gone — because jobs went first, taking opportunity, without which Upstate can’t rival a big city’s thrill and a big market’s splash.
IN A 1945 ceremony in Britain’s ancient Guildhall, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was made a “Freeman of the City of London” for saving the Free World in World War II. Born in Texas and raised in Kansas, Ike gave a warm, moving, plain as the plains speech, mesmerizing the British, whom he had come to love. “I am not a native of this land. I come from the heart of America,” he said. “To those people I am proud to belong.”
To preserve liberty, Eisenhower said, “a Londoner will fight. So will a citizen of Abilene.” Ike knew that the qualities which sustain a region, like an individual, invoke substance, not style; traits not shallow as a spoon, but deep and good.
Our task is to make Upstate economically vibrant enough so that people stay and learn that for themselves.
(Curt Smith is the author of 17 books, including his most recent, “The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball and the White House.” He is a former speechwriter to President George H. W. Bush, an Associated Press “Best in New York State” radio commentator and senior lecturer of English at the University of Rochester. Email him at email@example.com.)