New York vs. New York
"The feeling between this city and the hayseeds…is every bit as bitter as the feelings between the North and South before the War…Why, I know a lot of men in my district who would like nothin' better than to go out gunnin' for hayseeds." — George Washington Plunkitt, Tammany Hall, 1905
Plunkitt lived in the days before garbage scows, Tawana Brawley, Nelson Rockefeller, radioactive waste, and the decimation of local government. In the Upstate-Downstate marriage, Plunkitt's was the Era of Good Feelings.
Sectional enmity in New York used to be served with a wink and a smile. They were slickers, we were appleknockers; they were swells, we were yokels. Stanley Walker of the New York Herald Tribune could call Upstaters "earthbound clodhoppers, with inferiority complexes dating from a boyhood passed in shoveling out the barnyard," and no great offense was taken.
Upstaters knew their history back then; every schoolchild could recite the glories of his region. We gave birth to women's suffrage, the Liberty Party, Mormonism, spiritualism, Anti-Masonry, and the Oneida community. Mantics and kooks and visionaries—Jemima Wilkinson and the Fox Sisters and Frederick Douglass—took root in our soil. Shanty Irishmen built the Erie Canal; Gerritt Smith bought John Brown his guns.
At the great junctures in American history, Upstate had acted nobly, Downstate ignobly. Our patriots consecrated the Revolution with blood, while Tories and cowards sought haven in Manhattan. After the war, Downstate money interests rammed the new Constitution through, over the protests of the farmers and artisans who had shouldered the muskets. (The Rustics possessed a "zeal for liberty," shuddered Federalist Richard Morris.)
The marvelous idea of divorce—of the two New Yorks—was first advanced at our ratifying convention in 1788. Ten states had already assented to the Constitution, but New York, led by the "Rough Hewer," shoemakers' apprentice Abraham Yates, Jr., held out. Downstate Federalists resorted to threat: if New York did not ratify, its largest city would split off and join the Union anyway. To our everlasting regret, several Upstate delegates caved in, and we entered the United States as one.
By 1861, the City had turned disunionist. Unwilling to offend "our aggrieved brethren of the slave states," doughface Mayor Fernando Wood, a Breckenridge man, proposed to take New York City out of New York State—and the United States—and declare independence. No principle was involved, just good old filthy lucre: Wood wanted to preserve the Southern trade. Typically, New York City hoped to profit from war while avoiding the fighting.
Wood's trial balloon was punctured, and over the next century not even William Randolph Hearst could set it aloft. Upstate blocked Hearst from the governorship, as it did Ed Koch in 1982, after hizzoner imprudently told Playboy: "This rural America thing—I'm telling you, it's a joke." Behind the pastoral facade lurked a truly nightmarish reality, almost David Lynchian: "wasting time in a pickup truck when you have to drive 20 miles to buy a gingham dress or a Sears, Roebuck suit."
Not exactly Jackie Mason, but still, a pretty harmless jest. Rural York, alas, had lost its sense of humor. We rejected Koch for that agrarian knight, Mario Cuomo.
Governor Cuomo's speechwriters have since beaten the "family of New York" trope into tripe. How is an Elba onion farmer kin to Jackie Onassis or the Reverend Al Sharpton or Billy Joel? David Leavitt, Manhattan's golden boy of letters (and an NEA grantee, natch), looks beyond the Hudson and sees "a scrubbed, manicured neighborhood…The music is by Wayne Newton, the paintings are by Norman Rockwell, and sex takes place only between married men and women in beds at night."
The details are all wrong, of course, except maybe for Norman Rockwell and the bed, but that's to be expected of Leavitt, who knows less about the real America than I do about the nightlife of subsidized Bohemians and trust-fund trash. No matter. This is how Greenwich Village sees us, and this is why some sharp Upstate pol, maybe a demagogue and maybe not, will one day tap into the populist potential and try to set this house on fire. Our preamble to battle could come from William Jennings Bryan's Cross of Gold speech: "Our war is not a war of conquest. We are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families, and posterity. We have petitioned, and our petitions have been disregarded; we have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came. We beg no longer, we petition no more. We defy them."
The train of abuses and usurpations snakes into eternity. We are taxed to subsidize their squalid subway system, their welfare industry, and those artistic expressions deemed pleasing by culture czar Kitty Carlisle. (Perhaps Annie Sprinkle playing the home version of To Tell the Truth?) Rural and working-class folks are harassed by an array of gun laws, 55 m.p.h. paternalism, and extortionate regressive levies on everything from fishing to foodstuffs.
The vitality is gone up here; no ferment, no foment, no nothing. Or so it appeared to Governor Cuomo, who seriously overplayed his hand and is facing an incipient rural rebellion.
In 1989, the governor determined to locate a low-level nuclear waste dump in rural, money-poor Allegany or Cortland County. Most of New York's waste is generated in Westchester County and around the City, but, well, you know: mustn't rouse the righteous dander of Joseph Papp and E. L. Doctorow and Christie Brinkley. It'd be so much easier to steal farmland in our godforsaken region. The Times won't make a peep.
Imagine Cuomo's surprise when his likeness was hung in effigy across Western New York. Protesters—not shaggy college kids but natives, many with roots generations deep—have kept state inspectors off the threatened property. Raucous rallies recall Whiskey Rebels and Daniel Shays. Guitar slingers who'd take Hank Williams Jr. over Joan Baez any day sing rousing songs. Top of the pops: "Allegany County is full of nasty boys / Shotguns is their favorite toys."
The anti-nuke firestorm is whipping up a great new cloud of anti-urbanism. Most Upstaters, at least in my neck of the woods, have never even been to New York City. Nevertheless, as Norman Mailer has said, "the good farmers and small-town workers of New York State rather detest us." And why not? You send your murderers and howling Son of Sam lunatics to Attica, and now you want to bury your nuclear waste in our woodlands. Like a boorish suitor who has already been to the mountaintop, you don't even flatter us into submission. You just seize the land by eminent domain, all the while crowing about how Green thou art. (The upper-middle-class environmentalist groups, so exercised over plastic trash bags and snowmobiles, are shamefully silent on the rape of Allegany. Might they want plum appointments in the Cuomo administration of 1993?)
The anti-Cuomo, anti-NYC sentiment is diffuse and unchanneled. It has no public outlet. The parties, the chain papers, the TV and radio stations are owned by Manhattan corporations: the New York establishment really is one big happy family. Agrarian and small-town dissent embarrasses Upstate elites, who have been to college and met people from all over the world and learned never to trust their own judgment or those of undegreed, untraveled neighbors.
This past November, the Republicans ran for governor a Manhattan millionaire economist named Pierre Rinfret, chosen for his bulging purse. Rinfret yammered about the death penalty and the fool drug war, as though serial killers and white powder are what ails us. He called his Upstate campaign trips "a waste of cash." He squandered the rural vote with a remarkable proposal that counties bid for the privelege of not hosting waste dumps thus insuring that our poorest, most verdurous, least populated shires would become the Metropolis's latrine. Westchester would go scot-free, while Allegany would be forever despoiled. Despairing Yorkers cried that the Cuomo-Rinfret contest proved that the system no longer works, though I suspect it proved just the opposite: the system by which Cities and Money keep us in vassalage works all too well.
So what? some of my landmen say. Subjection is inevitable. David Harum, the cracker-barrel Yorker of a 19th-century regional novel, philosophized, "A reasonable amount of fleas is good for a dog—they keep 'im broodin' on bein' a dog."
The problem is, Upstate has become a miserable whipped cur. We haven't elected one of our own governors since 1920. (The cousin-marrier of Hyde Park doesn't count.) We last elected a senator in 1958. We last had a candidate for governor in 1954. Estonia has more influence in Moscow than we do in Albany. (At least they've let us keep our accents.)
As the republican ideal dims, We are becoming more like Them. Henry Clune's fine unknown novel Six O'Clock Casual (1960) describes an Upstate hamlet in which the prominent men gleefully loot their patrimony. A native daughter, returned from New York City, discovers nothing but sickness and cupidity in her hometown. At novel's end, she again flees to the city, which is at least frank in it corruption.
Mr. Clune will turn 101 in February, and for all his pessimism he remains in the village of Scottsville, just outside of Rochester. He tried New York City once or twice, but opted to cultivate a literary career in hardscrabble local ground. He explained: "I longed for Main Street and the friendly nod, the warm greeting, the buttonholing by this, that, and the other passersby. I wanted to be where I knew the folks… Rochester becomes, not the small center around which the world revolves, but almost the world itself."
Clune is sadly unlaureled, but he has lived a life richer than a thousand PEN benefits. We are a "culturally undernourished hinterland," according to Norman Mailer, and while Upstaters do exhibit a deplorable ignorance of their heritage, I'll gladly pit Edmund Wilson against Alfred Kazin, William Kennedy against Jimmy Breslin, John Gardner against Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates against any New Yorker miniaturist, and, in the historical novelist category, Walter Edmonds against Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
Face it: New York City has hit its cultural nadir. The magnet that once drew William Dean Howells now repels us with the subsidized juvenilia of Karen Finley. (And what does that say about the decline of their Midwest matrix?) Free spirits, Jack Kerouacs cruising jazz clubs, are long gone. The underground has a factitious, sham quality. New York City's two punk celebrities were typical: David Byrne was a RISDE brat and Joey Ramone has a rich psychiatrist mother. By contrast, Buffalo's best punk band, the Enemies, was led by a swimming-pool cleaner and a cabbie.
The dark-eyed poet of the 60's demimonde, Lou Reed, now finds Manhattan unlivable. "I've really got a lucky life," he sings, with "my writing, my motorcycle, and my wife." And his house in New Jersey. Rank and File, an incendiary cowpunk band out of Seattle by way of Austin, visited after-midnight NYC and didn't like it one bit:
Did you ever see a sheep in a porkpie hat?