Watching the political struggle over bail reform in New York from the ramparts of suburban NJ, I often think about the way that debate, and other debates over governance, are perceived in the rural areas and towns of the state where I grew up. With a population of about 10,000, the town of Fredonia lies near the shores of Lake Erie in western New York, about 45 miles southwest of Buffalo. It sits in Chautauqua County and is part of New York State’s 57th Senate District.
If one took the entire population of Chautauqua County, Cattaraugus County, Allegany County, and half of Livingston County (ie, the NYS 57th Senate District spread out over 4000+ square miles) and somehow persuaded all those people to live within the borders of Fredonia (about 5 square miles), there is no doubt the town would have to change its laws and governance practices dramatically. Issues like zoning, building codes, and traffic laws would become much more challenging, while other concerns like attracting investment, building out optical fiber networks, and improving public transportation would become easier.
In the other corner of the state, the combined land area of the Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick neighborhoods in Brooklyn is also a tad over 5 square miles, yet contains a population about the same as the entire 57th District (278,000). It is no surprise that during the pandemic the kinds of restrictions imposed in New York City did not always sit well with the residents of rural NY, and with such a difference in physical density, cultural differences aren’t needed to explain why.
Naturally, this upstate-downstate dynamic gets played out in the state government every year on a wide variety of issues. Officials from densely populated areas will often support policies that are acceptable to their constituents without appreciating, or really having any idea, how such laws may adversely affect NY residents on the other side of the state. This problem is particularly acute in New York where its geography and demographics are especially disparate compared to other more homogenous states.
Fortunately, town ordinances can go a long way towards creating laws that fit the needs of their local populations. However, key areas of the law remain the province of the state’s lawmakers and apply uniformly across the state whether they fit local conditions or not. Rural upstate residents and their representatives are right to push back against inappropriate laws and policies intended to serve downstate urban residents, but the reverse is also true, and upstate notions about how to approach such issues as housing, education, and the justice system should not be unduly imposed on downstate inhabitants who lack easy access to resources such as affordable housing, open enrollment schools, and safe streets.
The author was a long-time resident of Dutchess County, Chautauqua County, and New York County.