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State of New York State History

Demographics and Local History


Local historical societies and museums, like local schools, local libraries, and, indeed, local communities, depend on there being a sufficient population to survive and thrive. Obviously that is true but what is the situation today?

The front-page above-the-fold headline in my paper this Easter Sunday is “Estimates Show Population Loss in NY.” The article amusingly begins:

More state residents are saying “I Leave NY.”

The reporters have transformed the very popular and widely known “I Love NY” of tourism fame into an expression of what is really going on: people are voting with their feet to leave the state .

Population losses, which have previously been concentrated in the upstate, are now spreading to the five boroughs, Long Island and the Lower Hudson Valley.

New York is not the only state to experience losses in population.

The demographic decline can be more fine-tuned.

Over all 80 per cent of American counties encompassing 149 million people experienced a decline in the number of residents ages 25 to 54 between 2007 and 2017 (Neil Irwin, “As New Yorkers Retire, Fewer Are Available to Take Their Place,” NYT 4/4/19).

The article reports that many parts of the country are experiencing “Japanese caliber demographic decline.” Between 2010 and 2017, 42 upstate New York counties (out of 53 depending on how “upstate” is defined), experienced population decline.

Typically, the results of the loss of people is considered in political terms. For example, New York will lose at least one and more probably two Congressional seats with the 2020 census. In New England, Rhode Island will lose one. By contrast, Texas will gain three and Florida, two. The Texan total will more than double the New England total while Florida, thanks in part to transplanted New Yorkers, will continue to surpass the former political powerhouse New York by an increasing margin. New England’s 12 Senators will help to maintain the region’s collective political power since Texas will still only have two.

But the reapportionment is not limited to between states, it will occur within states as well. Just as there is an ongoing shift of electoral votes to other states while the total remains the same, so too there will be a shift within states as rural counties are hollowed out. Using myself as an example, I currently live in the 37th Senate electoral district, the Westchester suburb of New York. District #1 is in Suffolk at the eastern most portion of the state and District #63 is in the Buffalo region in the west.  It is reasonable to expect that thanks to the growing population of the city, that the redistricting will mean more of the 63 Senate seats will be concentrated in the greater New York City region and fewer will be in the more rural upstate regions. Maybe I will end up in district 39 or 41. Similarly in the Assembly.

Besides political considerations, the population drops have economic implications. With the decline in birth rates and the departure of young people for colleges and jobs never to return except on holidays, the labor force is affected. As the populations ages, the need to care increases. If you are in a rural county, how far do you have to travel to get the medical care you need? All the way to Florida as it turns out!

These changes have implications for local history. How old is the membership of your non-profit organization? How many members do you have in that 25-54 age group cited above? Remember when you were in your forties and were the young person in your organization? Remember when you were in your fifties and still were the young person in your organization? How about in your sixties or seventies? The typical local and therefore small historical society depends on volunteers; the population source pool for those younger groups is shrinking…and they were not joining in the first place.

For local history, these trends present problems, all bad. First, in many local communities there are people who are descendants of the founders of the community. They bring with them a wealth of knowledge and love for the community, a knowledge and love that cannot easily be replaced if at all. For example, I live in the town of Rye, over 350 years old, and the village of Port Chester which just celebrated its sesquicentennial. To the best of my knowledge there is no one in the town with ancestry dating back to the 1600s living here. In the village, there is a funeral home that advertises its 1867 origin, one year before the village was created within the town. Right now we are trying to revive the dormant historical society including with the assistance of people younger than 70 like one law school student! Naturally we are all in this for the money! ☺

One could extend this analysis even further. As we begin to prepare for the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, how many sons and daughters of the American Revolution are there in your community? One could continue this series of questions through more and more recent times including to where we you when the Towers fell. That question replaces the older question of where were you when Kennedy was shot. The point is that historical memory is being lost. It is being lost in rural communities experiencing population decline and loss of political power. The growing or more dominant cities have less and less connection to the local and state history. That means less and less funding, not that there is a lot of funding at present.

Consider the situation in New York. So much of the state history involves upstate areas. The French and Indian War, the War of 1812, the Erie Canal, the Underground Railroad, and the Seneca Falls Convention were all upstate. The one upstate movement that has generated the most Manhattan interest has been Hudson River Art. The Thomas Cole and Frederic Church history organizations based upstate have many members located more than 100 miles away because of the art connection starting with Jacqueline Kennedy. By contrast, the historical links by the newcomers to the city itself do not stretch back very far.

I regret that there is no good news in this blog. It is not as if the history community has it easy at present in the first place. The trends are not positive. Still we endure and persist and struggle because we do love what we are doing. But we also are part of a larger world and there is nothing to gain by being in denial. Perhaps when global warming forces all those Floridians to move north the population trends will shift. In the meantime, let’s not overlook all those second homeowners from the city who may want to become involved in their new community.

9 thoughts on “Demographics and Local History

  1. If population is decreasing, I am curious why I see so many new housing developments being built almost everywhere in New York State. New development is constantly threatening the viewshed from Church’s Olana. New housing developments are spreading across open fields and replacing forests. They have an impact on open space, beautiful landscapes, and especially on archaeological sites and historic structures which are often destroyed. Condos and apartment complexes also are being constructed, of course, but I suppose they are for the aging Baby Boomers. Who are the people buying all these new houses?

  2. Yes, it becomes clear once you look at the congressional seats held by NY. I recall the powerhouse days of the 45 or so congressmen in DC fro NYS. Now down to the high 20’s and falling. The state govt’s response appears to be simple: raise taxes to make up for the loss, knowing fully well that will only drive MORE who earn or have decent estates to leave for more tax friendly locations. You nailed it: FL. As a former IBMr, I would simply look at the states my retired friends were moving to: most to FL, but some to TX and, believe it or not. TN — just far enough over the VA border to escape taxes ! I also recall the year that then Gov Pataki went after IBM’rs retired in FL to force NYS income tax out of them, saying: “you earned those pensions while working in NYS, so pay up !!” It went to court – it failed ! Now Gov Cuomo is lusting after all the NYS Pension and retirement money being send to former NYS employees now retired and living elsewhere. NYS money that can’t be touched. So – raise taxes even higher. Yup – it didn’t work before so let’s do it again ? Great policy, that even Einstein had something to say about …

  3. I am one of those few you want in a local historical society. But I do not belong to any. My family dates back to the mid 1600’s in Westchester. As a matter of fact my 10th generation grandfather built Ann Hutchinson’s house. So I really do have the history in the county and New York State. But I have been soured by the politics and attitudes in a number of societies so I will no longer even try to join any of them. I wish it was different. It would be nice to belong to one or more as there is most likely information to share on both sides. As you pointed out there are no young people joining any type of historical society, as I am a director of a railroad society and there is no one below the age of 45 there. We just cannot seem to bring them in, we don’t even see them come into the building. Interest is just gone.

    1. Sometimes I like to think of the history community as one big family but as we know with families not everyone gets along. I wish I had an answer or answers for the problem on how to spark interest in the young. It’s amazing how much interest there can be for Games of Thrones which never occurred and how little interest there is in what actually happened.

  4. Very thought provoking article, Peter.

    Timothy S. Good
    Superintendent, Lincoln Home National Historic Site
    Interim Superintendent, Sainte Genevieve National Historical Park
    National Park Service

  5. This is a great article, telling it like it is; also, the unvarnished comments are so “right on”! Everyone who is interested in local history — no matter what state they’re in — should read it. I was born and grew up in Westchester Co.; went to Vassar College in Po’keepsie and follow to some extent from a distance, historical activity in Dutchess Co. Conducting genealogical research has uncovered ancestors leaving CT and RI in the late 1700s and settling in Ontario/Yates Cos. and founding towns in Chautauqua Co. But most of my direct ancestors continued west after a spell in NY. Since 1968 we’ve lived in SC, OH, CA, HI, MA, NJ, some courtesy of Uncle Sam, others job/family related.

    You mention the DAR which I am a member of. I enthusiastically recommend this organization to local historians. DAR is willing, with limited means ($) to do things like mark graves and other landmarks, bringing attention to the smaller sites that might otherwise be overlooked. They also attend to the teaching of American history in the schools and conduct many other good works for young people, American Indians, new citizen naturalization and a lot more.

    Best of all for New York State is that former DAR NY State Regent Denise Doring Van Buren is about to be installed as President General for the next three years of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution this June at the organization’s Continental Congress (annual meeting) in Washington DC. DAR is currently working with other groups to celebrate the upcoming 250th Anniversary of the American Revolution. Local groups should find their way to connecting with this important commemoration. Mrs. Van Buren just visited us this past weekend in Tennessee at our state DAR’s annual conference. She will be enormously effective in getting the word out about encouraging and enhancing our historic assets. Politicians of whatever stripe need to face reality and stay within their realizeable and realistic budgets! As illustrated in the article above, people are voting with their feet and are not being replaced.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. You are right about the 250th Anniversary providing an opportunity to connect to the birth of the country…especially for those of us who live in areas where the fighting occurred. The NYS state historian has begun to organize that effort. Certainly the DAR should be included in that effort.

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