What’s Left: Collapsing State of Mind

If you want to capture the heart, spirit and soul of New York in four minutes, look no further than Jay-Z’s 2009 Grammy hit “Empire State of Mind.”

I grew up as a proud son of Homer, New York, a quiet New England village nestled among endless miles of rolling farmlands, open fields and the picturesque beauty of the Finger Lakes. I have been blessed to call the Empire State home for my entire life; it has provided me and my family with more than we could ever quantify. For most non-New Yorkers, Jay-Z’s lyrics bring forth images of New York City and whatever philosophical or emotional connections they might have with it. It’s a little bit different for me. I think about the “other” New York, the hidden New York, the New York concealed in the shadows of the Chrysler Building, my New York. 

My New York is the home of the dairy farmer who goes out to work every day of the year, in blistering heat or torrential downpour, to put food on the table for his family and his community. My New York is the townspeople and villagers who know and call each other by name while watching their children dash to decorate the local cemetery with flowers at the annual Memorial Day parade. My New York is the relationships with peers begun in my kindergarten class and which I have built and maintained ever since. And yes, all of these relationships disavow the social constructions of race, sexuality, religion, political affiliation and disability that are too often used by corporate elites to interpersonally divide us. This is the New York that I know and love, the New York that has instilled in me a deep and abiding love for the most universal of American values: hard work, fair play and common decency. Are we a concrete jungle? Perhaps not. But it is certainly something that fills me with enormous pride.

In the first act of William Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King Richard II, John of Gaunt laments the decline of England’s geopolitical standing in the world and mourns “this scepter’d isle, this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” in one of the most famous monologues in all of Elizabethean drama. Unfortunately, far too many Upstaters, including myself, cannot help but identify with Gaunt as we intuitively sense our home’s economic and social deterioration. Even prior to COVID-19, we have watched our friends and family struggle to pay bills, our kids fall behind in school and our small businesses disappear. At the same time, corporations such as Walmart are permitted to monopolize the local market and offer substandard products at low prices to working families. Factory workers in Utica and Cortland have seen their jobs shipped overseas and then feel a stinging sense of shame when applying for SNAP and unemployment insurance. Our older neighbors can no longer afford retirement in the communities in which they have spent most of their lives. The pandemic has only exacerbated all of this by a factor of ten. Our New York has paid the prices of rising rates of child abuse, adult opioid addiction and teenage suicide, the last of which has shattered my own high school very recently. That empire state-of-mind that Jay-Z raps about could hardly be said to describe New Yorkers when so many communities and lives have been sacrificed on the altars of corporate greed. That empire state-of-mind is collapsing.

The unsettling decline of New York State, and specifically Upstate New York, is indeed structural in nature, and one could also claim that structure is inexplicably intertwined with the spirit. When both the structure and the spirit are wounded, it is difficult in the immediate moment to know how long a true recovery will take, whether it will be measured in years or decades, or if it is even possible. Valid policy research has pointed us in the direction of structural solutions, perhaps in property tax overhauls, the creation of a single-payer health insurance system or new investments for drug treatment services. These are solutions involving a rearrangement of priorities, specifically that certain societal needs be treated as public rights, rather than as earned privileges. How will that intersect with a cultural mindset that for so long has known only the ethics of rugged individualism? Such a question is impossible to answer.

I believe that New York State, my home, has enormous potential. Throughout all our history, we have found ourselves at the very pinnacle of everything that our great nation promises. If we have the willingness to stand in solidarity together and accept only the slightest of transitions in cultural values, then there is nothing we will be unable to build for ourselves. May our Empire State heart continue to beat forever.