Op-ed column: Mohawk Valley defies easy definition

I’ve spent 33 years searching for the Mohawk Valley.

That might sound a little ridiculous since

I’ve spent 33 years searching for the Mohawk Valley.

That might sound a little ridiculous since I’ve lived in the heart of it during that entire time. However, I have discovered that the Mohawk Valley as a region is both difficult to define and in danger of disappearing.

I drive my wife to SUNYIT in Marcy, near Utica, two nights a week. I’ve noticed that in the Utica area, the term Mohawk Valley is used primarily to refer to Oneida and Herkimer counties. For example, Mohawk Valley Community College and the Mohawk Valley Chamber of Commerce are located in Utica, and a business newspaper with the words Mohawk Valley in its title contains virtually no news about businesses outside of Oneida County.

On the other hand, I have had a person argue with me that Clifton Park in Saratoga County is not in the Mohawk Valley, even though the Mohawk River delineates the southern boundary of the town.

Political geography

The Mohawk Valley is not easy to define. The Mohawk Valley Heritage Commission defines it in terms of political geography. The valley, according to the commission, includes the Oneida Indian Nation and the following eight counties: Albany, Fulton, Herkimer, Montgomery, Oneida, Saratoga, Schenectady and Schoharie. As a working definition, it is a good place to start.

In his 1948 book “The Mohawk,” Codman Hislop defines the valley in terms of physical geography. The Mohawk Valley, according to this definition is the area covering the Mohawk River watershed. This area encompasses most of Schenectady, Schoharie, Herkimer and Montgomery counties, about half of Fulton and Oneida counties, and a tiny portion of Albany, Saratoga, Otsego, Hamilton and Lewis counties.

Then there is the ever-reliable Wikipedia, which defines the Mohawk Valley as “. . .a suburban and rural area surrounding the industrialized cities of Utica and Rome, along with other smaller commercial centers.” So much for Schenectady and Amsterdam.

In a November 2010 report, “An Economic Snapshot of the Mohawk Valley,” state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli defined the valley as “the metropolitan area surrounding Utica and Rome, plus Fulton and Montgomery County.”

More confusion

Adding to the confusion is that the lower Mohawk is part of the Capital Region and is more often referred to as the Capital Region than the lower Mohawk Valley. There was a move a few years ago in the Utica area to stop using the term Mohawk Valley altogether, although it was not successful. Even so, the upper valley is often called the Utica-Rome metro area.

Complicating things even more is the new man-made Tech Valley, which, according to www.techvalley.org, is a 19-county area of eastern New York state, stretching from just north of New York City to just south of Montreal that includes part of the Mohawk Valley.

It’s not difficult to see why some people are confused as to whether or not they live in the Mohawk Valley.

The only part of the valley that does not suffer from an identity crisis is the middle, stretching from just west of Scotia to around St. Johnsville. But that may change as parts of the middle Mohawk look to Tech Valley, especially the Luther Forest project, to boost their economy.

I don’t think we can define the Mohawk Valley with any precision. In fact, there is a sense in which the valley is defined in each person’s mind. Your geographical orientation influences whether or not you live in the valley. So the man from Clifton Park who says he lives in the Capital Region, not the Mohawk Valley, is not entirely wrong. Similarly, some people in southern Fulton County might say they live in the Adirondacks, not the Mohawk Valley.

Important assets

However, it would be unfortunate if the Mohawk Valley, from Cohoes and Waterford to Utica, completely lost its identity as a region. As I have argued in the past, it has at least two important things to offer — its history and beauty — that careless commercialization has damaged.

Fortunately, the Mohawk Valley Heritage Commission is helping to keep the identity of the valley intact. Also, many communities in the valley have discovered or rediscovered what tied the region together in the first place — the Mohawk River. No longer an open sewer for human and industrial waste, the river — the original highway through the valley — is once again being seen as a valuable asset.

The cities and villages in the valley that tastefully develop their waterfronts, taking into consideration both the needs of their residents and the needs of those who use the river, while maintaining the valley’s history and beauty in the process, will see economic benefits — benefits that may last longer than those they receive from their connection to Tech Valley or to a metro area like Utica or Albany.

Just exactly how the waterfront should be developed, I will save for another column. Suffice it to say that those communities that have already carefully developed their waterfronts have experienced a positive result. They have also helped strengthen the ties that bind all the communities on or near the river into a single regional unit — the Mohawk Valley.

Daniel T. Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Gazette Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

Leave a Reply