|Ford Motor Company assembly line, 1913. Source: Wikipedia Commons|
Last week, the Urbanophile picked up on a discussion I started about a month ago regarding linkages and connections between the East and West coasts. His followup piece, which notes (as I also do) that Midwestern cities beyond Chicago and Detroit never really had strong connections with the East Coast, sparked quite a bit of discussion in his comments section. However, I found much of the discussion misguided.
The debate seemed to break down among commenter who lost track of what exactly were the essential connections that Midwestern cities lacked, or that East and West coast cities maintained. All sorts of connections were debated – initial settlement connections; migration connections; flight connections; social media connections; even mob connections.
Honestly, I meant none of those. The connections cited above give good indications for how a city became established, how it grew, and how it relates to the rest of the globe. But what I was talking about was the financial/corporate connections led by financiers and banks that provided startup capital and enabled the first real growth of the cities. The first venture capitalists, if you will.
I still maintain that San Francisco and Los Angeles in particular, and other West Coast cities subsequently, nurtured financial connections that enabled all other connections to happen. San Francisco and LA both benefitted from East Coast financial investment that led to their buildup, and never relinquished the relationships. In fact, they nurtured them. And, other Western cities (Portland, Seattle, Las Vegas, and to a lesser extent San Diego and Phoenix) learned from the SF and LA examples by developing their own Eastern networks to their advantage.
Contrast that with the example of Midwestern cities. More than 100 years ago, Eastern financiers were putting up the capital to invest in large-scale manufacturing. Factories were built; rail lines were constructed; supply lines were established; all largely with Eastern money. After that, it appears Midwestern business and political leaders collectively said, “thanks, we’ll take it from here,” effectively telling the Easterners that they were no longer needed. The impact was hurtful to the Midwest – whatever ties the Midwest had became looser, and Eastern financiers began looking elsewhere to funnel their money. And the West Coast won out.
One distinction I want to make. I’m broadly referring to the Midwest as a homogeneous area, but I’m really referring to the large and medium-sized population centers scattered throughout the region. I’m talking Milwaukee, Cleveland, Toledo, Des Moines, St. Louis, as well as Columbus, Indianapolis, Grand Rapids and the Quad Cities, to name-check a few. I’m excluding Chicago from this discussion, for two reasons – 1) unlike the others, it did maintain its Eastern finance connections, and 2) because of that, it developed its own financial infrastructure and played the financier role throughout much of the Midwest.
At any rate, I see this as a case of the Midwestern cultural desire for autonomy and self-sufficiency working against the region’s economic interests in the long run.