New England as the Proto-Midwest

New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, MA.  You can find much in the Midwest that looks just like this.  Source:
A post by Aaron Renn at his Urbanophile blog sparked some interesting discussion a few days ago.  In his post, Aaron remarked that, after moving from the Midwest to New England, he found a number of similarities between the two regions and there was a fairly wide gulf between New England’s perception and reality:

Imagine my surprise when I moved there and discovered that it’s exactly like the Midwest in a surprising number of ways. Much of New England is a post-industrial landscape not that dissimilar to the classic Rust Belt, though occasionally with most attractive mill architecture and such. Its village centers have seen better days and even the town centers of places with big reputations are usually nowhere near the league of say Chicago’s nicer suburbs. Though voting Democratic, New Englanders largely display the same sorts of provincial attitudes ones finds in the Midwest. Many places are characterized mostly by lifers and people who don’t get out much. It has an aging population notably lacking in diversity.

I actually found Rhode Island surprisingly similar to where I grew up in Southern Indiana near Louisville. The state’s topography (oceanfront aside) is much like Southern Indiana – rolling hills and trees. Providence is like Louisville, with a smallish super-creative and talented core surrounded by a sea of blue collar communities. The two cities even seem to brag about many of the same things, like top quality restaurants. My brother made a nearly identical observation when he came to visit, exclaiming of West Warwick, “This is just like New Albany!” And he was right.

Aaron’s piece kicked off a discussion about what’s good and bad in each region, and what each could learn from the other.  It seems most commenters agreed on the following:

  • New England and the Midwest share more cultural attributes than perhaps either is willing to recognize.  Much of the Midwest, particularly the most-heavily populated Great Lakes subregion stretching from northern Ohio, southern Michigan, northern Indiana and Illinois, and into Wisconsin, was settled by New Englanders. 
  • Boston is universally recognized and accepted (by the rest of the region) as the capital of New England, but Chicago, the Midwest’s largest city, does not enjoy the same kind of universal acceptance.
  • The larger population and physical vastness of the Midwest makes cultural cohesion more difficult there than in New England.  The six states of New England cover 72,000 square miles and hold 14 million people; the twelve states of the Midwest is more than ten times larger at 753,000 square miles, and has nearly 70 million people.  That doesn’t include the edges of other regions that are similar to the Midwest, like western New York and Pennsylvania, portions of West Virginia, northern Kentucky, and eastern parts of Montana, Wyoming and Colorado.
  • The economic collapse and population loss of cities like Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis and others is a drag on the national perception of the Midwest.  Much of the rest of the country is populated by people who grew up in those cities but fled for better opportunities.
  • Midwestern self-effacement is a cultural barrier that prevents the region from touting its merits.  By contrast, New Englanders — or the New York and Boston visitors who frequent the region — speak fondly of the idyllic small towns with historic village centers and fall colors.
I’ve spent very little time in New England, and don’t even know that the time I spent there counts as time in the heart of the region.  I visited New Haven and Hartford, CT for a few days more than 20 years ago, and honestly felt as if I was still in an extension of the New York metro area.  I’d guess that getting out of Connecticut and into the rest of the region would provide a better view.  My brother-in-law just moved to New Hampshire.  Maybe I’ll visit soon.

I think that being a smaller and more cohesive region has allowed New England to more easily transform its economy when trends shift, but more importantly, shape its narrative and national perception more effectively. Its smaller size and proximity to Boston and NY have allowed it to be more adaptable in perception, if not reality.

In many ways I see New England as a proto-Midwest, culturally, socially and economically — it tried out the things that would later be tried again in the Midwest at a much larger scale. Whereas New England was initially settled as a pastoral farming region 400 years ago, settlers realized large-scale ag was a better fit for Midwestern lands. Whereas New England started manufacturing in America, through shipbuilding and textiles, captains of industry realized they could scale up in the Midwest. In both cases the Midwest emulated what New England started, peaked higher and collapsed harder.
Perhaps New England has remade itself as a region of intellectual communes and second homes fueled by New York and Boston money. I think this will also be the case with the Midwest’s large metros, college towns, and their respective relationship with Chicago. At some point the economic strength and vitality of towns like Ann Arbor, Bloomington, Iowa City and Champaign/Urbana will become well-known nationally and become bigger talent attractors. Similarly, metros like Milwaukee, Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo have the size that Aaron refers to that allows them to compete globally (1 million or more). I also see them becoming talent attractors once again. They also have water resources that are lacking on the coasts. Lastly, metros like Pittsburgh, Columbus, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis and Kansas City also have the requisite global competition size, but while they lack the water resources of the other metros, they do have greater water access and security than most metros on either coast.  They also have the institutions and physical infrastructure that can make them very appealing.
As far as Chicago goes, it has spent so much effort in trying to get to full-fledged global city level, with incomplete results. As I’ve seen here on this blog and in other places, if Chicago focused its efforts as the capital of the Midwest, as the centerpiece of a region with nearly 70 million people, its profile could improve nationally and globally.  That does, however, still present an uphill challenge for Chicago.  There is a “Chicago envy” that exists throughout much of the Midwest.  Chicago is a very strong magnet that attracts many of the best and brightest from throughout the Midwest.  Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa in particular send many Big Ten grads to the Chicago area, causing (misguided) lamentations from state leaders.  Trying to stop the “brain drain” is a fool’s errand.  If the Midwest viewed Chicago not as a magnet that pulls and keeps your young and educated, but as a pump that draws in, polishes and redistributes, the entire region benefits.
Lastly, another point made during the discussion was that the Midwest lacks a distinct cultural and artistic aesthetic.  Where, they ask, for example, is Midwestern literature?  Good point.  While I’d argue that Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting could be the singularly most recognizable piece of art that shouts “Midwest”:

there is no Midwestern art and cultural aesthetic like what exists for the South and West.
Why?  One reason might be that the arts/cultural heritage of the South or West, or even New England, didn’t really come to prominence until each region had suffered their own sense of loss — the early manufacturing in New England, the disappearance of the frontier in the West as settlement took hold, or the transformation of the South following the Civil War. Maybe deindustrialization, “ruin porn” and the like suggests that a distinctly Midwestern artistic/cultural heritage is about to form.
As a native Midwesterner I would never count the Midwest out.  In fact, I’m encouraged.  New England has continually remade itself to remain economically strong and relevant.  In essence I could see the Midwest doing once again what it’s done before — do what’s worked for New England but at a larger scale.

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