Throughout my life I’ve been about as big an advocate for Rust Belt cities as there is. I grew up in Detroit, have lived for years in the Chicago area, and I’ve become intimately familiar with other cities throughout the Rust Belt/Midwest. However, one of the issues that has perplexed me for years is the general lack of support these cities receive from within their own region, the Midwest. Unlike many East Coast cities, which are acknowledged to be the economic generators for their region and have state governments that treat them as such, Rust Belt cities seem to operate in spite of such support, and languish as a result. Why would this be the case?
I believe that the Midwest, a poorly defined and little understood region of the nation, has suffered because different groups, with different cultural ideals, have been in conflict since the region was settled 200 years ago. The Midwest is the one region in the nation where New England Puritans, Mid-Atlantic Quakers and Appalachian backcountry people came together in a combustible mix, with varying views on development. This conflict is best understood by looking at the Midwest as being comprised of five subregions: the North Woods, the Lower Lakes (or Rust Belt), the Heartland, the Midland Valley and the Plains.
In the very early days of this blog I took on this topic without any follow up. In the upcoming weeks I’m going to go roll out a Five Midwests series. I will go into more detail about the Midwest’s subregions, how they developed, what makes them distinct and how they interact with one another. Hopefully, when we’re done you’ll understand why the Twin Cities is different from St. Louis, or why Cleveland is different from Indianapolis, or even why Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Louisville are included here. I think this historical perspective can help us to understand the limitations and challenges that the Midwest’s major cities are confronted with, and could provide some ideas for possible solutions. I’d encourage readers to look at the earlier work (linked to in this paragraph) that will serve as a foundation for what’s to come.
There are three books I’ve read over the years that have brought me to this point. All three books allude to the crossroads nature of the region we call the Midwest, and how its initial settlement impacted future development. The first, Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer, was published more than 25 years ago, with a thesis that four distinct English cultures, with different regional speech patterns, social structures, religious beliefs and folkways were responsible for the early development of America. Puritan artisans from East Anglia settled in New England; royalist cavaliers from southwest England settled in Virginia. Egalitarian Quakers from the North Midlands settled in the Delaware River Valley, and backcountry Scots-Irish moved to similar lands in Appalachia. Each group carried its traditions into their new lands and laid the foundations for a new distinctly American culture.
The second book is American Nations by Colin Woodard, which explores the eleven rival regional subcultures that make up America. Woodard argues that the subcultures have always been in conflict in our country, and are constantly vying for dominance. To him, the central conflict is between Yankeedom and its northern allies of New Netherlands and the Left Coast, and the Deep South and its allied subculture of Greater Appalachia. If you’re confused, I encourage you to check it out.
The last book is Caught in the Middle by Richard C. Longworth. In this book Longworth examines the Midwest’s difficulty in transitioning to our current global society and economy, and calls out a region that became too accustomed to long-term manufacturing job security, an indifference to education and skill development, and a general aversion to risk that inhibits entrepreneurship. Longworth too notes that the Midwest’s cities are well-positioned to excel in the global age, like Chicago, but poor regional cooperation prevents it from happening.
Let’s get to know the nuances of “flyover country”, and learn the lessons it has to offer.