|Scene from an outdoor car show in Flint, MI. Source: northwood.edu|
Let me first address the name I’ve given to this Midwest subregion, the Lower Lakes. I’ve decided to be more geographically descriptive than the more widely used and accepted name of Rust Belt. Why? Because everyone has their own notion of what “Rust Belt” is; there are as many definitions of “Rust Belt” as there are people seeking to define it. But there is one distinct culture, economy and society in the southern end of the Great Lakes.
The term “Rust Belt” has entered the general lexicon of America. Most people seems to know what it means — industrial; bleak; dreary; obsolete; cold. Those words could be used to describe nearly every city in the northeast quarter of the nation, and have been used to describe cities like Worcester and Springfield, MA, and Scranton and Allentown, PA. They too are “Rust Belt” in the sense that they have industrial legacies that they’ve worked hard to overcome. But in some ways I view them as proto-Rust Belt: they are tied a little more closely to the cities of the East Coast than the cities of the Great Lakes region.
Ther term “Rust Belt” is also applied to other cities that are reasonably close to the Lower Lakes but share little of its cultural and economic history. Cities like Columbus, Indianapolis, Louisville, Cincinnati and the Twin Cities are often brought into the Rust Belt discussion but owe their existences to very different factors.
The Lower Lakes subregion, to me, is the core of the Rust Belt. Its large cities include Buffalo; Cleveland; Pittsburgh; Milwaukee. Smaller cities include Gary; South Bend; Flint; Toledo; Akron; Youngstown. The recognized leader of them all is Chicago. Perhaps the one city that defines the region’s rise and fall best is Detroit.
That’s the region I know.
The Lower Lakes, as you can see above, stretches across the southern edges of lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron and Michigan, covering a nearly 600-mile swath from Rochester, NY to just north of Madison, WI. Its climate is more temperate and tolerable than the North Woods (I know, folks in warmer climates see very little difference, but trust me, it’s true), making the subregion more desirable for development. As a result, the Lower Lakes, by my estimate, has about 29 million residents, making it the most populous subregion of the Midwest. It’s the most urban, with Chicago (9.5 million), Detroit (4.3 million), Pittsburgh (2.3 million), Cleveland ( 2 million) and Milwaukee (1.6 million) all ranking in the top 40 of U.S. metro areas by population. Despite having more than 40 percent of the Midwest’s population, the Lower Lakes contains only two state capitals — Lansing (MI) and Madison (WI). As a result, other Midwest subregions have an outsize influence in state politics, and establishing a political agenda for Lower Lakes regions has always been an uphill battle.
Prior to European exploration of the area, the Lower Lakes was inhabited by members of the Sauk, Fox, Miami and Illinois tribes. They encountered French trappers in the early 1700s, and established fur trading relationships. The French were followed by the British, who sort of used the region as a foothold against the American colonists to the east until the War of 1812.
The subregion’s American growth, however, is the story of the Erie Canal — an Eastern venture to settle the area and exploit the riches of the vast interior. Although the canal itself was nearly obsolete by the time it opened in 1825, because of the advent of rail transportation, the idea of a hinterland serving the interest of the coast was well established.
Initial American settlement of the Lower Lakes was done by residents from the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions. Buffalo was founded by British loyalists after the Revolutionary War and developed by New Englanders. Cleveland was originally claimed by Connecticut as that state’s Western Reserve before Ohio became a state in 1803, and was also settled and developed by New Englanders. Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee each had greater and longer-lasting French influence, but New Englanders flocked there as well, following the opening of the canal.
By the mid-19th century East Coasters were soon followed by international migrants. Germans and Irish Catholics were among the first arrivals, followed by southern and eastern Europeans. This distinctive demographic mix made the Lower Lakes subregion very different from the rest of the Midwest.
Then there’s the accent. The Lower Lakes is characterized by the flat, nasal Inland Northern accent, made famous by the SNL “Superfans” or the Blues Brothers (“we’re ahn a mission from Gahd.”). Where the accent is strongest corresponds pretty closely with my Lower Lakes definition:
|Inland North Accent Map by rockrunnerthecard. Source: wikipedia.org|
How the accent ended up here? I have no idea. All I know is you don’t hear it north of Green Bay or south of Interstate 80 (I’d say the extension south to St. Louis is debatable).
There are a few points that I believe are crucial to understanding the Lower Lakes region, how it understands itself, and how it operates.
The Lower Lakes cities were junior partners in their early development, which was guided by Eastern interests. Eastern settlers established the cities and towns; Eastern money financed the early growth. Eastern entrepreneurs established the industrial and manufacturing legacy in the subregion. Easterners established the vision; subsequent residents have only tried to build on what’s already been estabhshed.
The Lower Lakes were built for production, not innovation. Cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee came into being as places where things were built and shipped, not places where the ideas behind them would be discussed. Production is part of their DNA. However, this puts them at a disadvantage in an economic era where innovation, creativity and talent are driving economic growth.
The early economic success of the Lower Lakes subregion created envy from other subregions that resonates today. By the 1870s the Lower Lakes, led by Chicago, began to pull away economically from the rest of the Midwest. The Midland Valley suffered most in comparison. Older and more established cities like Cincinnati, Louisville and St. Louis saw the river trade that sustained them disappear, as rail became dominant. Grain from the Plains and timber and iron ore from the North Woods flowed into Lower Lakes cities on rail, and flowed out as flour, furniture and steel.
It may be odd to say that events and circumstances from nearly 200 years ago can influence our opinions of places today, but they do.
Next in the series — the Heartland.