Monday, April 05, 2010

Rust Belt Podunk

Everywhere else is nowhere, Loserville. To employ a bit of phenomenology, home is sacred. Beyond the pale is profane. Outsiders are uncivil, cannibals. We spend a lot of energy trying to dispel these stereotypes. But they are stubborn because they are useful.

Getting to know one place is hard enough. That's the genius of regions (or nationalism). The abstraction allows us to relate to a place that otherwise would fall under terra incognita. Thus, we can all understand the following joke from The Onion:

INDIANAPOLIS—Members of the Indianapolis-based Butler University basketball team, which defeated top-seeded Syracuse on its way to the school's first-ever Final Four, wondered aloud Wednesday what more they had to accomplish to finally get the hell out of Indiana. "We've won 24 games in a row now, a longer streak than anyone else, and in recognition we get to travel where? To New York? To Los Angeles? No. Across town," Butler star Gordon Hayward said during a press conference. "How am I supposed to motivate and inspire my teammates? We've excelled at the game, and our reward is to be trapped in this armpit? My only consolation is that the three visiting teams get to see how lousy some schools have it." Hayward, an Indiana native, ended the press conference early and left without comment when told an Indiana Pacers scout would be attending the Bulldogs' game against Michigan State.

Devoid of context, the satire isn't funny. For folks intimate with Indianapolis, the words sting. The city gets a bum rap. The point being that most of us laugh because we share (roughly) the same geographic stereotype.

That matters because it affects migration. With this in mind, I want to discourage Richard Longworth:

If the Midwest is to act as a region, it must know what it is. It must define itself. It needs a unifying portrait, a communal myth. To paint this portrait, we look to our writers, especially our novelists.

I argue that the Midwest needs more detail. For example, consider pizza:

The pizzas have a thin crust, which some customers liken to a New York-style pizza. However, Blough, who grew up just outside of Pittsburgh, said her pizzas naturally remind her of the ones she had in her childhood. Each order takes about 15 minutes to make and bake, including the time to stretch the dough onto the pan.

Although she acknowledges that pizza places are a dime a dozen, Blough said her homemade dough, sauces, and soups, generous salads, a special blend of cheeses and jumbo-sized pepperoni rolls set her apart from the competition. She uses the same amount of dough in her 12-inch pizza to make a single stromboli, calzone or pepperoni roll.

I'm not here to insist that there is such a thing as Pittsburgh-style pizza. Instead, I'd note the pride in what is perceived to be a local tradition. A few years ago, I had no idea what made a pizza from St. Louis or Youngstown distinct. Like most people (despite being from Erie, a city with its own delicious spin on pizza), I delineate between Chicago and New York style. Now, I'm developing into a Rust Belt connoisseur.

I appreciate Longworth's perspective. Fighting over a shrinking economic pie is no way to turn things around. However, people need to see the geographic variance within the Midwest. To paint with such a broad brush threatens to reinforce the stereotypes crippling the region.

Regional thinking is an artifact of the British Empire and the genius of late 19th-century geographers (e.g. Mackinder). I internalized it as the Berkeley School. It's a powerful way to carve up the world ready-made for statecraft. The knowledge serves an industrial economy. A school kid can quickly ascertain the value of a place in the production chain.

Ironically, Richard Florida reproduces the same contradiction. Florida speaks of economies of agglomeration yet noodles with ideas about megaregions. The latter misses the point of a knowledge economy. The concept of region is vestigial. Geography still matters, but not in the classic sense of the discourse.

Globalization is not eroding the power of states so much as it is deconstructing nationalism. Nation is being decoupled from state. The local comes to the fore, again (early 19th-century thinking). Tribal identities are more important (i.e. hyperlocal). What is Mahoning Valley literature?


JRoth said...

Maybe you can help me; what's the deal with "Greek hot dogs" in Erie? I had one last summer, it was great (but not what I'd expected), but I've never heard of one, and there's not much about them online. do they exist outside the city at all? Is it something that one business came up with and is occasionally imitated by others?

Can you tell me how to make it?

Jim Russell said...

First, full disclosure: I have no memory of the Erie Greek Dog. But a little online research yielded some good information.

"New York Lunch" is credited with inventing the Greek hot dog in 1927. I gather the dog is deep fried with some sort of Greek sauce on top. I know that deep fried hot dogs aren't indigenous to Erie. So, the sauce recipe is what makes this cuisine uniquely Erie (along with the locally produced hot dogs from Smith's).

I wouldn't be surprised if you could find something similar in Buffalo.

5chw4r7z said...

I know this wasn't the intent of your post to encourage the discussion of pizza, BUT, when you mentioned Y-Town I immediately thought of Avalon Gardens Pizza, thick crust and saucy.
Man, I need to get back to Youngstown one day and revisit it.

Jim Russell said...

Actually, the discussion of pizza is the point. There isn't a Rust Belt or Midwestern style of pizza. Instead, there is a stunning cultural variation throughout the megaregion.

Richard Layman said...

In an economy where natural resources no longer dictate the value of location, few Midwest locations can compete with the coasts for job opportunities within the knowledge industries.

It comes down to a different kind of talent and skill set and a different kind of innovation ecology (Saxenian doesn't use this term I don't think, but it's the difference between Route 128 and Silicon Valley).

Where is the equivalent of the Silicon Valley--an innovative ecology--in the Midwest?

In the early 1900s, it was in all of the major center cities in the Midwest as innovation was tied with manufacturing and venture capital (i.e., the auto industry centered in Detroit partly because of proximity to carriage makers, and Western Michigan lumber, and lumber (and copper) barons from elsewhere in Michigan had the capital to invest).

College towns like Ann Arbor and Madison succeed, as does Chicago, relatively speaking. But Midwest universities, even the best ones, have not pulled off the equivalent of Stanford seeding the Silicon Valley.