Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Geography Of The Midwest

Chicago is not part of the Midwest. However, I would define the "Midwest" as the part of the world caught up in Chicago's economic gravity. Chicago is the Capital of the Midwest. If Chicago is your gateway to the rest of the world, then you are a Midwesterner.

Richard Longworth describing the "Midwestern" geography problem:

I understand that the Midwest Governors Association is about to launch a project on "rebranding the Midwest," presumably to give it a sharper image. A noble effort, to be sure, but perhaps a vain one, given the general confusion on just where the place even is.

Part of the Midwest's branding issues is the mega-region defies a common understanding. I think there is a common understanding of the geography. I like Erin Ladd's definition:

As this theory illustrates, the problem is that the Midwest as a region has become shorthand for “uninteresting.” When polled about the connotations of the word “Midwest,” people came up with such dour adjectives as flat, boring, and honest. The Midwest is really defined by what it isn’t, not by what it is.

Here’s what it’s not: the Northeast, the South, the West Coast, the Southwest. Here’s what it is: everything that doesn’t fit into those categories.

But, North Dakota doesn’t necessarily have anything in common with Missouri. Pittsburgh and Minneapolis don’t have any relation to each other whatsoever. And every state between the Rocky Mountains and the Alleghenys does not have a shared history. Even so, because we can’t be known as fiery Southerners or brusque New Englanders or wholly enlightened West Coast-ites, we get to be everything they’re not: flat, boring and honest.

The Midwest is everywhere that is nowhere. But that isn't a functional economic geography. Both Ladd and Longworth make the same erroneous presumption: The other regions are well-defined. Just so happens that people from the "South" think they know exactly where the Midwest is. Those from the "West Coast" share a similar certainty, but a different delineation. Regional geography is, after all, subjective.

I contend that the "Midwest" is a region that needs to be disaggregated and deconstructed. A paradigm of political economy should be the framework for your regional conception. I choose global cities, the dominant economic geography of our times.

The "South" has ceased to be relevant. A place's relationship with Atlanta is more telling. Is Florida a Southern state? Miami is not a Southern city. Divide Florida up between Atlanta and Miami. There's your regional border.

Now imagine a collection of geographic entities (e.g. towns and cities) with strong ties to Chicago. This Chicago Cartel could be a political force that gets around the constitutional bargain that privileges states over metros. Longworth has tried to use a Midwestern identity to get Rust Belt states ravaged by globalization to stop the zero-sum nonsense: Collaborate and prosper.

The confusion about where the Midwest is stems from an antiquated notion of how to define a region. I remember being frustrated teaching World Regional Geography at the University of Colorado. Talking about economic globalization within that framework (developed during the age of imperialist Britain) was difficult. It's an urban world dominated by a network of global cities. Karachi isn't just another South Asian instant city. It's Pakistan's global city. The migration to Karachi tells a story that defines a functional region. Every global city in "South Asia" tells a different migration story. "South Asia" is meaningless and therefore difficult to define.

I suggest dropping the pretense of "Midwest" and pointing out the impressive reach of Chicagoland. How far does it stretch? Answer that question and then set about retooling geographic education in our schools.


DBR96A said...

Draw a triangle with corners in Cleveland, Minneapolis and Kansas City, and that's the approximate boundary of Chicago's influence.

NOTE: St. Louis, Detroit and Columbus are located just outside the triangle, which is why I say it's approximate.

Anonymous said...

It's unfortunate that "Great Lakes" really wasn't the defining name for that portion of the Midwest and "Midwest" used solely for the more central non-lake plains states. While obviously there's similarities outside of the larger lakeside cities (and even smaller ones), I know people who confuse Iowa and Ohio and it's mind baffling. Additionally, I wish people would acknowledge that the Northeast is more than I-95. Just because Pittsburgh is inland and has some industrial and immigration similarities with Cleveland and others, doesn't make it any less Northeastern. Pittsburgh, along with Buffalo, and other Upstate cities and elsewhere are still Northeastern and share some identity with their bigger sisters on the eastern seaboard. I went to Duquesne and very few students were from even nearby Ohio, but many - a considerable many were from NJ, New York... New England and Maryland. The point being, despite obvious "rust belt" heritage with some Great Lakes cities,
Pittsburgh is tied to the East.

And Ohio cities through Wisconsin and the Twin Cities orbit Chicago.


EJ said...


Some aspects of Cleveland, particularly its downtown district, eastern neighborhoods and suburbs, could put it in league with the Northeast. The city was heavily influenced by NE architecture and development patterns (e.g. Terminal Tower). Arguably, Cleveland marks the terminus of Northeastern/New England influences and the beginning in earnest of the Midwest. As a city however, it is neither solidly Midwestern nor is it really Northeastern. New York arguably has as much influence in Cleveland as does Chicago.

The Northeastern influences are a bit stronger in Pittsburgh, yet geography--Pittsburgh's inland location--greatly reduces the immediacy of the association. Pennsylvania is a big state with quite a bit of space and separation between the western and eastern halves. Pittsburgh may owe its NE associations more to its status as a PA city than anything else. How much might that change over time if Western PA became its own state?

On a related note, one might argue that the seed of the Midwest rests within Pittsburgh, but it remains frozen or has barely sprouted. You can't see the shoots yet there, but on the west side of Cleveland, they have broken through to the surface of the soil. This is an explanation as to why Pittsburgh bears no resemblance to Minneapolis, and Cleveland barely so.

Personally, I do see quite a bit of overlap between Western PA and NE Ohio with the Youngstown/Mahoning Valley area as a transition point. It's purely anecdotal, but the number of Steelers and Browns fans I have observed living and working within their respective rival city doesn't seem to be mere coincidence. These cities do have significant differences in origin, geography and history, but they also share common economic and social bonds because of, and in spite of them. I'd argue that the Pittsburgh-Cleveland region itself constitutes a unique region, or at least a sub/transition region that transcends state lines.

Anonymous said...

I don't doubt NE influence on Cleveland and even Cincy shares some influence, at least in some older dense neighborhoods and style. But once again, why does everything in one region need to be the same? I was specifically pointing out that there is an interior Northeast that Pittsburgh is a part of. It's also on the western border of the region, so of course will have some overlap from that side. Cleveland may well also be "influenced" by NYC, but Chicago and that portion of the country still would be more influential. Hell, they even have a mild version of that accent, which can't be heard in PA, or even Youngstown (though I agree Youngstown's location make it an interesting hybrid of Cleveland and Pgh influence). And overall both Cleveland and Pittsburgh are transitional due to their respective locations, but state lines are more than lines. Their is inherent internal influence and migration patterns within states. Pittsburgh is part of PA and despite a rural mountain range inbetween, the metro has ties to Harrisburg, Philly etc and as stated many times here, DC has a very significant relationship with Pgh.