Over the past few days Whirl and I have been having a discussion about the geo-cultural classification of Chicago. Stated in the simplest terms: Is Chicago part of the Midwest? I hold that Chicago is part of the Midwest. My child bride does not. I must note that this discussion is not premised upon a purely geographical distinction. Neither one of us disagrees with the premise that Chicago sits firmly in the middle of the geographical region of America known as the Midwest. The interesting question for us is the cultural one.
As with most geographical regions—the boundaries of the Midwest are somewhat ambiguous. America’s history of westward expansion further complicates the issue. The original use of the term “Midwest” occurred in the 19th century and referred to the Northwest Territory bounded by the Great Lakes, and the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. This Northwest Territory would form the states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota. In time, some people began to include Iowa and Missouri under the aegis of the Midwest. With the settlement of the western prairie, a new term, “Great Plains States,” came into use to refer to North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. It is not uncommon for me to hear people refer to theses states as the Midwest, as well. – So we arrive at a list of twelve states in all. My altogether unscientific opinion is to define the Midwest as Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa—the original Northwest Territory region, plus Iowa. I drop Missouri immediately from the region because of its Civil War history. Missouri seceded from the Union to the Confederacy and my experiences in that state suggest that is a cultural identifier the residents still struggle with to one degree or another. Iowa I feel just got placed on the wrong side of a big river—through no fault of its own. So I include it readily into the Midwest. I likely do this out of rank sentimentality. And while I agree that there are strong similarities between the Great Plains States and the Midwest, I think there is a strong distinction to be made of generation. I see the Midwest as the first generation of states “born” within the confines of the country. I might consider the Great Plains States a second generation. A son may resemble his father considerably and even follow in his footsteps; they are often quite different people. (Then again, I may be pushing an anthropomorphic analogy beyond the pale. I will stop.)
So, out of twelve possibilities, I believe seven of them are the heart of the Midwest. Illinois is right in the middle of those seven, and Chicago is undoubtedly a significant part of Illinois. But so far this has all been a geographical discussion, with a few historical items sprinkled in. And I said in the first paragraph that this is essentially not a geographical debate. So why am I spending so much time on that element? I think there are two reasons. The first is the easy one. I do it to rhetorically preempt arguments for the separation of Chicago from the Midwest through fallacious comparisons to remote locales on the outskirts of the region. Chicago is not the Midwest. You ever been to Holcomb, Kansas? No. Go. You’ll see what I’m talking about.
The second reason is more complicated. I have become interested in the idea of place and its effect on people. Why do I prefer to work in the office rather than work from home? My home is certainly more convenient. The commute is better. Similarly, why do I prefer to play poker at a casino rather than online? Why do I enjoy seeing movies in the theater even with the distractions of crackling plastic, a yammering, and too expensive popcorn? (And do not get me started on my rant about not being able to watch a movie at a theater in my bathrobe.) These are little places and short events. I am now looking at the long term effects of place on personality. What does a region do to me? – I suppose this is one of the reasons why I enjoy traveling: to explore that very effect, if only for a short while. Now I am trying to apply that exploration to my day-to-day life.
Humorous aside: I took my friends, Wille and Mel, out for phở a couple days ago. They had never tried it. They liked it. And after we had eaten we wandered around the Vietnamese grocery store next door, just to look around. Mel told me afterwards that she never would have thought to go in there, and thanked me for encouraging her to do so. She found it fascinating: to see something new; to be in a new place. It made me smile.
Let me get back on track here. I wanted to talk about the geography and the history—and in America often those two studies are interconnected—as a way of talking about the culture of the Midwest, and by extension a way of talking about the impact of place on my psyche. So back to the history: Formed in 1787 by an ordinance before the ratification of the American Constitution, the Northwest Territory was the first organized territory and set forth the precedents by which America would expand westward across the continent and admit new states to the union. The Northwest Ordinance did more than set geopolitical boundaries. It set cultural mandates as well. The ordinance prohibited slavery in the region and proclaimed a defense of religious tolerance:
“Religion, morality, and knowledge [are] necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education.”
Civil rights provisions foreshadowed those later ratified by the Bill of Rights: the right of habeas corpus, freedom of religious worship, bans on excessive fines, bans on cruel and unusual punishment, bans on ex post facto laws, trial by jury.
I see these elements as the bedrock of Midwestern culture. And out of them arise a people who are open, stubborn, friendly, trustworthy and unsophisticated. Most Midwesterners are religious with Christianity being the predominant religion. Among Christians, no particular denomination or sect dominates the others. I find it interesting that churches Pentecostal and charismatic denominations have few adherents in the Midwest. Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans, well-established churches with strong histories— Midwesterners are not known to be overly capricious. Stubborn.
As with their religious stance, Midwestern politics tend to be cautious. The Republican Party originated in the Midwest—although it did so on a platform opposed to the spread of slavery to new states. Most of the rural Midwest is considered to be a Republican stronghold to this day. Political trends change. Parties change. Populations shift—all across the nation the general shift from rural to urban has been irreversible for at least the last three generations. The Midwest is now home to many critical swing states that have strong allegiance to neither party. Some Midwestern states, such as Illinois, Minnesota, and Michigan have proven relatively Democratic. Illinois is currently dominated by the Democratic Party, with a Democratic Governor and two Democratic Senators and ten of the state’s nineteen seats in the House of Representatives belonging to Democrats. Michigan and Wisconsin, both currently have a Democratic governor and two Democratic senators. Minnesota has voted in favor of the Democratic Party for president longer than any other state. Minnesota was the only state out of fifty to vote for Walter Mondale over Ronald Reagan in 1984, for what its worth.
Because of 20th-century migration from the South, a large black population lives in many of the urban centers within the Midwest: Chicago being one of them. Musical creativity has thrived in the Midwest. Whole genres of music began and gained powerful influence and development: jazz, blues, Motown, techno, house. Rock and Roll music was first identified as a new genre by a Cleveland radio DJ; and if you want to see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame you go to Cleveland.
Whirl distills her argument down to its essence: “The Midwest” is essentially rural. Chicago is essentially urban. – It is a juxtaposition of concepts that does not resolve easily. On the one hand we agree with her and bid farewell to a concept that has is no longer relevant. The shift from rural to urban society is one that has encompassed nearly the entirety of the nation. If we accept that, are we forced to accept that many cultural identifiers that go along with regions also must be discarded? That seems too simplistic to me, and perhaps that is why I argue against it. There is something Midwestern that remains and has continued to prosper despite the rural-urban societal shift.
My friend, Smokes, agrees with Whirl: Chicago is not the Midwest. He identifies the Midwest with simplicity, an almost homogeneousness to culture. He says that the cultural diversity of Chicago sets it so far outside the rest of the region that it cannot be identified with the Midwest.
Mick agrees with me. Chicago is the Midwest—an urban version of the Midwest. We both reject the idea the Midwest is essentially rural. When pressed on this, Whirl eventually conceded that there are cities that she feels have that same sense of rural stereotype. For her, Milwaukee and Indianapolis are two such cities. So what makes it representative of the Midwest? The city was homey and inviting. Like, there might be potpourri in the lighting fixtures and homemade pies set here and there. Which was nice. But, it completely lacked anything edgy or artistic. She thinks that Midwesterners prefer it that way, they take comfort in the hominess. I think the Midwestern image, whether true or not, is that of a stable people, salt of the earth types, who like comfort and don’t like things that are different, because different might signal danger.
Mick, after accusing Whirl of elitism, rejoined that he agreed Midwesterners like comfort but believes it is too easy to say the second part about difference signaling danger. He argues that Midwesterners embrace differences, but prefer their comforts. And it is that essential choice that Midwesterners constantly make that has boosted—and continues to boost—Chicago. Chicago is definitely international and cosmopolitan, but the reason it is that way is because it is so representative of the Midwest. It can stand alongside places like New York and Paris and London because it is immersed in its regionalism while also being culturally dynamic.
He may be on to something.