by Hope Stege and Alexis Canter
To you, what defines the Midwest?
Our exhibit Reinvention in the Urban Midwest, on view now at BSA Space, focuses on current forms of reinvention in the urban Midwest and explores the drivers for this phenomenon. As a part of the exhibit, we launched an interactive survey, titled MyMidwest, intended to capture how people define the Midwest.
Conversations at the exhibit opening and comments submitted within the MyMidwest survey confirm that defining the Midwest is a touchy subject. Why such an emotional response? For many, being Midwestern is core to their individual identity—it is the root of who they are. Half of the nearly 4,000 people who responded to our MyMidwest survey were born in the Midwest and about three-quarters have lived over half their life there. For others, the strong response seemed to come from the belief that there are "right" and "wrong" answers to the questions we posed.
The US Census "officially" defines the Midwest as 12 states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. And definitions from respondents born in New England fell mostly along those lines. But Midwesterners allowed for much more variation along that boundary, indicating an experiential definition as opposed to one informed by state borders.
In addition to contention about how to define the borders of the Midwest, some survey respondents called into question the degree to which we can typify the communities within these borders. As one survey respondent said:
It makes more sense to approach the region as two sub-regions that share a common history and culture... On the one hand there is the Great Lakes region with its industrial history and major cities (Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland). The narrative is one of rust belts and race... Meanwhile the Great Plains Region is defined by its agricultural past (and present) and the vast open landscape that stretches from the Rocky Mountains to the banks of the Mississippi.
Analysis from our exhibit supports a similar delineation of prairie and woodlands as two distinct ecoregions that have experienced different trajectories. The natural resources of these prairie and woodland landscapes, coupled with access to different transportation systems, gave rise to two economic bases: heavy industry in the cities of the Great Lakes (woodland) region and agricultural industry in the cities of the Great Plains (prairie). Today, these sub-regional distinctions are playing out in another way—the historically smaller prairie cities, by and large, are growing due to de-ruralization and in-migration to city centers. Many of the large woodland cities, like Detroit, are experiencing notable population decline.
Atlantic Cities writer Jenny Xie offers further analysis of preliminary MyMidwest results in this article.
Politics, Pop, and Pick-Up Trucks
In addition to geography and industry, the survey responses delved into the cultural, linguistic, religious, and political characteristics that the region. And while some responses parroted stereotypes, many were nuanced, funny, and insightful. Survey responses include:
Midwestern cities are my favorite to visit. They have a nice balance of urbanity and down-home style.
Square-planned towns, with gridded streets. Predominance of Catholicism and Lutheranism. People who refer to carbonated beverages as pop. Cold winters, lots of lakes. Friendly people who talk to each other while in line at the supermarket.
Hardworking people, but with a strong belief in having a work-life balance.
It's the "breadbasket of America" where goodhearted, hardworking people, who might have prejudices due to a homogenous upbringing, would not deny any person human kindness or human rights. Their knowledge of American geography and their map reading skills soar above coastal Americans. They are truly interested in learning about other people and places, but are happy to stay put.
And one responder simply posted a link to Kurt Vonnegut's "To be a Native Middle-Westerner."
Within this unique cultural context, Midwestern cities are evolving. The Midwest is no longer simply the breadbasket, but also an increasingly important part of the American ideas economy and a driver of innovation in higher education. Midwestern community groups, political leaders, artists, developers, and individual citizens are reimagining and remaking their cities and the region.
TechTown District Plan; Detroit, MI
Collectively, Sasaki has worked on 775 projects in the Midwest. And while it is certainly a distinct place, we've come to regard the region as a microcosm of the country in many ways. Areas of growth and decline exist in relatively close proximity. Cities face the challenges of a "new normal"— global competition, cultural shifts, dwindling resources, and the acute need for greater resilience. And people and places are always more complex than they seem. To develop meaningful, implementable interventions, planners and designers must be incredibly sensitive to the many forces already at work in urban reinvention. The MyMidwest survey responses help underscore the complexity of the region, and ways in which we can continue to contribute to, and learn from, the Midwest.
Don't miss our curatorial talk for Reinvention in the Urban Midwest on September 12 at 6 pm, which will explore in greater detail the Sasaki projects included in the exhibit. Please RSVP here.