A reader writes:
Your reader says that Pittsburgh cannot count as an East Coast city because it is 7+ hours from the coast. Then please explain to me why it belongs in the same region as Chicago (8 hours from Pittsburgh); Des Moines, IA (12); Lincoln, NE (14); and Rapid City, SD (19). Granted, the distance from Wilmington, NC to Shreveport, LA is a solid 14 hours, and no one thinks that North Carolina and Louisiana are in wildly different regions. I just get riled because frequently people from the East Coast actually have no idea how huge this country is, and make flippant statements like “Pittsburgh is too far from the coast so lump it in with the flyovers.” America is vast, and contains multitudes. Explore!
I was born and raised in the Midwest and lived in various states for 40 years, and it never ceases to amaze me how people conflate anything that’s not East Coast as Midwest. While I love my East Coast brethren, they are profoundly ignorant of the geography of this country. Pittsburgh is about as Midwestern as San Francisco. Wyoming in the Midwest? Huh?
I have one very simple rule: if it’s in the Eastern Standard Time Zone, it’s not Midwest. To extend it, there are only a few tiny portions in Mountain Time that are Midwestern. Broadly speaking, there are two basic parts of the Midwest: the Great Lakes region and the Great Plains region. They may look similar to someone sitting in DC or New York, but they are different culturally, topographically and politically. But the best map and definition that’s ever been written to date is still Joel Garreau’s Nine Nations of North America. Garreau really nailed the specific differences and demarcation points (though I would lobby for an additional “nation” that picks up the Scandinavian quality of the people in the Upper Midwest into Canada).
Here’s a definition from a born-and-raised Midwesterner who often drives to its outer reaches: Midwest = Germans + Grids + Gardens
Germans: On this map of ethnic ancestry from the 2000 census, there’s a broad swath of German-plurality counties starting from central New York, through Pennsylvania stretching westward to the Rockies and beyond. Germans help define the southern border of the Midwest (though stray Finnish, Dutch and African-American counties are certainly Midwestern as well). Germans heavily influenced Midwestern architecture, food, religion, and its devotion to public education. The “American” cultures of Kentucky and southern Missouri are southern – the accents change, Baptists predominate, and so does the food (it gets better down South, but that’s not Paula Deen’s doing). But not all German areas are Midwestern, so a limit to this is:
Grids. A central man-made feature of the Midwest is its grid pattern, which, thanks to the Land Ordinance of 1785 and Glaciation, stretches from south of Cleveland toward Cincinnati, and then west to the Rockies, defining the eastern and southern borders of the region. There are a few pockets where “queer” roads must follow the hills, such as around Bloomington, Indiana, or Athens, Ohio, or in the Ozarks. Those areas are on the fringes of the Midwest. Driving a Detroit-made sedan or pick-up truck down a straight state highway is a Midwestern rite of passage. So straight roads and flatlands (not Appalachian or Ozark zomias) help define the Midwest. This grid was made possible in part by Glaciation, which covered the land with very fertile soil. So the last characteristic is:
Gardens. (I couldn’t find a better synonym for farms that maintained the alliteration.) Anywhere that farming occurs on a wide scale and without irrigation is Midwestern, which defines the western border from about Joplin, Missouri, northward to Topeka, Lincoln continuing to just west of Fargo. Northern Michigan and Wisconsin are also peripherally Midwestern, and I suspect residents of those regions agree, though I can’t speak to northern Minnesota.
Putting this all together, Germans, Grids and Gardens means the Midwest begins in Downtown Cleveland, south to about Athens, Ohio, then west about Cape Girardeau, Missouri, with a bump up I-55 to St. Louis, and back down I-44 to Joplin, then north to Topeka, Lincoln, west of Fargo, to Canada.
Update from a reader:
Was that “born-and-raised Midwesterner” really suggesting that the defining characteristic of the Midwest is that it’s GGG?
Heh. One more reader:
There’s a historic line of demarcation that cuts right through some of the most contentious states. The 100th meridian quite accurately separates the lower-lying, well-watered eastern half of the Great Plains from the high-country, arid western half. Rainfall drops from two feet to a foot at the meridian; altitude crosses from under to above 2000 feet. In the past, east of the 100th was lush tallgrass prairie; west, sunburned shortgrass. Today, in the east, Mother Nature does a lot of the irrigating; in the west, farmers pump the aquifers and cosset every drop of rain. East is dairy cows; west is steers raised for beef.
See where the U.S. highway system goes from a dense mesh to a loose net on this map? That’s the 100th meridian, and those roads speak volumes about the human population density on either side of it. Much has been written about the meridian – Wallace Stegner’s biography of John Wesley Powell is named for it, for example – and it remains meaningful to the regional culture today, as this 2011 article from the Pierre, South Dakota Capital Journal notes. I’d suggest that it’s what really divides the Midwest – a green and pleasant, neighbors-and-towns land – from the brown and solitary West.