Friday, September 4th, 2009

Labor Day Open Thread: Best and Worst Midwestern Cultural Traits

The talented and ambitious, people with big dreams and plans for themselves, want to live in a city where the civic aspirations match their personal aspirations.” – Aaron M. Renn

The nail that sticks up gets pounded back down.” – Japanese proverb

This weekend I’m going to enjoy a little “Pure Michigan”, so I’ll leave you with this post asking for everyone to chime in on what they think the best and worst Midwestern cultural traits are. I’ll start it off – and let worst go first.

For me the worst part of Midwest culture is the active discouragement of the pursuit of excellence. It’s not just that people in the Midwest value the average or think good enough is good enough. They do, but it’s more than that. People in the Midwest tear down anyone who dares to have a higher standard or show a greater ambition. It’s not just that Midwesterners don’t value excellence – they don’t want anyone else valuing it either.

It’s a long standing condition. When my father came out of the service, he was berated by my grandfather for deciding to go to college. My grandfather told him he would be an idiot not to go work at the cement plant and start making good wages and earning seniority now. Thank goodness my dad was ornery enough to do what he wanted. I recently ran across an old neighbor who went to my high school about a decade before I did. He recounted how, upon telling the guidance counselor he planned to attend university, he was told there was no way anyone from such a small school could ever make it in college and he should be a welder instead. Today he has a master’s degree and a significant professional position. I remember myself in school hearing a repeated refrain of how there were lots of people “with book learning but no common sense.” Admittedly, in my case that might have been true, but I think it shows an attitude that doesn’t just not value education, but actively despises it.

Fast forward to today and I think of all the discussions on sites like the IBJ’s Property Lines blog. For every lousy to mediocre project that comes along, there are a chorus of people defending its merits. People who ask for better design – and keep in mind many of these projects have heavy tax subsidies – are told that they have no right piping in or, “it’s just student housing” or some other complaint that doesn’t just indicate a lack of personal concern with low quality urban development, but outright irritation at anyone who does.

This sort of attitude is so self-defeating because it is toxic to talent attraction. The Midwest requires that anyone who lives there surrender his ambitions, or else be subjected to endless questioning, discouragement and ridicule. Who is going to sign up for that except someone with some pre-existing roots or connection there? Not very many people. Locals seems to recognize this and don’t even attempt to market to the world at large, focusing all efforts on retention of home grown talent and boomerangers.

With human capital being perhaps the most important single driver of economic success in the 21st century, this portends a dim future without major change since today only a handful of Midwest places don’t suffer from this. It’s the American embodiment of the Japanese proverb above. Consider the stakes:

Urban policy is generally understood to include such things as housing, neighborhood revitalization, and poverty alleviation. While all of these are important to the success of cities, even in combination they don’t come close to equaling the importance of talent to the success of cities.

Talent—defined as the percentage of college graduates in a city’s population—explains almost 60 percent of a city’s success as measured by per capita income. To wit: If urban policy does not include the development, attraction, and retention of talent, it doesn’t have a prayer of making a real difference for cities. But this truth isn’t easily absorbed by urban leaders.

But if we could increase college attainment by just 1 percent in each of the top 51 metro areas—areas with a million or more residents—the nation will realize an additional $124 billion in personal income. We call that the “Talent Dividend.”

Break that number down locally and it becomes even more impressive. In Indianapolis, for instance, a 1 percentage point increase in college attainment would result in a $1.3 billion annual increase in personal income. According to the city’s leaders, that is roughly equal to the local payroll of the city’s largest employer, Eli Lilly. [emphasis added]

On the good side, what I like about the Midwest is its lack of pretense. Most people don’t pretend they are something they aren’t. They don’t care about fancy pedigrees or fancy clothes or money. It’s a place where “all honest occupations are considered honorable.” A place where nobody cares if you pronounce Pecha Kucha right. A place where the corporate manager and the common man might easily mingle in the same establishment. Where we drink PBR not because we’re hip but because “damn right our dads drank it” – and still do. There’s definitely something to be said in favor of this.

As with most things, the good and the bad are really two sides of the same coin. To sum it up in a word, it’s “modesty”. Whether or not that’s a virtue depends on one’s point of view. I can recognize its positives, but taken to an extreme, modesty devolves into prudishness (and I mean that in the broadest sense). It itself becomes haughty. It becomes suffocating. The Midwest suffers from that badly. If you ask me, this is a place that could use with a little more amour propre.

What do you all think? Would love to hear your take on the best and worst.

Have a great Labor Day weekend everybody.

Topics: Urban Culture

40 Responses to “Labor Day Open Thread: Best and Worst Midwestern Cultural Traits”

  1. Radarman says:

    Best: The widespread assumption that public schools should be good and that they should be supported. This is weakening, but it's still there.

    Worst: The widespread willingness to trash the countryside. The physical beauty of the Midwest has never gotten proper recognition. It is so fragile and so easily compromised.

  2. Andi says:

    I'd like to disagree with your assertion that people in the Midwest actively discourage the pursuit of excellence. While that may have been true in the past, it's definitely not true now. Perhaps I have a skewed viewpoint of the Midwest because I go to the UofC, but no one accepts anything but excellence from me — mediocrity is definitely to be avoided here. I mean, I've grown up in the Midwest, and this has definitely been true for my entire life. Furthermore, Chicago is home to some of the best restaurants in the country. Plus, some of the best scientific research comes out of the Midwest (esp in microbiology). Certainly, the Midwest is a lot more laid back than either coast, but I think that's more to do with our lack of pretension rather than our supposed aversion towards achievement.

    I think we're a lot more welcoming and accepting than the other coasts. People in the Midwest, I've noticed, are much better at cooperating and compromising, while retaining their own integrity. That's why I love it here so much — most people are so reasonable!

    Idk, I guess the evidence is all anecdotal — and there are certainly exceptions!

  3. cdc guy says:

    Best: one you cited above, that all honest occupations and hard work are considered honorable and worthy of respect.

    Worst: our assumption that certain resources (especially water and good farmland) are in endless supply. As a result, both are considerably undervalued both emotionally and intrinsically.

  4. Darrin Thompson says:

    Maybe some of you Smart People ™ would know if mid west malaise could be a symptom of living the philosophies of Fredrick Taylor?

    One right way, financial incentives motivate, optimize the parts to optimize the whole, etc.

  5. Don K says:

    Best: I'd agree that it's the basic friendliness of the people. I grew up in NJ, and when I would go on vacation with my parents, they would always comment that people seemed friendlier once you crossed to the west side of the Alleghenies.

    Worst: The widespread feeling (at least in MI) that if you're working with your head instead of your hands you're a sissy. Real men work in factories or on farms. I understand there are lots of people whose talents run more towards manual labor, and I believe they ought to be compensated adequately, but the Midwest has fetishized factory work to such an extent that it's held the regions back.

    Andi, I think living in Chicago does give you a skewed perspective, because the Chicago region is one area that's actively tried to transcend its Midwesternness.

    I've lived in the Detroit area for 31 years (except for two in Tokyo), and I'm dismayed at the lack of progress in Michigan in that time. The Bloomfield/Birmingham area where I live has first-rate public and private schools and other amenities, and the U of M and MSU are very good universites, but I'm not seeing the willingness in most of the rest of the state.

    Rather than turn this into a blog post of my own, I'll leave it at that.

  6. eMath says:

    I don't think Chicago is "midwestern" in your analysis, at least not in my experience. It's more laid-back than the east coast, but I havne't noticed any rampant pounding down of nails, to allude to your example.

    What you describe is often referred to as tall poppy syndrome or, in Scandinavian culture, jantelagen which is often mentioned in the same breath as lagom (practicing moderation). How those are interpreted and practiced varies widely. The wisest interpretation is to simply be humble in expressing yourself. Keep striving to be your best, just don't tell everyone that you're the best. As you've apparently observed, less wise people use it to discourage attainment at all.

    I grew up on the west coast (Oregon), and moved to Indiana for college. The culture shock, while not severe, was definitely felt. There was a sense of cultural entitlement I observed that was much less common in Oregon. This expressed as men not helping with dishes after meals because it was assumed the women would do it. It was expressed as the belief that when Jesus said "the poor will be with you always," that people were justified in treating the poor with stern paternalism instead of as equals in a temporary state of disadvantage.

    Certainly those are generalities – not everyone acted in line with those – but those were my first impressions when I first moved to Indiana from Oregon. Chicago, on the other hand, isn't that different from the West Coast, except the people tend to be more pragmatic here, and less idealistic. They still want to do great things, but they're less likely to just spout off any radical idea that floats through their head here.

  7. pete-rock says:

    Grew up in Detroit, lived in central Indiana for several years, currently live outside Chicago (for last 22 years).

    Best Midwest cultural trait: modesty and self-deprecation. I don't necessarily buy the openness/friendliness trait; Midwesterners, for example, don't seem to better "Good Samaritans" than people from elsewhere in the country. But we do have a lack of pretension that maybe makes it easier to befriend us on a personal level.

    Worst Midwest cultural trait: the constant regression to the mean referred to by most everyone here. Parochialism at its worst. Don K's comment was spot on about fetishizing factory work in the Midwest. That's especially true in the Great Lakes area that extends from Buffalo to Milwaukee. In the Ohio Valley I think Midwesterners fetishize farming.

    Those who have commented that they don't see Midwestern parochialism because they're in Chicago — Chicago is very much the exception and not the rule. I'm beginning to think Chicago is distinct enough from the Midwest to be viewed as a region-within-region. This distinction will grow if Chicago gets the 2016 Olympics, with the international attention and infrastructure development it would bring.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Many areas of the Midwest were settled by New Englanders. They left the northeast because New England is very difficult to farm, with the hilly terrain and rocky soil. The ones who chose to stay in rural New England have a stubborness that is still very evident today. The Midwest got the New Englanders that had the ambition to leave a familiar place for something new in order to be succesful.

  9. Alon Levy says:

    What you say about fetishizing factory work is just as true in New York. New York has an ultra-rich elite of finance workers, as well as some ancillary industries like education and software, but outside those occupations, the prevalent idea is that good jobs equal manufacturing.

  10. Don K says:

    Adding to my thoughts from earlier…

    I suppose it's human nature to think back to some (real or imagined) Golden Age, but in Michigan (at least the part that stretches from Detroit to Jackson, Lansing, and Saginaw), there seems to be a belief that if we all banish our negative thoughts and wish really, really, hard, it will be the 50's and 60's again, those nasty foreigners will go away, and Americans will go back to buying American cars.

    The Woodward Dream Cruise of two weeks ago is a symptom of this. For anyone who enjoys cars, it's a great experience to see it at least once, but at heart it's an exercise in denying reality. The teenagers of the 50's and 60's (now 55 to 75) bring out their impeccably maintained cars, and for a day (or a week considering the informal cruising that goes on) it's as if the last thirty years had never happened.

    I'll agree that the Midwest got the New Englanders who were willing to try new things, and that's why the young auto industry flourished here (not just in Michigan, but also in Indiana and Ohio). At some point, though, Midwesterners became frightened of change to an extent not really seen in other parts of the country. Rather than adapt, as California did when aerospace collapsed at the end of the Cold War, the Midwesterners here in Michigan tried at all costs to hold on to the old ways, and that's why Michigan is in the situation it's in now.

  11. Alon Levy says:

    Don K, it's not just Midwesterners, again. The idea that if we banish bad thoughts and think growth, growth, growth then we will prosper is common on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, where people routinely blame recessions on media pessimism. Even more moderate boosters like Thomas Friedman have never been able to explain growth in terms of anything other than really wanting growth.

  12. Stephen Gross says:

    The best: rootedness in place; dedication to family, job, etc.

    The worst: lack of interest in living elsewhere, confusion and suspicion of people who have moved around; anti-urbanist sentiment.

  13. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for all great contributions.

    cdc, let me be clear on one thing. That "all honest occupations are considered honorable" is actually a quote from Tocqueville.

    Alon, I think desire has a lot to do with it, and the Midwest lacks it. The Midwest wants, not success per se, but a return to an imagined status quo ante. Ask people in a Midwestern city if they want to be like Atlanta, Dallas, or Houston. They would recoil. Ask someone in Charlotte or Nashville and they'll tell you those are the model cities they are already trying to emulate.

  14. cdc guy says:

    Alon, it's called expectations theory.

    Simplified, economic actors act on what they expect. To some degree, if enough people expect a certain outcome and act as if it will happen, it does help to bring it about. The mass psychology and economics work equally for speculative bubbles and crashes.

    Last year people expected deflation/depression, couldn't borrow, and stopped spending. The huge consumer turnaround from spending to saving would have brought on deflation if the Fed hadn't turned on the printing presses to flood the economy with money.

  15. Alon Levy says:

    No, people in Charlotte are trying to have their city look as different from Atlanta as possible. Atlanta's sprawl and pollution is one of the impetuses for North Carolina's investment in rail.

  16. Graeme says:

    @ Urbanophile: Online forums are not a valid cross-section of Midwest citizens. Drawing conclusions from them probably doesn't make much sense in the context of architectural criticism or the pursuit of excellence.

    However, even if we assume they represent public opinion, they do not point towards any long-term trend. There are some people who always say "bad" and there are some people who always say "good". In the end, criticism on the style of individual buildings doesn't matter because everyone has their own opinion.

    No building can be perfect, it merely represents a product of its time. The arguments present on IBJ serve only to show that some people have different values than other people. My own values are that the functionality of buildings and how well they fit into the urban context is more important than whether or not they used EIFS on a secondary facade.

  17. Anonymous says:

    "Ask people in a Midwestern city if they want to be like Atlanta, Dallas, or Houston. They would recoil. Ask someone in Charlotte or Nashville and they'll tell you those are the model cities they are already trying to emulate."

    – Am not sure why any city would aspire to be Atlanta, Dallas or Houston with the possible exception of Charlotte and Nashville.

    I do not understand the fascination with sprawl that characterizes Atlanta, Dallas and Houston and puts them in the spotlight as cities that are successful simply because they are successful at sprawl.

    A very big & growing problem that Atlanta, Dallas & Houston have is a lack of water…then there is the little problem of the future return of $4/gallon gasoline at some point.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Actually Charlotte does aspire to have the 'good things' about Atlanta:

    the same can be said of Nasville's objectives.

    I say good luck to both but be careful what you wish for.

  19. CARR says:

    Cities may not want to emulate Atlanta, Dallas, or Houston for their sprawl, but I'm sure they would want their growth and wealth.

    Look at Charlotte. The city leaders may say we want to emulate Atlanta. However, we are also going to improve on what Atlanta has done. The ATL has sprawl, so we are going to invest in light-rail and better zoning.

    Take my hometown (and current home) Louisville. We have had the mentality that most of midwestern cities have had. We didn't want to grow. Well the guys with the money who ran the city didn't want Louisville to grow. Now things are changing. We will have a new mayor for the first time in 25 years. Louisville is slowly becoming more and more progressive in it's thoughts and ambitions. Which is saying a lot because you have large sections of the city that are very conservative.

    Now I hear city leaders say they are looking at emulating cities like Portland and Austin. They are beginning to talk about benching ourselves not only against our peer cities in the US, but globally as well. They are really getting serious branding Louisville as "Possibility City."

    The winds are change are blowing. just not as fast as some of us would like.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Best: Overall, MIdwesterners are quite friendly and there is still a sort of attachment to community and the place where you grew up. Also, the cost of living is dirt cheap which is a plus, and generally life is much more calm than elsewhere.

    Worst: There is this general attitude of contempt and/or judgment towards anyone who decided to move away or experience life in another part of the country or world. Coupled with this is the lack of effort by Midwesterners to keep in contact with those who do move elsewhere. It's almost as if when you move out of state you are just forgotten, and when you visit you are viewed as some sort of threat. Personally I think I remind people of their former ambitions that they chose not to pursue, and they don't like that.

    But despite this, I still have a special place in my heart for home, and I enjoy going back to visit when I can.

  21. Zachary says:

    This is coming from a recent transplant from the Southeast (North Carolina and Georgia) to Columbus.

    Good: Open minded people that like others have commented are not just trying to emulate another city. The low cost of living (at least in Cbus) allows people to really get out and enjoy what the city has to offer. People in Columbus do seem to take advantage of some of the really unique things going on here (Gallery Hops, Shakespeare in the Park, etc)

    Bad: Lack of influx of new people and ideas. Since moving here I have met very few people that are not from Ohio already. Ohio is a big state and this is limited to my experience in Columbus, but I work for a large, well-known company and very few of my co-workers are not from Ohio. As much as I hate to admit, what helps grow and develop places like Atlanta and any other major city is the influx of new people from other parts of the country. Other cities are national destinations and attractions, midwest cities are regional or statewide attractions/destinations. The midwest is way too homogenous for its own good.

  22. Jim O says:

    I moved from Wisconsin to Seattle 30 years ago for the greater sense of geography and connection with environment.

    Best: When someone says "Let's go to lunch sometime", they mean it and we do. Also, lack of pretension, as mentioned in other posts, really rings true for me.

    Worst: Sprawl and lack of attention to environment – way more, wider roads than when I left, eating valuable land for little purpose. Also, the homogeneity of the region (except Chicago) strikes me as an undervaluing of art and culture (e.g., prevalence "classic rock" radio – old media, but still…).

  23. Anonymous says:

    Aaron: I love the blog, but you really aren't allowed to start off a post by quoting yourself. That is very un-Midwestern of you. Giving credit for someone else's thoughts, humility, humor–those are Midwestern traits.

    Best: I live outside the U.S. right now but repeatedly have found that my favorite Americans abroad are from the Midwest. It is generally because they are less pretentious and take themselves less seriously than most other expats, as several of you have mentioned.

    Worst: Complacency with the middle road.

  24. Patrick says:

    Aaron, this is a great and thoughtful post.

    Before moving to Chicago, I lived in Wisconsin for almost six years. I lived in Madison, which by most accounts is considered a progressive area that appreciates academic achievements.

    I don't know that I would say that people are discouraged from a pursuit of excellence. My friend put it best: it's an example of lower-case-C conservatism.

    And it's not just the Midwest. I grew up in Pittsburgh, and the same attitude was prevalent there. If you wanted to move out of town, or pursue something new, people would say, "Why? The mill is right down the street. There's plenty of work there!"

    That small-c conservatism means that people stick with what they know. There's modesty involved, to be sure, but I think there's also a substantial fear of the unknown.

    There's a lot of things to love there. Madison is physically beautiful, has wonderful green spaces, and is a joy to walk around. You can get from here to there in a few minutes.

    I was so accustomed to the default gruffness one gets in Pittsburgh that when people were so warm and genuine in Madison, I actually thought they were hitting on me.

    There are some downsides, too. Those areas are homogenous in many ways, not the least being culturally. More activities, and more diverse activities, happen in Chicago on a Tuesday than might happen in Madison all weekend long.

    P.S. – I agree with Pete Rock – Chicago is an exception to most of the Midwest.

  25. Deuteronomy says:

    Much as I continue to read and respect your observations, I've said it before and I can't say it enough: methinks thou dost protest too much, in regards to the Midwest. Even as I think your observations are dead-on in regards to the double-edged sword of Midwest modesty, I would be interested to know if your experience–your cultural consumption–of other regions extends beyond visits of like-minded friends and colleagues there. Having grown up in the Midwest and lived in three east coast cities, I can say with full confidence that, outside of Jean Gottman's megalopolis conurbation (and including significant portions of it), the Northeast has the same ossification of ambition in its old manufacturing quarters. Keep in mind that Massachusetts, the country's most educated state, has about 37% with a bachelor's degree according to 2005-07 ACS Census Estimates. That is unprecedented among any similar body politic in the world, but it still leaves nearly two thirds of adults without a degree. And most of that highly educated population is concentrated around Boston and particularly its suburbs–the remaining cities in MA are as Rust Belt and blue-collar as anything you'd see in the Midwest. It sometimes seems all the more shameful because many of these de-industrialized cities have a higher concentration of universities than anywhere else in the world–just like Boston, but only Boston metro seems to be reaping the benefit.

    A city planner friend of mine I recently spoke to moved to Boston a year ago and is not so fond of it. She previously lived in Philadelphia and Baltimore, two of the more economically struggling cities in the region, and she prefers them because they still have urban ills that make them more interesting for her vocation (not to mention more affordable). She's originally from Iowa. One opinion out of many, of course, but such a sentiment cannot be discounted.

  26. the urban politician says:

    Thank you, Deuteronomy, for saying far more eloquently what crossed my mind reading through this post & subsequent comments.

    Too many people here, including Aaron himself–with all due respect–have this notion of the midwest consisting of Iowa, Columbus, Flint and the east coast consisting of New York City and Boston.

    How about a fair comparison? Most of the east coast consists of small/medium sized towns and cities that suffered as much from deindustrialization as their midwestern counterparts. The "best" and "worst" traits being described here can apply just as much to these east coast cities as they can to their midwestern brethren.

    The REAL difference between the east coast and the midwest is that the east coast has a handful of major, globally recognizable cities (NY, Boston, DC, Philly) while the midwest only has one.

  27. Ironwood says:

    Urban Politician and Deuteronomy have a point — that Alon Levy has made from time to time, too, as he's challenged some discussions of the midwest as perhaps a form of exceptionalist [my word, not his] thinking that doesn't always take into account the degree that the same characteristics exist on the east coast.

    I, like Aaron, have focused a lot on a midwestern mindset. But you're right that smaller cities in the Midwest do share a lot of characteristics with smaller cities in the Northeast, like Buffalo, Albany, Hartford, etc. As I reflect on this, I'm realizing how much big parts of the Midwest really are part of the northeast, especially in Ohio and around the Great Lakes, and are often lumped that way statistically or for various analytical purposes.

    Heck, all you have to do is look at a map of the U.S., to see just how east most of the midwest really is. We were only "west" by the reckonings of pre-Jacksonian Americans. If someone was going to name the region for the first time today, one might be calling it the mid-east instead of the midwest.

    And our post-industrial economies surely have more in common with the northeast than with anywhere else. The midwest economy has always been more tightly integrated with the northeast than with any other part of the country.

    I'm not ready to erase all the differences between the midwest and the northeast, not be a long shot, but it could be a fertile line of inquiry to start exploring more of the similarities between the regions. That would be one heck of a Sister Cities program — linking up places like Milwaukee and Providence …

    Anyway, thanks, Aaron, U.P and Deuters for making me take a fresh look. That's why I love this blog.

  28. The Urbanophile says:

    anon 3:49 – you nailed it! I wondered who else would pick up on quoting myself. Call it a little deliberate anti-Midwest. I don't plan to make a habit of it, however.

  29. The Urbanophile says:

    Deuteronomy, TUP, others:

    First, let's stipulate that there are other parts of the country with some similar problems to the Midwest that are also in fact failing. To suggest that active discouragement of the pursuit of excellence is the worst Midwestern trait is not to say no place else has that, or that there aren't other places with troubles. (The Northeast Rust Belt and the Midwest have some commonalities – similar traits, similar failures)

    Second, Chicago is unique and an outlier in many ways. However, I'd argue that "being globally recognized" is the least of these.

    But just because Springfield, MA is very Rust Belt in a lot of ways doesn't invalidate the hypothesis. For one thing, the Boston area is over half of Massachusetts population. Similarly, greater New York City dominates NY state and a big part of New Jersey and Connecticut as well. (In fact, one problem with places like Springfield and Buffalo are state policies oriented towards the largest city's need).

    But look at Ohio (11 million), Michigan (10 million), Indiana (6 million). They don't have even one place with a similar attitude. It's not just that struggling industrial towns in those places have this attitude. Many of the elites of the state have it as well, which is something that is not so much the case back east.

    I have to be careful what I say here, but can tell you that I've heard of multiple major community leaders in Indianapolis who have faced huge headwinds from their peers when trying to do "high aspiration" type things – even when it does not involve public money or controversial political issues. Also, this was one of the rare blog posts that generated direct email to me from people like that telling me I'd hit the nail on the head.

    It's a very serious problem outside of Chicago and the Twin Cities. I think you dramatically underestimate the negative affects of this if you are blase about this characteristic. I'm not saying you'd have to rate it #1, but if you think the Midwest is not a place that is particularly bad in this manner, I'm afraid we must disagree. Heck, just visit even a place like Nashville, TN and see such a totally different approach and vibe on the street it is almost palpable.

    This is more than a garden variety resistance to change, which is almost universally common.

  30. TheLetterAHyphenTheNumberOne says:

    I've thought about this for a while now, and I think it's a false premise. I think Mr. Renn is assigning a cultural trait to the Midwest that, if present, isn't present at a significantly higher level here than elsewhere. I can imagine a mother in South Boston, Maine, the Florida panhandle, an avocado farm in California or in Charlotte North Carolina telling their children that to be "normal" is good enough. I think he's identified a trait that is common in any lower-middle class, established community. When he looks elsewhere and sees that this trait is less prevalent, he's probably seeing a community that is self-selected for valuing advancement. Any area that is mostly full of immigrants or transplants is going to be full of strivers; this is why they moved in the first place. If they weren't ambitious, they would still be in the location they came from, where "normal" is good enough.

  31. John M says:

    However your e-mail response is on this subject, Aaron, it's still argument by anecdote, and decades-old anecdotes at that. Perhaps this attitude exists to a greater degree in the midwest than in the northeast. Suppose that the anecdotes you tell are an accurate reflection of your small town in southern Indiana. How does that differ from a small town in Idaho, or New Mexico, or Florida, or Alabama, or New York State, or Maine? Really, I agree with the commenter above that it's more of a class issue than a geography issue. I'm guessing that the same mentality could be found in some of the white working class enclaves in southwest Chicago, for instance.

    As for Indianapolis, it's hard for me to look at the changes in this city over the last 30 years and view it as an example of midwestern loathing of excellence, merely because some of the changes met some resistance.

  32. jane says:

    I'd also like to disagree with your assertion that people in the Midwest actively discourage the pursuit of excellence.

    I have only been told to go big, but don't get too big for your britches. It's excellence without inflated pretension. I think it's the tops.

    The worst is the often times passive aggressive, overly polite for the sake of politeness. That might just be Minnesota, though…?

  33. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    Positives of the Midwest- As others note, lack of pretension of the people. This leads to a respect for work, and a general friendliness and lack of class-based behavior. I also think it means scummy, back-stabbing behavior is a less-accepted way to succeed than in other parts of the nation.

    Biggest negative- Lack of promotion. Some people turn this into an inferiority complex that is both annoying and often unwarranted. Leads to a common problem mentioned on this blog, where an attitude of "we don't do this here" often gets in the way of doing the right thing for the 21st Century.

    And as others note, Chicago is an entirely different category than any other Midwest City, both in size and in purpose.

  34. Anonymous says:

    In some respects, the responses reflect a larger question — what is the Midwest?

    Nearly 30 years ago Joel Garreau divided the places generally encompassed by this blog into three regions with distinct cultural and economic characteristics. Some states (Illinois, Indiana, Ohio) have all three (Breadbasket, The Foundry, Dixie).

    This is perhaps why identifying "best" and "worst" characteristics can be challenging for the Midwest, and also why Midwesterners find popular characterizations of our culture by outsiders to be so annoying.

    The idea that a unified Midwestern culture exists is probably a mistake. It's really more diverse and complex than popular conceptions. And, it's changing, as anyone who has traveled to small towns can see, becoming increasingly a part of Mexamerica. A very good thing, by the way. A continuation of the legacy of those who sought a better quality of life in the land of milk and honey.

    For what it's worth, I prefer the label "Great Valley" over the "Midwest." Great Valley provides geographic unity to the three cultures identified by Garreau and allows for regional differences at the same time.

  35. Bill says:

    Worst: Lack of the Live and Let Live attitude of so much of the West Coast. People in Seattle, Portland, LA, the Bay, are pretty willing to put up with personal eccentricity on an everyday basis (in the coffee shops, bars, on the street) that here would have people calling the cops.

    Best: Lots of good bars, except in Indiana.

  36. Anonymous says:

    More "amour propre"…hmmm…if that means more money or a way to check reality with vision…just look at your own Indy visitors bureau. Here they have gone out and thought big and at the end of the day they have no money to market the very properties they developed. Same can be said for Cinci and the absolute disdain the populace has for the added tax burden placed on them to finance PBS and GAMB…with no return as the Reds and Bengals…suck!

    Thinking big is fine and should be encouraged…but it should be checked by what is affordable and maintainable by the metro area (w/out looking for handouts from the rest of the state; a particular issue with Indy)

  37. John says:

    I think you may have been having a bad day when you wrote this. I have never gotten the sense that excellence is discouraged in the Midwest. Perhaps that's a function of how parents raise a child and where one goes to school though?

  38. AmericanDirt says:

    I can't help thinking of an old Chicago Reader article that said, with its usual sneer, "Indianapolis might not be a good place to live, but it's an easy one." The exceptionally low cost of living and generally steady job market may exert a significant impact on people's need to aspire–it's far easier to play it safe and still get by with a solid if unexceptional finished product when financial pressures don't force a person to work overtime. In cities like Indianapolis (and most of the Midwest) people aren't motivated to push 60+ hour work weeks out of economic necessity the way they might in Chicago or New York. The certain mental atmosphere that comes with this ambition is infectious and already exists to a certain degree in the high-aspiration cities you mentioned.

    I can't believe I'm making such broad generalizations. But touche: I think you may still be too, so I agree somewhat with Deuteronomy and Urban Politician. So in the Midwest, Chicago has that ambition and Minneapolis may have it (probably not staid St. Paul I'm afraid). In the East Coast, its New York, Boston, and DC–three cities instead of two. As much as I love Philadelphia, it is always in the wake of New York and, to some degree, Chicago (to which it mostly aspires). Cost of living is lower, and the truly ambitious will graduate from Philly's excellent universities and head to New York. Baltimore subsists on DC's table scraps, and only a few of the smaller cities (Wilmington, Providence, and Portland come to mind) are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, and painfully.

    And the South? So there's Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville, maybe Raleigh, with that "palpable" vibe. But where does that leave Memphis? Birmingham? Jacksonville? Richmond? Or that ultimate NIMBY kid who's forever afraid to grow up, New Orleans? Or Louisville, who can never get its ambitions to coincide with reality? Texas I exclude from this because it operates under a different system altogether–its cities' aspirations are fueled by growth as the principal generator of culture in an of itself (Austin perhaps excluded). Not that I would object to this.

    But I don't think it is a regional shortcoming. Rather, I'd assume a broad macro approach and recognize that select few cities scattered across the country have tapped into that ambition. The Midwest, as a region, is still gaining population faster than the Northeast. Those great cities along the right coast have grown sclerotic.

  39. Richard says:

    Interesting discussion. I found it specifically because I moved to the Midwest (Chicago suburbs) from the northeast (Stamford, CT; I grew up in suburban NY), and I have found it very difficult to assimilate to life out here. I tend to be pretty laid back myself and I find people here (again, suburb or Chicago) to be anything but. They are very conservative from a political perspective and NEVER let you forget it. If you are at all left leaning they don't even UNDERSTAND why you would be. I also don't buy into the Midwest "nice" thing. They may be to your face, but I find them to be passive aggressive and no more "nice" than people where I grew up in the Northeast. In fact, I've personally heard plenty of people out here express opinions openly and without provocation that are racist and bigoted. It's like they delight in their lack of open-mindedness and think anyone that is open-minded is weak. In a way, it reminds me of Eastern Europe here which makes sense given the seemingly huge Polish population. The "go work at the factory" mentality that others have mentioned is absolutely true. I just find it depressing here due to the intense focus on politics, mega evangelical churches, unbelievable urban sprawl (and I thought NY was bad; not even close to suburban Chicago) and the rampant drinking. Of course, these are generalizations based on my experiences. I do think Chicago itself is a great, fun city. Once you leave the city proper it's a different story though…

  40. skyduster says:


    I'm very curious where you live (Wheaton?). Evangelicals are not at all numerous here in the Chicago area, or in the Great Lakes region in general. You can check out this map that shows concentrations of Evangelicals across the US by county: Evangelicals become more present in central and southern Illinois, but northeast Illinois -by contrast- looks identical to the Northeast USA, with very little Evangelical penetration. Although there *are* some pockets of the Chicago suburbs that feel more like the South or the inland West (these places are the exception, not the norm), and the sheer size of Chicagoland's population means that there probably are quite a few Evangelicals here, even if they are a small proportion of the population.

    Chicago-area conservatives are -for the most part- Reaganite orthodox conservatives -and social to an extent. The fundamentalist religious kind are very few. Republicans in Illinois are more moderate than national Republicans…they have to be. Illinois has been leaning more and more reliably Democratic since the early 1990s. The 2008 election was the final nail in the coffin for Illinois Republicans. Even the suburban counties that were once reliably Republican (Lake, DuPage), are now very purple. I do agree, however, that there's some people that will -unfortunately- voice a bigoted remark out loud, but it's not from a fanatic religious POV.

    I highly agree with you of the cultural difference between the "city" and the "suburb"…and by "city" I include many (but not all) of the inner-ring suburbs (Evanston, Niles, Lincolnwood, Skokie, Norridge, Oak Park, River Forest, Rosemont, Berwyn, etc). As someone who's lived and worked in the city for much of my life, I can tell you first hand the daily culture shock I experienced when I commuted to a job I had in Naperville for about a year (and most of the folks at that job lived near Naperville). To say the least: after work, everyone loved hanging out at this giant sports bar (with giant TVs everywhere) located in parking lot of a mall…I HATED that place…give me a nice walkable neighborhood in the city, where I can bar-hop and check out cool intimate urban bars located in nice historic neighborhoods.

    But it's also worth mentioning that the suburbs themselves can be divided in cultural "microregions". The Southwest and West suburbs, for example, are very very different from the Northwest suburbs which are more densely populated and just culturally different than, say, Joliet which is a whole other world. As a city person, I feel perfectly at ease in the NW suburbs, like Des Plaines, Arlington Hts, Mt Prospect. Joliet and Naperville (the West and SW exurbs), OTOH, are a whole other world to me.

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