Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

Miriam in the Midwest by Miriam Fathalla

[ So a few months back I got an email from Miriam Fathalla. As crazy as this sounds, she was quitting her job as an urban planner in Melbourne (yes, Australia) not to move to back home to Portland, but to come spend a few months checking out the Midwest. She is now here, traveling to various parts of the region, and blogging about it over at Miriam in the Midwest, which I’d encourage you to check out. She also graciously agreed to talk about her project and some of what she’s learned so far along the away. I hope you enjoy – Aaron. ]

Hi, I’m Miriam. I’m an American/Canadian citizen and an Australian permanent resident who has been living, researching and writing (www.MiriamintheMidwest.com) in Chicago since April, when I left my job as an Environmental Planning Officer at a Melbourne-area local government and moved myself, my curiosity, my Australian dollars and my post-graduate studies of Urban Planning and Community Development to an environment that would increase the value of these things: the American Midwest. I also kind of like run-on sentences. And fragments.

So why did I do all of this? Well, I’m intensely curious about people, their places and emerging and established social and economic structures in the American Midwest.

I have been following The Urbanophile for well over 2 years and the site’s analysis of the American Midwest coupled with stories about creative individuals and communities I found in Detroit Blog, Yes!, Ode, Good, New Internationalist, and New Geography inspired in me an increasingly strong attraction and curiosity about this thing called the Midwest, until it could no longer be ignored. As an American who hadn’t lived in the USA since 2004, I was curious to know what it meant to be an American anymore, I was frustrated by my fruitless attempts to turn my inspiration from reading these accounts into actions in my local area and I wasn’t entirely sure the Midwest existed (I kind of always thought it might be a Hollywood soundstage – like the moon landing). So, for these reasons I came to the Midwest to experience, research and write about emerging social and economic structures and discover what magic element was missing from my projects in Australia.

My broad, sweeping generalizing observations so far include:

People in the Midwest are young and fun.

As a 29 year old in Australia, I would go out with friends and often wonder where all of the people my own age were. But I have met many others in my age bracket with similar tastes and goals in Chicago and Detroit; even a handful that has also left professions to follow passions. This may be due to simply being in a larger urban environment or perhaps the stronger Australian economy and more conservative society is more conducive to twenty-somethings taking the house and husband path and American culture is more encouraging of independent and creative pursuits.

People in the Midwest are motivated.

The ambition, drive and energy of Chicago and Detroit are palatable. It’s not just willingness to work, it’s a desire to. Though this is likely connected to the elongated economic downturn of the area, especially compared to the currently surging Australian economy, this is none the less impressive. From Michael McDonald-themed dance parties to community learning structures to neighborhood parks to grassroots heat wave strategies (broken open fire hydrants), people are creating the elements of their society they wish existed. DIY isn’t just a scene here, a weekend pastime; it’s a way of life, the way of life of the Midwest.

This is likely due to the traditional middle-class nature of this society. I believe the proliferation of this mentality is a part of a wider social phenomenon that is being born out of shifting expectations of the government vs communities and I am excited to see this shift is not resulting in notions of competitive scarcity and increased social isolation but rather in creative and collaborative social initiatives and enterprises.

People in the Midwest can eat well.

Food is cheap. This may shock, offend or humor Midwestern residents, but compared to Australia food is definitely cheaper here. And I’m shopping and eating within the third largest American city – I’ve been told groceries are a lot cheaper in further outlying areas.

Stay with me, because this argument compounds.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (SNAP, colloquially known as food stamps) provides qualifying low-income individuals and families with a monthly credit of a minimum of $200 that can only be spent on food items. In my opinion, Australia’s social welfare system is more generous overall than the USA’s, however this type of benefit does not exist in Australia. Rental assistance, unemployment, parenting payments and baby bonuses are available but nothing that directly ensures residents have access to food is part of the Australian system. I think the American SNAP system is gold.

Since February 2011, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s “Double Up Food Bucks” program doubles the value of SNAP benefits used at many farmers markets in Michigan and Ohio. So, provided they can get to a participating farmer’s market, low-income residents are guaranteed access not just to food, but healthy, fresh and local produce. 

The program works by trading SNAP benefit credits for bonus tokens. This alternative currency can only be spent on produce from within the state, thus stretching consumer food dollars while supporting the local economy and local food producers. As an added bonus, the program provides experiential local food market education; participants can’t help but learn about what grows in their local environment and in what season as they seek out local growers and their goods.

Also, there is no good Mexican food in Australia* and I love burritos. I love them so much I almost stopped on my way from Australia to Chicago in San Francisco for a day just to get my fill. But then I realized that Chicago has a very high Hispanic population, and my love for my future city grew exponentially.

And then I tried a Chicago-style hot dog. 

And then I met the Tamale Guy.

Yes, I approve of the culinary culture of Chicago.

And it’s true that, portion sizes are enormous compared to those in Australia.

*I purposefully say this, hoping that some will be offended and make it their mission to prove me wrong when I return.

People in the Midwest are nice.

Yes my Chicago neighborhood is a far cry from my Australian home town of 300,000 where I often wouldn’t close, let alone lock my back door. Living on the western side of Humboldt Park, most people make a face when I tell them where I live, while I lovingly refer to my neighborhood as ‘vibrant’.

I’m on a relatively quiet one-way street a mini-block away from a major intersection but there’s always noise in the street. I consider it a lively buzz, the heartbeat that lets me know that there are others here with me. Right now I hear sirens, dogs barking, cars arriving and kids playing hide and seek. Often it’s someone(s) yelling in Spanish, ghetto beats and Spanish radio stations. They say you’re not really in Chicago until your bike gets stolen; count me as ‘arrived’ then. I’ve learned the difference between the sound of gun shots or fireworks from a couple of blocks away (but wouldn’t be stressed by hearing either), I see my neighbor dealing drugs on the street daily and the police patrol my neighborhood, but I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

Despite Chicago being the largest city I’ve ever experienced, I find the people here to be incredibly friendly. Not just polite, but actually ‘want to get to know you’, ‘help you with your groceries’ friendly. Chivalry is rife and I’m not complaining. I can truthfully say that every time I have gotten on a bus with others, men of all ages have stood back to let myself and other women board first.

I believe there are a number of compounding reasons for this:

  • Americans are generally more extroverted than Australians. However people in the Midwest seem to be friendlier than Portlanders.
  • In an undergraduate Urban Communication course, I discussed how Hispanic cultures can be found to be more extroverted than white groups (apologies, I’m having difficulty finding the exact reference). Chicago has a high Hispanic population. I’m not saying I’m only running into friendly Hispanic people, but that the strong influence of these cultures may affect how everyone acts here. (And I admit that I live in a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood so my experiences may have a certain bias.)
  • People are inherently good, creative and social creatures. I’m happy to see frequent examples of people bonding together to withstand hardships and create positive responses to potentially stressful situations. I have found that the lack of law enforcement in Detroit actually makes way for must more creativity than violence.

People in the Midwest are proud.

Okay, first of all Americans in general are proud. This is sometimes perceived as arrogant or haughty by others.

One of the first things I noticed upon my arrival was just how long it took to order breakfast at Denny’s. White/wheat, how do you like your eggs, what sides…  In Detroit I met a man who told me that he would purposefully ask for water with cucumber at bars just to prove that when asked what he would like, he should be able to be served whatever it is that he actually would like at that moment. 

I believe this proliferation of choice and the belief that we should have an abundance of options is a direct derivative of promise of American liberty. Australia does not have a Bill of Rights (and I was terrified when I discovered this). Considering how often references are made to this document, The Constitution and the rights and responsibilities these articles describe, it is clear to me that this absence would  affect the comparative culture of Australia.  However which is ‘better’ is of course impossible to say.  However a recent article in the New York Times is relevant to the discussion.

But Midwesterners are really proud. Proud of their country, their region, their state, their city, even their neighborhood and street.  I’m not really sure what is behind this, but I’m enjoying the scenery of t shirts, stickers and business names that proclaim hometown pride. And I admit that I’m getting sucked into it too.

When I share my new found love for the Midwest with others, pride of place is often reflected back at me. However sometimes it has been met with raised eyebrows and “You haven’t been here in the winter yet, have you?” 

I understand that the summers in Chicago are generally known for their magic, especially in relation to the city’s dastardly cold, bleak and isolating winters. Therefore it may be that the vitality of place I am currently experiencing is the annual aggregate energy of 8 million people condensed into a few hospitable months; however I won’t know for some time.

According to today’s travel bookings, I will leave the Midwest at the end of October. In the meantime, I am open to any suggestions regarding individuals, communities or organizations that are doing interesting things in the Midwest that lead to more connected, sustainable and healthy societies.

My goals are to document people’s stories and develop my understandings, while growing my network of community development, urban planning and design professionals and enthusiasts. I consider what I do ‘gonzo journalism and contemporary anthropology’ and my card says even says so. 

My research so far included pieces on group dance phenomena, placemaking, the last company town in the USA, community signage, informal street-level governance and more while I have articles on alternative food structures, community composting, crowd sourced funding, hometown pride, an underground library, alternative grassroots health care schemes, alternative housing, Detroit blogs, sustainable fashion and the general magnificence of Detroit in the works.

I have gone on “field trips” to Portland, Oregon and Detroit, Michigan and have more planned for Iowa City, Omaha, Wyoming, Winnemucca, Nevada, Burning Man, Provo, Utah, Moab, Utah, Colorado Springs, Colorado, Kansas City, Missouri, St Louis, Missouri, New York City, Los Angeles, California, as well as a return to Detroit).

Please feel free to contact me via my blog at Miriam in the Midwest with any questions, comments contacts or suggestions for further research.

Topics: Urban Culture
Cities: Chicago, Detroit

21 Responses to “Miriam in the Midwest by Miriam Fathalla”

  1. Tee R. says:

    As a Midwesterner I am glad to see another place online documenting its quirks.

    But why stick to Illinois and Michigan. We here in Ohio are way more Midwestern than those guys. :)

  2. Uncle David says:

    Wow! Terrific! Very personal, centered in the now! Glad to see that you are experiencing the midwest to the fullest in these few short months! And congratulations on the kudos you received from Urbanophile!

  3. Phil Lavoie says:

    Broad Ripple would love to have you visit!

    We are a very eclectic neighborhood of Indianapolis. We thrive on a vibrant nightlife, locally-owned shops, and delicious culinary experiences.

    There are all types of people and the creative community is helping expand the neighborhood’s unique feel.

    Not to mention we are America’s MOST affordable city, after moving from Chicago 6 years ago, I paid off my house and have effectively retired at 36!!! (Thanks Indy!) I now plan to help expand Broad Ripple start-up tech community.

    Let me know if you would like a host, I’d also love to have you attend one of the board meetings of the Broad Ripple Village Association (as my guest). We meet on the first Tuesday of every month.

    I always feel like I’m on vacation in Broad Ripple so visit anytime! Even when it snows!

    Great post!

  4. Dee says:

    I’m a Detroiter who’s living in the UK, and this made me massively homesick. Tee is right, though. You should also check out the Ohio cities. They’re smaller, but they’re pretty cool. Just leave yourself some extra travel time. People in Ohio drive, like, 50 miles an hour all the time.

  5. Nate says:

    Don’t overlook Cincinnati. I think it is one of the more interesting cities in the Midwest. It is the first major city away from the coast, and began its decline as Chicago grew. Over-the-Rhine ” It is believed to be the largest, most intact urban historic district in the United States” I think there are some great things happening there.


  6. Chris Barnett says:

    If you’re up for a neighborhood-level experience, come to Indy this Saturday for the near east side’s “Feast of Lanterns”, a resurrected turn-of-the century festival in a local park. (It’s not far from the Megabus stop.) Food, fun, local live music, artisans, neighborhood pride…the quintessential summerfest. But beware…the place is just crawling with community and neighborhood development folks. :)

  7. Rosa Angelone says:

    Since Broad Ripple in Indy has spoken up..I have to plug Irvington In Indy. We are a neighborhood that has been lucky to have several generations of urbanophiles. Each group working hard to come up with new ideas to make our commmunity better. The latest wave include young (and not so young my mom is 60 and runs a used and new bookstore here) business people creating demand where no one else thought their was a a demand. A young real estate developer took run down and dangerous appartments and created condos. I speciality pizza place opened and the crowds turned out for it. A new brewery is set to open. We have theaters, coffee shops, and resturants, an art museum, and a historical society. When you come to Indy come check us out!

  8. Miriam says:

    Thank you all for your suggestions and comments, please visit http://www.miriaminthemidwest.com to read more of my work.

    My travels so far have been dictated by funds and existing contacts, not snobbery.

    Your suggestions and contacts for further research are greatly appreciated and I will definitely follow them up in September (after Burning Man – a major research focus of mine).

  9. Miriam says:

    whoops – didn’t tick the box to be emailed comments the first time:)

  10. Jon Speer says:

    Miriam – When you make the trip to Indy, be sure to spend a day in Bloomington, about an hour south of Indianapolis. Bloomington is home to Indiana University. Students are back now, and the town has come alive with a brand new population. I’ve been staying here the past few months and love it. I may just find a permanent residence here.

  11. Jake M. says:

    You gotta get to Madison, Milwaukee, and Wisconsin in general. Milwaukee’s an easy train ride from Chicago, and is alive in summertime. Unfortunately, you’ve missed most of the ethnic festivals, but with the Brewers in 1st and warm weather still around, there’s still a lot to do. Madison is an awesome capital/university town and with the students back, downtown takes on a different energy, although there’s certainly plenty else to enjoy outside of campus.

    Seriously, take 3 hours and make it up here. Great natural beauty and even better people.

  12. Neil says:

    I will second Ohio and in particular Cincinnati. The whole Midwestren pride thing other than in the North Part of the state isn’t really there IMO and you’ll notice a lot of other differences too. I’d argue that culturally Cincy has more in commmon with the South and Mid-Atlantic than the rest of the midwest even, living in its own bubble often oblivious to whats going on outside of its universe. Oh and its a really beautiful if not worn down city, its architecturally like San Francisco and Boston had a kid, though said kid didn’t really clean itself up like its parents in the last 30 years.

    I think that the Upper Midwest is a vastly different culture than the rest of the Midwest. It would help broaden your perspective, and see the Midwest as a more complex beast that often gets oversimplified by coastal folk with statements like “Chicago is the quintessential midwestren city”. Yeah Quintessential with a large transit network, high population density and cosmopolitan population, hmmm…

  13. matt says:

    I would definitely recommend coming down to St. Louis, across Missouri and then west to Kansas City. Kansas City is probably the friendliest larger city I have ever been to, and it has good food (BBQ capital of the midwest)and is interesting to boot. Depending on how you get there, if by car it might serve you well to go up to Omaha or up I-35 to Minneapolis and then back towards Chicago.

  14. matt says:

    One more thing, there is arguably three midwestern regions: eastern, great lakes, and western midwest [or plains], and I think it’s important to visit all three to get a good idea of the larger region. The Mississippi River arguably splits the east from western midwest, the great lakes section is more obvious. Also, people become even nicer as you move west towards the plains in the midwest, I think.

  15. Brian Finstad says:

    You should come see Minneapolis too. It is a very liberal and progressive city. Although everyone knows that Minneapolis was founded upon a Scandinavian based culture, people are also surprised to find out about the large immigrant populations here. There are mega sized authentic burritos waiting for you on Lake Street. We also have the largest concentration of Somali people in the world outside of Mogadishu. We have more theater per capita than any city outside of New York and the highest percentage of GLBT population per capita (people on the coasts find this hard to believe). Also, we’re the most literate city in the nation. I have a friend who moved here from the West Coast and fell in love with it because she said “Here people judge you on your intelligence more than you looks.” Not to say we are bad looking by any means! LOL

  16. Matt in Sydney says:

    Thanks for a great post Miriam. As an Aussie who has recently come home to Sydney after a few years living in San Francisco, I agree with many of your observations about cultural differences. And you’re very right regarding the lack of good mexican food in Oz, but I bet you’ll miss the thai!

  17. Juanita says:

    I loved the article. I too live in Humboldt Park and love it!!!

  18. Miriam says:

    Chris, Tee, Phil, Dee, Nate, Rosa, Jon – Due to your comments and others, I’m planning trips to Cleveland, Cincinnati and Indianapolis (I will be developing this piece into a presentation for the Urbanized Summit:Look/Move/Grow! in Indianapolis Oct 7).

    Jake – Thanks for your comments. Milwaukee was one of my original destinations but the opportunity and inspiration just never materialized this time around. I hope to make it to Wisconsin in the next phase of my project.

    Neil – My reflections are obviously hindered by my experiences so far so I’m looking forward to visiting Cincinnati and broadening my understanding of the Midwest.

    Matt – I agree that the Midwest is a diverse area and your tighter definitions seem to make sense, thanks. And thanks for the driving directions! I’m actually going to be spending a day in St Louis and Kansas City this week. Any suggestions for specific people, places, activities to check out? Please email me directly at miriam@miriaminthemidwest.com.

    Brian – wow, what a great sell for Minneapolis. This phase of the project is getting filled up with trips in Ohio but I’m very keen to find time for Minneapolis now!

    Matt – thanks for your comment, it’s great to hear from an Aussie. I admit that you’re spot on about the Thai food!

  19. Miriam says:

    Thanks to many responses and the wonderful service of Megabus I will be in Indianapolis Oct 4-7, Cincinnati Oct 7-10 and Cleveland Oct 10-12. Please feel free to hit me up with any offers for local tours or suggestions!

  20. Ameya says:

    Oh no! How can you come to Ohio and not visit Columbus?! I am an Ohio native & I just moved to Columbus and it is amazing! I’m an urban planning student at Ohio State and i’m absolutely in love with this city and it’s neighborhoods and pride and LOVE of development. My hometown, Dayton, didn’t have any of that at all, downtown was still a bad word. I hear a lot of good things about Cinci revitalization too, but not much about Cleveland, though I do know there are efforts going on there. Columbus is in between the two.. you should stop by! 😉

  21. Ameya says:

    Oh PS:
    “perhaps the stronger Australian economy and more conservative society is more conducive to twenty-somethings taking the house and husband path and American culture is more encouraging of independent and creative pursuits.”

    Made me laugh! Outside of Chicago that is the exact case of the midwest. I’m 23 and married with a toddler, almost all of my friends are at least married, many of them with a kid or few as well. The rest of the country looks down on us for our young family starting, and midwesterners usually spit out their drinks when they hear a New Yorker say that a 29 year old is a “young mother”! Of course it’s definitely a socio-economic issue, but that we midwesterners get married/have babies “too early” is a pretty standard idea the rest of the country has (well, except the south they’re pretty similar).

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