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.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

About the Urbanophile


Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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