Characterizing the Midwest in Maps and Essays.

Last week, FiveThirtyEight published the results of a survey that asked self-identified Midwesterners what states properly constitute the region:

Colorado? Really?!

As a Midwestern expat in the Southeast, I have strong opinions on the matter (I’m totally judging you, 10% of respondents who place WY and PA in the Midwest. To wit, Meghann Marco nails the argument against Pennsylvania’s and Oklahoma’s inclusion in her fabulous list States I Refuse To Acknowledge as Midwestern). Anyway, when I finished reading through the survey results I remembered several other articles I’ve enjoyed over the past few years that relate to the Midwest in some way.

1.  Defining the physical limits of the Midwest remains a popular topic. So far, my favorite contribution to the ongoing debate is this story published on The Atlantic Cities last year. In it, the author discussed the results of an interactive survey that asked respondents to draw in the boundaries of the Midwest on a web map of the U.S. The results highlighted the amorphous nature of this regional border:

Nearly a year later, the results look like this:

Much like the FiveThirtyEight survey, the Midwest as defined by Midwesterners is more tightly bounded geographically than it is by those who self-identified as living outside the Midwest. If you want to see how your definition stacks up against all others, you can take the survey here. The results page that follows the survey is especially interesting. I certainly spent way more time than I should have viewing the results through different layers to see how the Midwest is understood by respondents from different states, from different countries, or from those who have lived in the region for different lengths of time. The article goes on to offer an insightful look at how the Midwest’s pattern of urbanization more clearly distinguishes it from it’s fellows. It also introduces some of the research questions relating to how the Midwest will be defined in the future.


2. Having grown up oscillating between the Chicagoland area and small Corn Belt farm towns, I particularly appreciate the humor in this “Map of the Midwest, as viewed by Chicagoans.” 



3. “The Haunting Beauty of Farm Equipment” highlights photographer Lucinda Devlin’s recent work on industrial agriculture in the Midwest:


With this series, which Devlin began in the mid-2000s, her goal was originally to make portraits of farm equipment. The project expanded to incorporate Midwestern landscapes. Field Culture then evolved into a reflection on the very notion of cultivation, and how advanced technology is used to not only togenetically engineer crops but to cultivate energy itself through the use of the turbines that have sprouted up in these landscapes…

“These photos, while characteristic of Middle America, are not stereotypical images of fields or tractors. In these countryside scenes, nature, man, and technology cohabit a restructured landscapethe embodiment of industrial agriculture.”




4. Which state is the flattest of the flat? Not Kansas. Geographers at the University of Kansas recently published a ranking of the lower 48 states based on relative flatness based on their geomorphometric analysis:

“‘We’re trying to simulate exactly how people perceive flatness when they stand in the middle of a large plain,’ said Dobson. ‘We imagined looking toward the horizon and seeing a rise of land to the height of a tall tree at three miles distance. Surely, anyone would believe that is truly flat. Then we devised a mathematical way of measuring the effect’…

By any measure, Florida takes the prize for the flattest state in the nation becuase the highest point in the state is only 345 feet above sea level.  Then Illinois, North Dakota, Louisiana, Minnesota and Delaware follow. Kansas merely ranks seventh in flatness.”

The story was covered further in The Atlantic:

So why do this work—why focus on flatness in the first place? For one thing, there’s the novelty of it. “People measure mountains and hills all the time. I’m not sure anybody has purposely measured ‘flat’ before,” Dobson says. There’s also the fact that perceptions matter—not just culturally, but also economically. ‘For those who think this is a frivolous study, it’s important because it really does affect people’s perceptions,” Dobson notes. “People don’t apply for jobs here because they think it’s flat and boring.'”


5. Finally, this lovely essay on understanding “Midwest” in changing times with the works of Willa Cather:

My Antonia

“It’s the taming that’s distinctively Midwestern, as opposed to the vast adventures of the West, and this modest process brings us closer to understanding the Midwest’s essence by allowing us to glimpse it as part of history. In the beginning of Cather’s 1913 O Pioneers!,, a family of immigrants, just having moved to the prairie, convey the anxiety that “the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness.” Today, on the contrary, certain agriculture zones in the Midwest should be counted among the most industrial places in America. The Midwest has transformed, whether or not it contains an essence we’re still familiar with.

For Franzen the essence of the Midwest seems to be a prolonged innocence. I would also suggest that it involves an open-minded moral seriousness, along with a good-natured happiness distinct from humor, or at least comedy. (Comedy in Cather’s prairie novels is nonexistent—people “laugh immoderately,” but you don’t.) Still, Franzen’s skepticism is correct. To try to name the essence of the Midwest, as I’ve just done, is to summon shades of doubt — and just as we’re encountering that doubt new aspects are being added to the Midwest’s regional identity. It wouldn’t be hard to list changes happening to the Midwest today: immigration and demographic shifts, the decline of industry in the north and the total spread of agribusiness in the plains, the receding importance of Chicago and other cities as financial centers, and so on. Looming above all of these, however, is climate change, with its odd mix of obvious influence and apparent unfathomability.”





3 thoughts on “Characterizing the Midwest in Maps and Essays.

  1. I LOVE THIS. You did a great job of compiling all of this information into one nerdy package. I’m definitely going to take the Midwest quiz now ;).

  2. P.S. I would have never guessed that Florida was the flattest! I guess no one cares about it being flat since it’s surrounded by water, whereas if all you’ve got is corn & soybeans, people are going to notice the flatness a lot quicker.

  3. Thanks, doll! I never thought about Florida being flat either, probably because I associate flatness with row crop monotony rather than the coast. Hope you liked the Midwest quiz!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s