True North: Where is the Midwest?

I’ve lived in a lot of states. I’ve grown to be rather sensitive to regional differences. Well, if not sensitive then at least cognizant of the ticks, habits, temperaments, and language of not just myself but those around me. There are subtle and myriad differences all around us. They add up and ultimately create a regional character.

Every few months I have a version of the argument about what makes someone a Midwesterner and where exactly The Midwest is. I’ve come to realize that The Midwest doesn’t exist. Or, at least, what I conceive of when I think of The Midwest and what makes someone a Midwesterner doesn’t quite match what others think. 

Alex Schieferdecker (who also writes some rather good articles covering Minnesota United over at Northern Pitch) wrote a wonderfully persuasive essay contending that “Minnesota and the Twin Cities secede from the ‘Midwest’ and claim ownership of a new region: the North.”

An aerial view of Minneapolis

I’m on board with this idea. Partially because of the fact that I’ve gotten into so many arguments with people who claim to be from the Midwest but really aren’t–they’re Easterners who have no coast, they’re Southerners in a border state, or they’re Westerners who somehow think the Plains and Midwest are synonyms.

There are cities that partake of the Midwesterner’s ethic but that are themselves outliers in their state (I’m looking at you Pittsburgh). When people say they’re from the East people often hear ‘East Coast.’ But being an Easterner means two things: the Appalachians define your background and/or you exist solely in the Eastern time zone. Pennsylvania is an Eastern state as is, I would argue, Ohio. Just because you have a Great Lake border doesn’t mean you’re Midwest. I lived in Oberlin, OH for year and for several years my sister lived in Toledo, OH. Folk in northern Ohio have Midwestern traits, but they complain about snow and cold. Complaining about Winter rather than embracing it or (at worst) stoically enduring it is something an Easterner does.

I got my master’s degree from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. If we ignore the stubborn refusal to tell time like the rest of the nation, I still have a hard time including Indiana as a Midwestern state. Again, they whine about snow. Indianapolis is a lovely city, but it’s more similar to Louisville or Cincinnati than it is to Chicago, Milwaukee, or the Twin Cities.

As a kid, I lived in central Missouri. Going to St. Louis was a treat as this was at the height of the Ozzie Smith, Vince Coleman, & Willie McGee Cardinals. As a nascent Chicago Cubs fan, I learned to stand against the Cardinals during this time. Missouri is a state that no one wants, not part of the South, not part of the Plains or West, and not really Midwest. It’s our nation’s cold sore. It’s not part of the Midwest, no matter what cities like St. Louis or Kansas City (both in Missouri and Kansas, KCMO and KCK respectively because that’s not confusing) might contend. Speaking frankly, Missouri is too openly and unapologicially racist to be Midwestern.

What the US Census Bureau considers The Midwest

Although Wikipedia might include states like Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota in its definition of what makes up the Midwest, none of these states are. Rather, from Oklahoma to North Dakota you enter the West, specifically The Great Plains. Plains states are cousins to Midwestern states but separate and different. Very different. The vast open expanse of The Plains changes your sensibilities and though there may be shared ethnic heritage it easily overcomes it.

Where does that leave us? Well, my conception of what makes one a Midwesterner is quite narrow: Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Chicagoland, and Michigan.

midwest 1
My begrudgingly inclusive conception of The Midwest

I see Interstate 70 is the farthest south I will allow the Midwest’s boundary to go, my eastern border is Interstate 75, the northern border is Canada, and the western border is Interstate 29. In fact, my instincts want to have the southern border of the Midwest be Interstate 80, but I will make allowances.

Even my expanded Midwest doesn’t fit with my experience living in or spending time in these states. So I return to the idea that what I think of as The Midwest is actually the North. At my heart I’m an adopted Minnesotan (even though I was raised in Wisconsin) and as such, I like the cold. In fact, even the slightest humidity and heat makes me physically sick. For me, loving Winter is what makes you a Midwesterner. But when you consider it, this is really only something loved by the true northerner. So instead of a Midwesterner or continuing to argue about what is or is not Midwest with Easterners, Southerners, and Westerners, I’m going to put an end to the conversation. I’m from The North. 

If my wife & I were a t-shirt, we’d be this t-shirt

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