William Easterly asserts that David Brooks illustrates how clueless Easterners can be without local knowledge about My Midwest:
A frequent theme in this blog is the importance of local knowledge for development. David Brooks helpfully illustrated in his column today on my home region the Midwest. He brilliantly demonstrates how outsiders can get lost in the jungle in a region not their own.
Brooks’ Midwest is:
that region of America that starts in central New York and Pennsylvania and then stretches out through Ohio and Indiana before spreading out to include Wisconsin and Arkansas.
Mr. Brooks is apparently unaware from his vantage point on the Far Eastern Coastal Rim that central New York is still in the East, not the Midwest. And there has never been a single Midwesterner in two centuries who ever thought they were in the same region as Arkansas.
I grant the point about Arkansas. But I think Brooks may be on more solid ground about central New York and Pennsylvania. On a biographical note I’ve lived in upstate New York, but near the border with New England (this is why I am a Celtics fan). I’ve also lived in western Pennsylvania, north of Pittsburgh (I’m a Steeler’s fan, and suspicious of the Browns). As a matter of geography Pittsburgh and Buffalo are Northeastern cities, but as a matter of cultural sensibility they’re classic Rustbelt metropolises. They are technically outside the Midwest, but they are most definitely part of the Great Lakes Region. Syracuse may be a liminal in terms of identity, but I don’t think Brooks is totally off base assuming that its sensibility is more with the Midwest than the East.
Local knowledge matters. Most Americans are conscious of the fact that though Florida is in the South, in reality it is the northern part of Florida which is of the South. Fewer Americans are aware of the fact that though southern Illinois is in the Midwest its cultural sensibilities reflect the South more than the North. There are historical reasons for this. The southern two thirds of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio were settled by whites from the South; Scots-Irish from the Border States, but also aristocratic low-country gentleman such as William Henry Harrison. In contrast, the northern portions of Illinois, the Upper Midwestern states of Minnesota and Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio’s northern Western Reserve region, were populated by Yankees. Importantly these Yankees may have ultimately had their origins in New England, but secondarily many of them were from the Yankee de facto colony of western New York.
The historical connection between western New York and the Midwest can be traced out in the early Mormon migration. Palmyra, New York, Kirtland, Ohio, and Independence, Missouri. The Mormons were mostly Yankees of New England stock, and they followed the paths which other Yankees had already trod. Notably in Missouri some of their conflicts with the earlier white population was explicitly sectional, as the locals were by origin Southerners who disliked the Mormons as Yankee cultists.
But to resolve the issue about where the Midwest starts, I think you need a real social metric.
Obviously the map doesn’t perfectly match our preconceived categories of region. But the shift in terminology in western New York and Pennsylvania is very striking, and something people in the are are very conscious of. I haven’t heard of a good explanation why coastal Wisconsin and a penumbra around St. Louis stands out anomalously in the Midwest. Though it has been pointed out to me that the original elite of St. Louis had pretty strong New England connections.