The American South races ahead, creating a society based on excellence, while the Midwest lags behind, mired in the tradition of a glorious past.
Chicago excepted, of course.
That’s the contention of Aaron Renn, who blogs as The Urbanophile. Like all of Renn’s work, it’s informed, provocative and required reading. Which is not to say he’s right.
As you’ll see, Renn notes that the South has seized national dominance in college football – currently, seven of the 10 top-ranked teams are in Dixie. He quotes the New York Times’ explanation:
“The SEC sold excellence. The Big Ten sold tradition.”
Renn then goes on to say that Southern cities are creating a new and superior civilization, through sheer ambition and imagination, while the Midwest slowly decays. Southerners, he says, have “massively elevated their game in the last 40 years and are working hard to keep getting better...Meanwhile, the Midwest is regressing towards what the South used to be.”
He cites new and expensive arts and infrastructure projects in cities such as Charlotte, Dallas, Atlanta and Nashville, mostly because (as they say in Charlotte) “we don’t want to be No. 2 to anybody.”
Renn asks: “Outside of Chicago, does anybody in the Midwest talk like that?
As a Chicagoan, I’m grateful that our town is exempted from this litany of woe. But I wonder: does Chicago’s very success explain a lot of what’s gone wrong with the rest of the Midwest?
Smaller Southern cities such as Charlotte and Nashville have resources today because they’ve lost less over the years than similar Northern cities. Most didn’t have legacies of heavy industry to overcome: those that did, such as Birmingham, aren’t doing so well. The same cities benefitted in the last half of the 20th century from the movement of industry from the Midwest to the Sun Belt: low wages, anti-union legislation and air conditioning had more to do with this than ambition and imagination.
But I’d suggest that another reason lies in the fact that Chicago stands out as the one Midwestern metropolis that has shaken off its Rust Belt torpor and is coping with global competition. This is good for Chicago, but not so good for the rest of the region.
No one city dominates the South as Chicago dominates the Midwest. Even Atlanta, the capital of the South, is barely one-eighth as big as Chicago, and its metro region is only half that of the Chicago metro.
In the global economy, sheer size is a great big magnet, drawing in the resources and people from the surrounding region. We see this in the exploding cities of China, India and South America. We see it in Europe, where London booms while the rest of England slowly rots.
And we see it in the Midwest where, as the urbanologist Richard Florida has written, Chicago has simply sucked the life – the finance, the business services, the investment, especially the best young people – out of the rest of the Midwest.
To any young person in Nashville or Charlotte, the home town offers plenty of opportunities for work and a good life. To any young person stuck in post-industrial Cleveland or Detroit, it’s only logical to decamp to Chicago, rather than to stay home and try to build something in the wreckage of a vanished economy.
Not that some don’t try. Several Midwestern cities, like their Southern counterparts, had less of an industrial legacy and, like them, are doing well now: places such as Indianapolis, Columbus, Minneapolis and Des Moines come to mind. Other cities, such as Grand Rapids and Kansas City, blossom today with the same kind of ambition and imagination that Renn sees in the South.
And if Big Ten teams can’t whup Alabama or Auburn on a Saturday afternoon, the rest of their universities remain centers of academic excellence. Renn grants this, but he’s right to worry about it: many of the Midwest’s finest research universities are state schools that suffer from declining state support. Might there come a day when Ole Miss or Florida State simply outspend Michigan and Ohio State for scholars as well as coaches and quarterbacks?
Put me down for a chauvinist elitist, but I’d still argue for the superiority of Midwestern civilization, as embodied in its arts and culture, over anything outside Bourbon Street. The industrial clout of the old Midwest paid for some marvelous museums and symphonies, many of which – the Cleveland Symphony and the Detroit Institute of Arts, for instance – survive today. But Renn points out that the Clevelanders have established an outpost in Miami, and Detroit’s creditors hope to seize the treasures in the city’s museum. Can artistic excellence survive when the economy that financed it goes away?
In the end, the South has far to go. Some infrastructure is nice, but racial voting restrictions and Bible-bound attitudes toward same-sex marriage leave the region stuck in its past, just as the brownfield sites of vacant factories keep the Midwest tethered to its own history.
The sheer forces of modernization that Renn cites will pull the South, one of these days, into the 21st century, socially as well as economically. In the meantime, the Midwest would do well to heed Renn’s warnings of the race to excellence, before it really does lose that race.