clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

What are we missing when we talk about the Midwest?

New, 94 comments

The Midwest and Big Ten football invoke a lot of nostalgia. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Chicago Mayor Emanuel Hosts A Naturalization Ceremony With Mexico City Mayor Mancera Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Seven Sundays this fall, the Maroon and Gold will follow Goldy and the Pride of Minnesota onto the field at TCF Bank Stadium as fans from Fergus Falls, Farmington, Falcon Heights, and everywhere in between stand and spell “M-I-N-N-E-S-O-T-A!” to the Rouser.

Seven minutes away, in Cedar-Riverside, nearly 7,000 Somali-Americans will walk past storefronts, cultural centers, and peace officers, virtually invisible on gameday unless traffic happens past them, which it always does. Ride twenty minutes the other direction, east on the Green Line, and you smell the restaurants of Frogtown, where Asian-American immigrants—particularly Hmong-Americans, constituting over 10% of Saint Paul’s total population—have remade the University Avenue corridor connecting the Twin Cities.

Seven Sundays this fall, dozens of Black and Gold-clad Hawkeyes will emerge from the steep ramp of the Kinnick Stadium tunnel as tens of thousands from Oxford, Ottumwa, and Oskaloosa vow to “Fight fight fight!” and celebrate the absence of alcohol in the afterlife.

Thirty-five miles away, Burmese immigrants remake the town of Columbus Junction, reuniting with family in search of meatpacking jobs, all the while replacing or supplementing Hispanic workers who now make up sizeable minorities of cities like Marshalltown which dot the rolling hills of Iowa.

Seven Sundays this fall, the Green and White will pour into Spartan Stadium after the ‘S’ has spun and the East Lansing crowd screams for “victory for M-S-U.”

This year, one young man running onto the field with the Spartans will be Mustafa Khaleefah, a 6’6” offensive tackle who fled Iraq with his family in 2008, settling in Dearborn, just nine miles from Detroit but 42% of Arab ancestry. He attended school, learned English, took up football, and finally earned a scholarship to Michigan State, becoming just the second student-athlete from Dearborn in the last thirty years to sign a Big Ten scholarship.

And so this story repeats, with Madison in place of Minneapolis, West Lafayette in place of East Lansing, State College in place of College Park. Behind the high-rising stadia of Big Ten football are cities churning around them, giving their food and labor and livelihood and occasionally even their young men to line up with the local eleven.

Yet the point is clear when we break between quarters: here is a century farmer from Kearney. An implement salesman from Saugatuck. A Wounded Warrior from Crawfordsville. There is a profile of who—generally—is celebrated, because that is who Nebraska, who Michigan, who Indiana long have been, and who they no doubt still are—at least in part.

But where does the Big Ten begin? Where does the Big Ten end? Who is the Big Ten?

There’s no clean answer here. There doesn’t need to be. But the Big Ten today is not the Big Ten fifty, fifteen, or even five years ago. Demographics change. Economies change. Politics change. Yet when we talk, when we advocate, when we celebrate the Big Ten, we celebrate the bygone, the idyllic, the nostalgic—dare I say it, the rural—and in doing so we leave something out.


If I may, for one moment, wax historiographic: For a century the fields of Western and Midwestern history grappled with Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis—that the western expansion of the United States redefined the east, giving democratic character to the cities and towns which popped up to support our Providential progress west.

Twenty-five years ago University of Wisconsin professor Bill Cronin published Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. Cronin flipped Turner on his head, demonstrating how the metropole economically and culturally colonized the rural hinterland, setting the terms for westward expansion by commodifying and bankrolling the divinely-ordained harnessing of the resources our great region offered.

Cronin’s thesis, though, did not merely elevate the city over the country and leave it at that; nor, indeed, is that my intent here. Instead, Cronin explored the linkages of city and country—how “second nature” was constructed over the natural and the living to meet our needs. One could not and cannot exist as we knew and continue to know it without the other. Today we still hold Jackson’s image when we talk about Big Ten football: the ruggedness of the Heartland turns eastward and defines our old Western Conference. Our universities, in turn, help define our cities.


The stories we value in the Heartland mystique exist in the city—only we fail in our glorification of Big Ten football to take full stock of just how richly the urban supplements our understanding of the rural. None of this should take away from the work of my colleagues this week, in the past, or in the future. The stories they tell are stories of the Big Ten that need to be told. My own story comes half from a family farm in Brown County, Minnesota, where five generations worked 160 acres west of the Cottonwood River. When we remember, celebrate, and idealize the Midwest, we idealize the farm, the prairie, the untamed wilderness on which we can make but a mark. I am no different; spending summers on that farm defined an important part of who I am today, learning from a community which values faith, perseverance, and industry.

But there’s another half to me, one from an Irish-Polish-German mini-melting pot on the East Side of Saint Paul, where four generations moved from railroad to factory to office to hospital, filling the labor needs of the swelling metropolis, worshipping at St. Patrick’s, St. Casimir’s, and St. John’s with communities which value faith, perseverance, and industry.

Since 1980, every US Census-defined Midwestern state has been classified as having more urban residents than rural. Do we really wrestle with that, or do we speed past it by when we gather on Saturdays, retreating into our temples to corn-fed boys from small towns running the ball up the middle, up the middle, up the middle?

We lose something if we think that way. When we hear about Cedar-Riverside (or Westerville, outside Columbus, with the second-largest Somali population in the US), about Columbus Junction, about Dearborn, we ought not to think of these enclaves as any more foreign than a Finnish miners’ hall on the Iron Range or in the Porcupine Mountains in 1910. Any more foreign than a Dutch festival on the banks of the Macatawa or the Floyd in 1870. Any more foreign than a German beer hall in Milwaukee or Cincinnati in 1840.

None of this, moreover, grapples with the elephant in the room we call the Windy City, where you can pass from the Ukrainian Village to Chinatown to Bronzeville and dozens of other ethnic enclaves. None of this, to be sure, deals with the de facto (and occasionally de jure) segregation of African-Americans which led Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., to remark that their reception in the North was more hostile and hateful than the South. Too often we talk about the decay of the urban Midwest without grappling with the humanity of urban Chicago. The same goes for Detroit. The same goes for Minneapolis and Cleveland and Indianapolis. Are these foreign, or are they quintessentially Midwestern?

As GoForThree so eloquently observed, “Once upon a time, people who traveled halfway around the world with all their worldly possessions stopped here and made it home. For them, this was the closest thing to nirvana.” From 1785 onward, the moment our fair region came into its earliest being in the American national context, it has been the Old Northwest. The Big Empty. The Heartland. And, as the final stopping place for so many immigrants, the big tent where all were—supposedly—welcome, not without their fits of nativism and starts of racialized hierarchies, but with an extended hand to those looking to construct their nirvana on the banks of the Ohio, the Mississippi, the Missouri, and everything in between.

Surely the tent is big enough. When we celebrate the Midwest, we don’t just need farmers: we need laborers. We don’t just need history, we need the future. We don’t just need the countryside; we need the cities, for the Big Ten is as much in the city as it is in the country. We ought to remember and celebrate that, in so much more than our stadia and our Saturdays. But why not start there?