Erin Ladd left St. Louis in June, 2011 for the San Fransisco Bay Area. She has mixed feelings about leaving the Midwest. It was her home and her academic interest for years. Ladd wrote her thesis on how the region now known as the Midwest began. She also explored how peoples’ identity as Midwesterners began to develop. Ladd agreed to share some of what she found with Changing Gears as part of our Midwest Migration project.You can share your Midwest Migration stories here.
Ever since the area around the Mississippi River stopped being known as the “Wild West,” people have been leaving it. And ever since the beginning of time, people have strived to move westward. The Greeks noticed that the sun’s journey ended in the west; ergo, man’s journey should end in the west. These two old-as-time ideals come together, and you can see how the Midwest lost industry and population to western lands.
When I was researching my thesis about the origins of the region we call the “Midwest,” I read a theory that stated the reason the Midwest didn’t retain its turn-of-the-century luster was because all the truly enterprising and successful people kept moving westward. According to this theory, only the less-ambitious people settled down in the Midwest once they’d reached it. This is the hypothetical reason why there’s a drain of talent out of the Midwest out to the coasts.
As this theory illustrates, the problem is that the Midwest as a region has become shorthand for “uninteresting.” When polled about the connotations of the word “Midwest,” people came up with such dour adjectives as flat, boring, and honest. The Midwest is really defined by what it isn’t, not by what it is.
Here’s what it’s not: the Northeast, the South, the West Coast, the Southwest. Here’s what it is: everything that doesn’t fit into those categories.
But, North Dakota doesn’t necessarily have anything in common with Missouri. Pittsburgh and Minneapolis don’t have any relation to each other whatsoever. And every state between the Rocky Mountains and the Alleghenys does not have a shared history. Even so, because we can’t be known as fiery Southerners or brusque New Englanders or wholly enlightened West Coast-ites, we get to be everything they’re not: flat, boring and honest.