Changing Gears is a public media project about the future of the industrial Midwest. Each week, reporters Dan Bobkoff in Cleveland, Niala Boodhoo in Chicago and Kate Davidson in Ann Arbor cover issues of interest to the Great Lakes region. Changing Gears also sponsors public events and conversations.
This week on Changing Gears we’re talking about people who are leaving the Midwestern industrial corridor. Some of the areas hardest hit by out-migration are small rural communities. They are facing a triple whammy – the decline of manufacturing, farming and shipping sectors.
North Country Public Radio’s Brian Mann tracked the journey of one woman who moved from a tiny town to New York City. He brings us this report:
It’s hard to imagine just how small Becca Johnson’s hometown is. Her parents moved to Rossie, in upstate New York, in the 1970s, part of the farming and manufacturing belt that stretched from the Northeast to the Midwest.
Their family homesteaded in an old abandoned barn.
“No running water and no toilet, or anything like that,” says Johnson. She was practically a teenager before her family got indoor plumbing. “It had an interesting influence on my social life,” she says.
This week Changing Gears is taking a closer look at the Midwest Migration, and we’re talking with people who have left the region. Reporter Peter O’Dowd met with some of those former Midwesterners living in Austin, Texas, and brings us this report:
The Brookings Institution reports that 20-somethings fled Detroit and Chicago at the end of the last decade for places like Seattle and Portland. Cities they thought were cool. “Cool” has become a selling point for young professionals. And perhaps no city has it figured out better than Austin, Texas. Over the next few days Changing Gears will profile people who have left the Midwest, and that’s where we go next – to the home of music festivals known around the world.
John Livingston and his friends say Austin has a soul, and on a gorgeous Friday night in March you can see why.
Livingston is a lot like any other 24-year old. He and his friends still like to party, and on this night, they’re doing it on the north side of town.
Not long ago, Livingston and four others moved to Austin from Bloomington, Indiana.
It was January 2010. College was coming to an end. The friends were drinking at their favorite hang-out, and wondering what to do next in life. It was pretty clear that Bloomington – a city of 80,000 and home to Indiana University – didn’t have what they wanted.
“We just started thinking of places to go – something different, something new. By the end of the night we were all just chanting Austin. We wanted to go to Austin. We were all about Austin,” says Livingston.
Over the past few months, you’ve been reading and listening to Changing Gears’ special reports on Midwest Migration — the people who moved away.
Beginning this weekend, tune in for Changing Gears’ hour-long documentary, “Where Did Everybody Go?”
Hosted by Richard Steele of WBEZ Chicago, “Where Did Everybody Go” tells the stories of people who left the Midwest, and some who came home.
We’ll visit Portland, Austin, New York City, upstate New York and Los Angeles. We’ll talk with Jim Russell, a geographer who writes the Burgh Diaspora blog, and Dan Moilanen, a Flint, Mich., native who went to Austin to work for Apple, and came back to help his hometown.
If you wanted to start life over in a new place, would you choose somewhere with a chronically high unemployment rate and struggling schools, or one that’s known as a haven for slackers? The latter is one way to describe Portland, Oregon.
It seems like everyone is talking about Portland these days. Part of that has to do with the success of Portlandia, a sketch comedy show that pokes fun at Portland’s young hipster crowd. As one character explains, “Portland is a city where young people go to retire.”
But not everyone who moves to Portland is a twenty-something slacker. The city still draws out-of-state transplants, including highly educated professionals.
Over the last few weeks, we have been hearing from people who have left the region to settle in other parts of the country and the world. We’ve been mapping the migration and documenting the experiences of these Midwestern exiles. We’ve heard from around 200 people. Now that the project is wrapping up, we wanted to know how these stories compare to regional trends.
Name: Sarah Wells Midwest Home: Van Wert, OH New Home: Hollywood, CA
I left my small town in Ohio to become a working actor. It seemed to me the only way to do this was to be in a city where the entertainment industry is in national shape. Four years later, I can see that I was wrong, and I would give anything to have never left at all.
I think everyone who has left the Midwest ought to go home where they belong. We as a nation have created cities where no one knows anyone else outside of their little created circles.
The ideal small town, the one of our collective American dream, is one in which the dentist sings in your church choir and the grocer is the brother of your doctor, and we all work together to help each other out, spending our money amongst ourselves and enriching each other instead of outside, unnamed, faceless corporations. This is what we have in Los Angeles, it’s accidentally been created by people who left what was left of a functioning community.
People often mentioned a lack of culture as something that sent them packing from the heartland in submissions to our Midwest Migration project.
But we’ve also heard from plenty of people who think the Midwest has culture to celebrate. Here’s a mash-up of those submissions. We’ve created a pretend conversation using the real words of some of the people we heard from.
Chris Molnar: I always wanted to leave the Midwest. Although I was raised in Iowa City, Iowa, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, I identified with the idea of the big coastal city. I knew that I would be accepted there for who I am, someone craving culture and rejecting homogeneous provincialism.
Chris O’Neill: Over the course of my 20 year career in banking, I’ve relocated now eleven times, three of which brought me to the Chicagoland area. The quality of life and the cultural offerings provided by the city is hard to find elsewhere. Not to put down my new home of Dallas, but it’s certainly no Chicago.
Name: Esperanza Rubio Torres Midwest Home: Lansing, MI New Home: San Luis Potosi, Mexico
I was making ends meet by working a couple waitressing jobs, the winter was coming, and I think I had gotten depressed and sort of refused to recognize it. My life was in an ugly rut. After much thought, I threw all my cares to the wind. I sold my car and I quit my jobs and got out of Michigan. It was really freeing and scary and amazing.
I can’t give any real reason why I left, exactly, but I just felt like I was done with Michigan and Michigan was done with me. I ended up moving to Mexico with my parents who had decided to retire there.
Is it better here in Mexico than in Michigan? I think it is unfair to compare, it’s apples and oranges. I am happier and healthier than I was in Michigan.
I have no plans to move back to the Midwest, but I miss my friends and the family I left there. I still recall with great joy the beautiful moments I spent there, and the warmness of the people in the city I was born in. Lansing really is a gem, and anyone who thinks otherwise doesn’t really know Lansing. That said, I do not miss the winter–so many grey months where I felt sad and depressed, shoveling, expensive produce, and driving everywhere. I really love where I am now, and the challenges I’m facing. In the event that I did return, I know the Midwest, and Lansing in particular, would welcome me back with arms wide open.