Mental Map of the Midwest, from St. Louis

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Sasaki Associates - My Midwest

In a large way, our perception of place is set in opposition to other places. In this case, the Midwest ends in my mind where some other place begins. Centered more or less on my home state of Indiana, the Midwest ends at the Great Plains, the South, the Appalachians (more or less) and Canada. It would seem the most significant difference between this and what many people are drawing as part of the interactive survey My Midwest is that they don’t seem to recognize the Great Plains as a distinct region.

The map offered by respondents varies according to how much time individuals have spent in the Midwest. Basically, the more time one has spent in the region, the more defined the Midwest appears. The region is less likely to reach up to Idaho or include Denver, it appears. So where is the Midwest to you? Feel free to download the blank map below and add your idea of the Midwest in the comments.

Sasaki Associates - My Midwest

The Atlantic Cities recently had a write up on the mapping survey. The Boston Society of Architects is presenting an exhibit titled Reinvention in the Urban Midwest curated by Sasaki Associates, a Boston area architecture and design firm. A number of Washington University educated architects have held leadership positions at the firm over time and Sasaki recently produced a visioning plan for Clayton, MO, a prosperous inner-ring St. Louis suburb. The interactive survey is meant to help understand just where people imagine the boundaries of the Midwest are drawn.

From the Reinvention of the Urban Midwest:

Last year, one in 10 people who moved to Massachusetts were from the Midwest. These more than 12,000 arrivals are enough to populate Boston’s Beacon Hill; yet, to many New Englanders, the Midwest is an indeterminate place somewhere between here and California. What is the Midwest, really, and why does it matter here in the land of the Pilgrims, Fenway Park, and triple-deckers?

The upcoming exhibition Reinvention in the Urban Midwest, curated by Sasaki Associates, will focus on current forms of reinvention in the urban Midwest and explore the drivers for such a recurrent phenomenon: global competition, cultural shifts, dwindling resources, and the acute need for greater resilience.

In addition, the exhibition will investigate what the Midwest really means outside its topographical boundaries and why that should matter to us. MyMidwest, an interactive, map-based survey through which visitors can share what they consider to be the physical boundaries of the Midwest, will gather the collective consciousness associated with the Midwest in New England. This tool is available online for those wanting to play now!

A selection of Sasaki’s vast work in the Midwest will be on display, including the Chicago Riverwalk; Midtown Detroit TechTown District Plan; The Tomorrow Plan in Des Moines, Iowa; University of Nebraska–Lincoln Masterplan in Lincoln, Nebraska; and The Ohio State University Park–Stradley Hall in Columbus, Ohio.

midwest draw_blank
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More maps 07/21/13

The discussion here, on Twitter and with other over the past view days has been interesting. There’s still no right or wrong answer, but a variety of plausible definitions have been presented. There are surely many more, but here are a few more:

For some, including myself, the Midwest is somewhat synonymous with the Big Ten athletic conference (shown below in orange). Adding Penn State in the 1993 pushed the confernce into central Pennsylvania and now Nebraska is in, with the states of Maryland and New Jersey coming soon:

A Map of the Midwest

A number of maps split the states into just four regions and then subdivides those. Here, the Midwest is split into east and west, basically following the Mississippi River:

A Map of the Midwest

Others use nine regions and do not use “Midwest” at all:

A Map of the Midwest

Time zones help divide regions for some. Until 2006, Indiana spent half of each year in the Eastern and Central Time Zones. The metro regions around Chicago and Evansville remain on central time:

A Map of the Midwest

The major river systems of the nation tie together large portions of the middle states and help define the Midwest. The Ohio, Missouri, Mississippi, Wabash and others have historically connected the region culturally and commercially:

A Map of the Midwest

The following map gets into more detail, but may best define the regions of the nation as they are used colloquially:

A Map of the Midwest

And still others use “Great Lakes Region” to define what others refer to as the Midwest or East North Central states. Using “Great Lakes Region” creates more clearly defined borders with others regions such as the Great Plains and Mid-Atlantic states.

A Map of the Midwest

Many regions are defined by physiographic divisions. While the nation’s landscape hasn’t divided and defined distinct cultures to the extent that occurred prior to the Industrial Revolution and advances in transportation, terrain still plays a part in understanding regional borders:

A Map of the Midwest

As few as four regions are used by some:

A Map of the Midwest

Here, six regions used and the Northern Plains and Great Lakes states are defined as the Midwest:

A Map of the Midwest

Many tourist guides define the regions of the United States as done below. The eleven regions are distinct and easily understood as varying in culture and topography. The Midwest is shown in blue:

A Map of the Midwest

Then there’s language that can help define the Midwest and other regions. Here, “soda”, “pop” and “coke” are mapped by usage at the county level. Clearly the Northeast, South and Midwest out to the Northwest are distinct:

A Map of the Midwest

Lastly, some define the Midwest as largely encompassing the Rust Belt. The labels are different by nature and the difference is made clear when considering a region such as the Sun Belt (below), which by most definitions spans the nation from the Southeast, across the South and to the Southwest:

A Map of the Midwest

The Rust Belt can be defined against the Farm Belt and other regions. While covering much of what is understood to be the Midwest, the Rust Belt isn’t generally understood to extend west of central Illinois (though St. Louis is sometimes represented as an island of the Rust Belt):

rust belt and more

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  • matimal

    I’d push the southern boundary of the Midwest northward. The Midwest doesn’t really extend south of 40 degrees north latitude anywhere. St. Louis isn’t Midwestern itself, but a border town between the upper South/cultural Appalachia to its south and the actual Midwest that begins just beyond the northern exurbs of metro St. Louis. St. Louis predates the emergence of the Midwest in the 19th century.

  • Eric Cooney

    I grew up in Southern Wisconsin:

    Like one of those maps I’ve always gone with a larger definition of Midwest (OH, IN, MI, IL, WI, MN, IA, MO, ND, SD, NE, KS) and then sub-divide into Great Lakes and Great Plains along the Mississippi. To me, it encompasses most of the “flyover states.”
    Sure Ohio may be split,culturally, but it’s still bonded to the Midwest due to the Big Ten. I think I include the Dakotas, Kansas, and Nebraska because who else will? They’re not West, nor South, nor obviously East. That’s the definition of Midwest to me: in the middle. Other than Chicago and Ohio, probably, all of these states are overlooked nationally.

  • T-Leb

    I like this type of article, makes you think differently about something you might think is common shared knowledge. Would love to see an article discussing the Ozarks. I think the Ozarks have a profound influence on StL and Missouri. There is also the similar preconceptions of what is and is not, the Ozarks, just like the topic of Midwest.

  • Presbyterian

    A bit of a tangent, but it must be said. No one who grew up in the DC area would ever think to classify it as Southern. The real Mason-Dixon line runs somewhere just north of Fredericksburg, Va. In this instance, colonial history says very little about current culture.

  • John R

    I put Pittsburgh-Youngstown- Cleveland is definitely its own region. Call it the Football Rustbelt. I haven’t been able to pinpoint it precisely, but the South stops somewhere between Festus and Carondolet Park.

  • DrDrew

    Thanks for bringing this up Alex – I was pretty surprised when I saw the cumulative map that the Atlantic Cities posted. I grew up in Michigan (which is definitely part of any definition of midwest). My definition is any state that had a Big 10 school when I was born. It all depends on how many national subdivisions you use – I accept that if you’re only using 4 regions for the entire country, that you’d lump the great plains in with us. My wife, who’s from Minnesota, defines the midwest broadly – all of the Great Lakes and Great Plains, and subdivides it into 3 groups – the Great Plains, the Upper Midwest (dakotas, MN, WI, and Iowa), and the Great Lakes/Rust Belt.

  • Presbyterian

    If you follow Colin Woodard’s alternative paradigm, St. Louis City and County are in the Midlands, a band of German immigration stretching from Philadelphia through central Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey, central Ohio and Indiana, north central Illinois and Iowa, continuing west through northern Missouri and Nebraska and north to Ontario. Midlanders, he argues, tend to have moderately pacifistic attitudes, a live-and-let-live mentality and a desire for community advancement, but without the social proselytizing and engineering of Yankees.

    Jefferson County and Southern Illinois are not part of the Midlands in his view, but are part of Greater Appalachia, along with Arkansas, southern Indiana and Ohio and much of the mid-South. Think Nascar and hunting.

    • Don

      I wonder what Garrison Keillor would think of this map?

      Southwest Illinois is where my people are from and it is very heavily German settled. Germantown? Hello!

      Belleville had multiple German language newspapers up to the start of WWII when it finally became too awkward even for Germans.

      St Clair County from Belleville west out Route 50 through Labanon, to Clinton County and Trenton, Aviston, Breese, Beckmeyer all the way to Caryle and beyond, German, German, German.

      Madison County west of Edwardsville from Highland, Alhambra, Marine through Bond County. German, German, German,…..well, Highland decided they were “Swiss” in about 1940, but German before that.

      All of Monroe County is German settled. The St Louis Oktoberfest started in Columbia (Illinois) and moved to the City when it got too big for little Columbia. Same for Randolph county.

      SW Illinois was much more German than St Louis which was a melting pot typical of big cities in the 19th Century; German neighborhood, Irish, Italian, etc.

      • Presbyterian

        I haven’t read the book yet, so I’m not sure all the factors he proposes in defining the Midlands as a distinct culture. I do know I have a lot of relatives in southern Illinois who migrated from Appalachia to work the mines. When I’m in Mt. Vernon, I hear a lot of Kentucky accents. It seems a lot more southern than St. Louis.

        Their iced tea tastes better, too.

        • Don

          That’s all true as well, and I agree with you regarding the Mt. Vernon (and South) accent. It’s been my very unscientific observation that the concentration of German immigrants were limited to Southwestern Illinois and didn’t go further east than Centrailia and further south than about Chester along the Mississippi.

          My mother’s family was German from the parts of SW Illinois I described. My father’s family is a different matter; Coal miners who worked the underground mines in Collinsville and Belleville in the late 19th and early 20th century. My great great grandfather died in a mine collapse in Collinsville.

          My mothers family fancied themselves somewhat aristocratic: they owned farms and where locomotive engineers. When speaking about my father’s family I’m fond of saying we’ve descended from thieves and whores.

  • Don

    A life long St Louisan, my map would include the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas.

    • dempster holland

      I agree. I would also include Ohio and Indiana and (maybe) Pttsburg.
      On the other end, I would include Tulsa (many st louisans go to
      college there but not Oklahoma city, which is Southwest. Do not
      include Colorado, which is west, but do include western kansas
      SE missouri is midwest, but thinks south (and is oriented more to
      Memphis than st louis)

      • Don

        Oh yes, I didn’t mean to exclude Indiana and OH. And while I hadn’t thought about it, having recently visited Pittsburgh several times for business, it is Midwestern.

        It is interesting how many St Louisians go to Tulsa. Again, I hadn’t really thought about it, but you are correct as you are re Memphis.

        • STLgasm

          I’m going to disagree with you that Pittsburgh is a Midwestern city. Sure, it feels slower paced than say, Philly, but there are some distinctive cultural differences that I’ve picked up on (I have spent a lot of time in the city over the years): 1) People walk more in Pittsburgh and neighborhood commercial districts on the whole remain much more vital in contrast to Midwestern cities such as Cleveland, Detroit or St. Louis. No, I’m not talking about the trendy, hip, artsy neighborhoods that obviously thrive in all cities, but more the working-class, plain jane commercial strips that have declined so much in most Midwestern cities; 2) Pedestrians don’t make as much eye contact in Pittsburgh in general; 3) Riding the bus in Pittsburgh doesn’t carry the same stigma that it does here– people of all economic groups ride the bus as a way to get around the city. Here, it’s largely relegated to people who don’t have other options. In every way, Pittsburgh is a hybrid city– geographically, linguistically, and culturally. It’s stuck right between the East Coast megalopolis and the industrial MIdwest, yet nestled in (and somewhat isolated) in the Appalachian Mountains. It’s has a little influence from everywhere, and A LOT of regional quirks unique to itself. To label it simply Midwestern is way too limiting and simplistic. That said, I think St. Louis has a lot of characteristics that are unique to it, and it in many ways straddles different regions as well, although overall it has the most in common with other Midwestern cities (and perhaps a dash of Baltimore too).

          • guest

            If a “lack of eye contact” is a defining characteristic of those “hustle and bustle” east coast cities, I’ll take St. Louis over those any day, thank you very much!

          • Don

            Of course all these labels are generalizations based upon perceptions.

            As I read your description of Pittsburgh I was thinking you could just as easily be describing Chicago and it’s working class neighborhoods.

  • Martin M

    I would call Pittsburgh Mid-Atlantic. I was born in Pittsburgh and all of my family is from there, although I grew up in WV. I have lived in St. Louis for the past 14 years, traveling throughout the Midwest, and I can confidently say that Pittsburgh is not a Midwestern city. However, it’s not strictly a Northeastern city and definitely not a Southern city either. It really is essentially unique in character, due to its distance from the Atlantic coast, but it is definitely a more Eastern city than Midwestern.

    • STL56

      Agree. Western PA is really part of the Mideast, rust belt. Mid Atlantic is the middle of the eastern seaboard, like MD. Ask folks who live there, they call themselves mid atlantic. also accept the argument that SE MO is part of the South :-). And yes folks in NE and the Dakotas absolutely think of themselves as Midwest.

    • Well, according to the NHL, Pittsburgh is in the “Metropolitan” region…

      #BettmanRant

  • Gaylan

    I grew up in far southeast Missouri and lived in central Kansas for several years. I’d say the topmost map on this page is accurate — most of Kansas (certainly anything west of Topeka) is Great Plains, and once you get south of Cape Girardeau, in the area that was swampland until the late 1800s, you’re pretty much in the South.

    • Don

      Jeff, a very good friend from college, grew up and still lives in Alexander County, IL (Cairo). He is very much a Southerner and Cairo was very much in the South with Jim Crow segregation the order of the day into the sixties. He recalls the mayor defiantly filling in the city pool with cement in the early 70s when a court ordered the city to allow blacks to use the pool.

  • Mike F

    That circle is just about right. Although like Pres, I’m not sure what to do with Pittsburgh.

  • Presbyterian

    A couple thoughts:

    1. I think most of us who have spent time in St. Louis come to realize that Missouri is a divided state. The northern half of the state–including the two major urban areas–is definitely midwestern. But the southern half of the state believes we lost the Civil War. That’s not midwestern.

    2. I’m wondering whether folks in Nebraska, Kansas or the Dakotas think of themselves as Midwesterners.

    3. I’m wondering what to do with Pittsburgh.

    • DrDrew

      STL is really a border city, between West, Midwest, and South/Appalachia. (Or between Big Ten, Big 12, and SEC). Northeastern MO is similar to Iowa or Illinois, the Ozarks are essentially Appalachia, the bootheel is the South, and KC, to me, is the real gateway to the West.

      Re: Pittsburgh – It has its own feel to it – elements of Midwest and of East Coast. Geographically though, it’s in neither – it’s on the Midwest/Appalachia border. There’s a harshness to your typical Yinzer that seems most like the East.

    • Will Fru

      I was born in Kansas, grew up in Nebraska, and have lived in St. Louis for most of my adult life. All of them are certainly Midwestern. I’d say the line between Midwest and West in Nebraska corresponds roughly with the time zone line, as that also corresponds with the topography – western third is hilly and spotted with bluffs, while the eastern two thirds are largely flat flat flat.

      • matimal

        So, the Midwest is defined by its topography? There’s not ‘Midwestern culture’ or Midwestern economy’?

        • Alex Ihnen

          I don’ think Will’s comment is meant to exclude all other considerations.

          • matimal

            I though it might have been. I was just trying to introduce the point that region is not just defined by any one factor.

    • Yes, we do. And we are. Pittsburgh? Really? That’s east.

      • John R

        Why not Pittsburgh? Sure it’s Northeastern; but then again not really. Okay, it’s Mid-Atlantic; but then again not so much. Appalachian? Yes. Like Philadelphia? Heck no. Like Cleveland? Pretty much.

        Like Saint Louis, it is rather nebulous and there is no easy place to put it. It’s a crossroads. Gateway to the Midwest!

        • Look at a map of the U.S. Pittsburgh is no way close to being “MID”

          • Alex Ihnen

            ? It WAS more middle for a very long time, before the second half of the 20th C west coast boom, and being west of the Appalachians separated it from the east, and it’s waterway drained to the Midwest, and it shares an industrial heritage. That said, being from Indiana, I always perceived it as an eastern city, or rather a western eastern city – different than Philly and Baltimore, but not Cincinnati or St. Louis, for whatever reason.

  • STL56

    IA is also Midwest. All of it.

  • STL56

    Oh, sorry, left out MN. It’s very midwest. Having lived there, one could argue that the northern 1/3rd tier of counties is Canada, though.

  • STL56

    The Midwest, specifically, is the following states: IL, WI, MO, KS, NE, SD, ND. That’s it. IN, MI, OH are not the Midwest. One could call them the Mideast or the Rust Belt. MI and IN have ‘split’ personality. Eastern MI is rust belt and quite unlike the Midwest. Northern IN, same way. Central IN is arguably Midwest, granted. Southern IN is really much more like the South than anything. One could consider the UP of MI as Midwest, but the UP is actually much more like Canada. Oh, and none of Canada is the Midwest. Zero. Spend some time up there and you will see.

    • This is the most accurate description in the comments I could find. Yes.

      I’d never thought of Ohio as the Midwest until this article. If you look at the U.S. geographically, how could the exact MIDDLE of the U.S. (ND – KS) Not be the MIDwest?! Laughable. Michigan… I guess I’ll give it to them, but really, as you said, part is very east and the other part is very north.