The name “Midwest” or “Midwestern” is attached to dozens of Chicago institutions. Midwest Tool. Midwest Foods. Midwest Laundries. Midwest Chiropractic Center. That’s because Chicago, as the Encyclopedia of Chicago itself puts it, is the “capital of the Midwest”—the commercial and industrial hub of a region built on commerce and industry.
But is “Midwest” really an accurate description of Chicago’s place in North America? Do we really belong in the same geographic basket as Des Moines, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Sioux Falls, cities with which we have very little in common culturally, linguistically, or politically? And more broadly, aren’t the commonly accepted boundaries of the Midwest—west of the Appalachians, north of the Ohio River, south of the Canadian border, and east of the Rockies—too broad to be tagged with a single rubric?
The answers to those questions, to use Midwestern phraseology, are “nope” and “you bet!” We’re not Midwesterners, because there is no such place as the Midwest. “Midwest” was invented in the 19th Century, to describe the states of the old Northwest Ordinance, a term that became outdated once the nation spread to the Pacific Coast.
“Midwest” is applied to a chunk of America that seems unclassifiable to the rest of the country: neither North, South, East or West. Its borders have shifted historically, making them always good for an argument. (Out of nearly 35,000 Vox readers, 95% agree Iowa is a Midwestern state, followed by Illinois at 91%. Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, and Missouri just clear the low 80s.)What we call the Midwest is in fact a set of sub-regions, not all of which are contained in what we’ve traditionally thought of as “the Midwest.”
Here in Chicago, for example, we’re Great Lakers, denizens of a freshwater nation that not only crosses boundaries traditionally applied to the Midwest, but the boundaries of the United States itself. Our compatriots can be found in Milwaukee, Detroit, and Cleveland, all traditional “Midwestern” cities, but also in Buffalo, Rochester and Toronto.
In fact, Chicago was first incorporated into Illinois because of its connection to the Great Lakes. The Northwest Ordinance declared that Illinois’s northern border would run along a line defined by the southern tip of Lake Michigan. Had that plan been followed, what we now know as Chicago would’ve been part of Wisconsin. In 1817, as Illinois was preparing to enter the Union, territorial delegate Nathaniel Pope proposed pushing the boundary north 55 miles. Pope wanted to balance our pro-Southern, pro-slavery population by attracting Yankees migrating westward via the Great Lakes, ensuring Illinois remained a free state.
Those Yankees, mainly from western New York and New England, provided the basis of Chicago’s culture and language. In his book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, journalist Colin Woodard places Chicago in a region called “Yankeedom,” which stretches across the northern tier of the nation, from Maine to Minnesota. It’s a bastion of political progressivism. As Woodard wrote, “residents in Northeastern states and the industrial Midwest tend to be more comfortable with government regulation. They value education and the common good more than other regions.” The Inland North dialect, basis of the Classic Chicago Accent, also follows the contours of the lower Great Lakes, from Rochester to Milwaukee.
(When I wrote a dialect book called How to Speak Midwestern, I was accused of stretching the region’s boundaries by including Buffalo and Pittsburgh. My reasoning: accents commonly heard in “the Midwest” originated in those cities, and were spread westward by settlers.)
These political and linguistic tendencies make us very different from “Midwesterners” in Iowa or Kansas, differences magnified by the fact that Chicago is a port city with a deep industrial heritage.
Besides the Great Lakes, the so-called Midwest can also be subdivided into these regions, each with its own distinct speech and folkways.
—The Corn Belt: An agricultural area running through the center of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa.
—The North Country: The mining and logging regions of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
—Upper Appalachia: The Ohio Valley of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, West Virginia and Kentucky, originally settled by Southern migrants.
—The Great Plains: The eastern Dakotas, Kansas and Nebraska.
Even before Woodard wrote his book, Deborah Miller of the Minnesota Historical Society was on to this complexity when she told Hour Detroit magazine that “I would put Minnesota and Wisconsin and Michigan into a particular part of the Midwest that I would call the Upper Midwest. They’re also part of a different region that you might call the Great Lakes states, along with their Canadian contemporaries.”
Chicago’s Canadian contemporary is Toronto. I can’t think of any two major cities more alike. They’re similar in size—Toronto 2.9 million, Chicago 2.7 million—and are both multicultural metropolises laid out in a grid system on the shores of a Great Lake. I find it easier to find my way around Toronto than I do any American city. (The biggest difference: Toronto built right up to its waterfront, while we left ours “forever free and clear.”) We’re the improvisational comedy capitals of our respective nations, both having Second City chapters. For ambitious Americans and Canadians, Chicago and Toronto are the last stops before the Big Time of New York and L.A. Naturally, we’re sister cities.
No one would call Toronto a Midwestern city, since it’s not even in the U.S. It’s undeniably a Great Lakes city, though. The next time someone from the East Coast, the West Coast or the South Coast calls you a Midwesterner, tell them that’s too simplistic a label for all the folks in the middle of the country. Say “I’m a Great Laker,” and make them look at a map.