A Global Wake Up Call for Middle America

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A Global Wake Up Call for Middle America

Richard Longworth wants you to know two things: First, globalization is happening and it will continue to change the world. Second, if you live in the Midwest, you’d better be very afraid about your region’s chances of competing in an increasingly “flat” world.

Richard Longworth wants you to know two things: First, globalization is happening and it will continue to change the world. Second, if you live in the Midwest, you’d better be very afraid about your region’s chances of competing in an increasingly “flat” world.

Contrary to the hoo-ha churned out by the countless chambers of commerce that dot the Midwest, not all is well in Mayberry. In a passionately argued and well-researched new book, Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalization, Richard Longworth takes us through a Midwest that is facing rapid change, as rural economies strain under the increasingly automated and corporate nature of modern agriculture, and as old industrial cities from Canton to Cleveland, Muncie to Milwaukee, struggle to find a new economic niche in a state of permanent deindustrialization.

Take a drive through Detroit City (or take a virtual drive through it on Google Streetview), and it’s hard, even for the most optimistic among us, to shake the gnawing sense of hopelessness that has gripped huge swaths of the Motor City. Much of the city is simply not there, an empty shell of widespread abandonment, vacant lots and empty buildings.

Detroit is, in many ways, the paragon of urban decline, and the kind of place that can make urban revitalization enthusiasts salivate. But in a global economy, a car can be designed by engineers spread across continents, and can be effectively assembled just about anywhere there’s cheap labor. So what future for Detroit, a city built on the automobile? Perhaps because Longworth isn’t selling his services as a consultant to the cities he critiques in his book, he presents no grand plan, no “vision” to “bring back” the industrial Midwest. Rather, he suggests that many cities in the Midwest may well be too far gone to save, like the Andean city of Potosi, the once great silver trading capital that withered to nothing when the silver ran out.

Longworth isn’t the first to envisage Detroit as the modern American Acropolis, but his book is not a sad and nostalgic trip through the Midwest’s past glories. Woven throughout the narrative is an urgent message for the Midwest: change or die. In Longworth’s telling, we Midwesterners are our own worst enemies. We cling to mediocrity, crave normalcy and stability, resent outsiders, and resist any challenge to our comfortable world view. None of these traits, says Longworth, are conducive to the kinds “creative centers” that thrive on the sale of knowledge and ideas in a global economy.

Longworth spends a lot of time on a case study of the one place in the Midwest that he says has successfully made the transition from Rust Belt to global player: Chicago. As the financial and cultural capital of the Midwest, Chicago, Longworth’s hometown, now draws the college educated and the creative from across the region, and indeed, the world. And this after the city hit rock bottom in the 1970s, its industrial base in ruins, its economy in decline. While the rest of the Midwest loses the young, the college educated, the creative, Chicago attracts them.

Leaving aside the still-gaping holes in the Windy City’s economy and its troubled school system—phenomena that disproportionately affect globalization’s “losers” concentrated on the city’s South and West Sides—there is little doubt that Chicago is the Rust Belt’s most prominent comeback story. But what lessons can the rest of the Midwest learn from the Windy City’s resurgence?

If, as Longworth suggests, Chicago rebounded on the shoulders of the creative class, then perhaps other Midwestern cities should take heed and embrace this coveted demographic. But, as Longworth also points out, Chicago did not lose everything after it was unindustrialized. The city hung on to its financial markets, which once traded pork bellies and grain futures, and now trades foreign currencies. And even in the depths of industrial decline, Chicago maintained its position as the world’s busiest rail hub, and now carries not only heavy cargoes but also much of the world’s emails along fiber optic cables, commonly laid along rail rights of way.

So it was a solid financial and transportation infrastructure that supported Chicago’s rise to global prominence. This created the jobs, which then attracted the creative workers, who then attract more jobs. So “creative” Chicago grows ever more attractive and urbane, while the former workers in Chicago’s once great industrial sector (and their descendants) are left behind.

So again, what lessons for the larger Midwest? Longworth offers a few policy suggestions, such as investment in biotech and biofuels, which would leverage the Midwest’s natural strength in food production into becoming a leader in future technologies. He also argues for a regional approach to development, a Midwest conversation on who we are as a region and what we should aim to become. He cites as a successful model a Southern economic regional council.

Unfortunately, the Midwest has never had much of a regional identity. It has always been what’s left over after you take out the Northeast, the South and the West. And the Midwest is as divided amongst itself as any other region, urban, suburban and rural.

But it is undoubtedly true that to address new, global challenges, we must begin to think more globally, and less provincially. This could be said, though, for the nation as a whole, not just for the Midwest. And what are the global challenges we need to address? Longworth stresses that with globalization, there will be winners and losers. Whole cities and whole regions will “win,” others will “lose.” But as we’ve seen, it’s the nature of the new “global” city that both winners and losers coexist, side by side, the gulf between them ever widening. Maybe the message we can all take from Longworth’s book is this: unless we wake up and take action soon, what’s left in the middle—the great middle class—will be a thing of the past.

Tags: chicagodetroitmilwaukee

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