a map of the U.S. Midwest
Hello, Heartland: Here's where you said 'the Midwest' lives. Areas in dark green had 80 percent or more of respondents calling them Midwestern. Light green areas had 50 to 80 percent calling them Midwestern, while yellow were 20 to 50 percent and red 5 to 20 percent. David Montgomery/CityLab

We surveyed more than 12,000 people (and counting) about the most contentious border question in the U.S. to reveal the true geography of America’s midsection.   

At a time when it can seem Americans have never been more divided, one issue stirs up passions like no other. I speak, of course, of the definition of “the Midwest.”

Delineating that great vast middle of the country—interior but definitely not Southern, west of the Northeast, but not the West—isn’t just a matter of parochial concern to the tens of millions of Americans with ties to the region. It also speaks to an abiding fascination of our current political moment: trying to pin down some romanticized “Heartland.” This term is often invoked to suggest a simpler, more agrarian, and often more virtuous place than whatever else the Midwest is being compared to at any given moment.

Add to all that more fundamental questions about what the Midwest actually is. Is it a geographic entity that can be defined by state lines, rivers, and mountains? Or is it a set of mores, values, and shared cultural attributes that are only loosely associated with the land itself, so a place can be partially Midwestern and partially something else?

As a Midwesterner who’s lived in Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, South Dakota, and Minnesota, I’ve got my own answers to these hotly contested questions. But I wanted to hear from readers on what they consider to be Midwestern.

CityLab set up a simple two-question survey, asking people to input their zip code and say whether they considered that location to be in the Midwest. We let people define “Midwest” however they wanted. So far, more than 12,000 of you have responded. (The survey is still running at whatsthemidwest.com, and we’re hoping to get more responses, especially from people living in smaller towns and cities. Please share on Twitter and Facebook!)

The results aren’t likely to end any debates, but they offer a good picture of how the Midwest is popularly understood:

(David H. Montgomery/CityLab)

Based on these results, there is a core area that most everyone agrees is Midwestern, including cities like Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Omaha, Indianapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, Columbus, St. Louis, and Kansas City.

Surrounding this core is what James Shortridge, a geography professor at the University of Kansas who wrote 1989’s The Middle West: Its Meaning in American Culture, called “fuzzy boundary regions”—places where people are more divided about their alleged Midwesternness. This includes cities like Pittsburgh and Buffalo, New York, where respondents were torn between Midwest and East Coast allegiance; cities like Louisville and Oklahoma City, where Midwestern and Southern or Southwestern identities are in conflict; and places like Rapid City, South Dakota, where the Midwest becomes the West.

“There aren't hard and fast lines, but as your map shows, there are very clearly places that are Midwestern, like Chicago and Milwaukee and central Iowa,” said Jon Lauck, the founding president of the Midwestern History Association. “When you get out on the edges, there’s going to be some debate.”

One of the fiercest points of contention in defining the Midwest is the role of state lines. Many people label entire states as either Midwestern or not—following the U.S. Census Bureau, which defines the Midwest as consisting of an “East North Central” division of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin, and a “West North Central” division of Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas.

A 2014 survey by FiveThirtyEight took a similar approach, asking people to characterize entire states as Midwestern or not.

But other people argue just as strongly that the Midwest’s true boundaries transcend state lines. Take, for example, South Dakota, which is split between the agrarian and (relatively) densely populated eastern side and a wilder western region dominated by ranching, mining, logging, and tourism. One part’s the Midwest; the other is decidedly not.

Geographer Scott Drzyzga, a native of Buffalo, also made the case for a non-state-centric definition. Citing cultural elements such as dialect maps, he argued that his hometown should qualify; Manhattan is clearly not Midwestern, but Western New York, with its nasal Great Lakes accent and unpretentious populace, might be. And 40 percent of survey-takers agreed.

When CityLab shared some preliminary results on social media, border cities like Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Louisville provoked fierce argument: Many people professed shock that anyone could consider these cities Midwestern, while others defended their Midwestern bona fides.

Even more conventionally Midwestern cities prompt debate. Some Minnesotans, for example, have tried to define their region as “the North” rather than part of the Midwest.

Other people find the term Midwest to be too broad, and prefer narrower ones, like the Great Plains, the Rust Belt, or the Great Lakes region. Colin Woodard, the author of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, argues that “there isn’t, culturally speaking, a single Midwest.” Instead, he divides the area commonly seen as Midwestern into two other cultures, both of which extend beyond the traditional Midwest. There’s moralistic “Yankeedom,” inheritors of New England Puritan traditions, which occupies a northern swath of the country from Maine to Minnesota, and the more moderate “Midlands” just to the south, between New Jersey and Nebraska.

One thing that wasn’t up for dispute: the fundamental Midwesterness of cities like Chicago or Milwaukee, as compared to the farmland surrounding them. Though the idea of the Midwest may conjure images of rolling hills and small towns, big cities have been part of the region’s history for more than a century and a half, Lauck said.

“There is this kind of cultural understanding that the origins of the Midwest was heavily agricultural and small-town, but by the late 19th century, Midwestern identity was definitely adapting itself to include urban areas,” Lauck said. “Everyone knows that Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Omaha—these are Midwestern cities.”

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: San Diego's Trolley

    Out of Darkness, Light Rail!

    In an era of austere federal funding for urban public transportation, light rail seemed to make sense. Did the little trains of the 1980s pull their own weight?

  2. photo: Developer James Rouse visiting Harborplace in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

    What Happened to Baltimore’s Harborplace?

    The pioneering festival marketplace was among the most trendsetting urban attractions of the last 40 years. Now it’s looking for a new place in a changed city.

  3. Perspective

    An Urbanist Investor’s Table Stakes for Tech Leaders

    A growing number of startups are pitching technologies to “solve” urban problems. So it matters when they can’t even name their own local representatives.

  4. Equity

    What ‘Livability’ Looks Like for Black Women

    Livability indexes can obscure the experiences of non-white people. CityLab analyzed the outcomes just for black women, for a different kind of ranking.

  5. photo: NYC subway

    Behind the Gains in U.S. Public Transit Ridership

    Public transportation systems in the United States gained passengers over the second and third quarters of 2019. But the boost came from two large cities.