The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

The "Five Midwests" Series, Part 3: The Lower Lakes (aka "Rust Belt")

Scene from an outdoor car show in Flint, MI.  Source:

Series to date:

Part 1: Overview
Part 2: The North Woods 

Let me first address the name I’ve given to this Midwest subregion, the Lower Lakes.  I’ve decided to be more geographically descriptive than the more widely used and accepted name of Rust Belt.  Why?  Because everyone has their own notion of what “Rust Belt” is; there are as many definitions of “Rust Belt” as there are people seeking to define it.  But there is one distinct culture, economy and society in the southern end of the Great Lakes.

The term “Rust Belt” has entered the general lexicon of America.  Most people seems to know what it means — industrial; bleak; dreary; obsolete; cold.  Those words could be used to describe nearly every city in the northeast quarter of the nation, and have been used to describe cities like Worcester and Springfield, MA, and Scranton and Allentown, PA.  They too are “Rust Belt” in the sense that they have industrial legacies that they’ve worked hard to overcome.  But in some ways I view them as proto-Rust Belt: they are tied a little more closely to the cities of the East Coast than the cities of the Great Lakes region.

Ther term “Rust Belt” is also applied to other cities that are reasonably close to the Lower Lakes but share little of its cultural and economic history.  Cities like Columbus, Indianapolis, Louisville, Cincinnati and the Twin Cities are often brought into the Rust Belt discussion but owe their existences to very different factors.

The Lower Lakes subregion, to me, is the core of the Rust Belt.  Its large cities include Buffalo; Cleveland; Pittsburgh; Milwaukee.  Smaller cities include Gary; South Bend; Flint; Toledo; Akron; Youngstown.  The recognized leader of them all is Chicago.  Perhaps the one city that defines the region’s rise and fall best is Detroit.

That’s the region I know.

The Lower Lakes, as you can see above, stretches across the southern edges of lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron and Michigan, covering a nearly 600-mile swath from Rochester, NY to just north of Madison, WI.  Its climate is more temperate and tolerable than the North Woods (I know, folks in warmer climates see very little difference, but trust me, it’s true), making the subregion more desirable for development.  As a result, the Lower Lakes, by my estimate, has about 29 million residents, making it the most populous subregion of the Midwest.  It’s the most urban, with Chicago (9.5 million), Detroit (4.3 million), Pittsburgh (2.3 million), Cleveland ( 2 million) and Milwaukee (1.6 million) all ranking in the top 40 of U.S. metro areas by population.  Despite having more than 40 percent of the Midwest’s population, the Lower Lakes contains only two state capitals — Lansing (MI) and Madison (WI).  As a result, other Midwest subregions have an outsize influence in state politics, and establishing a political agenda for Lower Lakes regions has always been an uphill battle.

Prior to European exploration of the area, the Lower Lakes was inhabited by members of the Sauk, Fox, Miami and Illinois tribes.  They encountered French trappers in the early 1700s, and established fur trading relationships.  The French were followed by the British, who sort of used the region as a foothold against the American colonists to the east until the War of 1812.

The subregion’s American growth, however, is the story of the Erie Canal — an Eastern venture to settle the area and exploit the riches of the vast interior.  Although the canal itself was nearly obsolete by the time it opened in 1825, because of the advent of rail transportation, the idea of a hinterland serving the interest of the coast was well established.

Initial American settlement of the Lower Lakes was done by residents from the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions.  Buffalo was founded by British loyalists after the Revolutionary War and developed by New Englanders.  Cleveland was originally claimed by Connecticut as that state’s Western Reserve before Ohio became a state in 1803, and was also settled and developed by New Englanders.  Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee each had greater and longer-lasting French influence, but New Englanders flocked there as well, following the opening of the canal.

By the mid-19th century East Coasters were soon followed by international migrants.  Germans and Irish Catholics were among the first arrivals, followed by southern and eastern Europeans.  This distinctive demographic mix made the Lower Lakes subregion very different from the rest of the Midwest.

Then there’s the accent.  The Lower Lakes is characterized by the flat, nasal Inland Northern accent, made famous by the SNL “Superfans” or the Blues Brothers (“we’re ahn a mission from Gahd.”).   Where the accent is strongest corresponds pretty closely with my Lower Lakes definition:

Inland North Accent Map by rockrunnerthecard.  Source:

How the accent ended up here?  I have no idea.  All I know is you don’t hear it north of Green Bay or south of Interstate 80 (I’d say the extension south to St. Louis is debatable).

There are a few points that I believe are crucial to understanding the Lower Lakes region, how it understands itself, and how it operates.

The Lower Lakes cities were junior partners in their early development, which was guided by Eastern interests.  Eastern settlers established the cities and towns; Eastern money financed the early growth.  Eastern entrepreneurs established the industrial and manufacturing legacy in the subregion.  Easterners established the vision; subsequent residents have only tried to build on what’s already been estabhshed.

The Lower Lakes were built for production, not innovation.  Cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee came into being as places where things were built and shipped, not places where the ideas behind them would be discussed.  Production is part of their DNA.  However, this puts them at a disadvantage in an economic era where innovation, creativity and talent are driving economic growth.

The early economic success of the Lower Lakes subregion created envy from other subregions that resonates today.  By the 1870s the Lower Lakes, led by Chicago, began to pull away economically from the rest of the Midwest.  The Midland Valley suffered most in comparison.  Older and more established cities like Cincinnati, Louisville and St. Louis saw the river trade that sustained them disappear, as rail became dominant.  Grain from the Plains and timber and iron ore from the North Woods flowed into Lower Lakes cities on rail, and flowed out as flour, furniture and steel.

It may be odd to say that events and circumstances from nearly 200 years ago can influence our opinions of places today, but they do.

Next in the series — the Heartland.

6 Responses to “The "Five Midwests" Series, Part 3: The Lower Lakes (aka "Rust Belt")”

  1. Alon

    I've heard people describe Detroit as a center of innovation, in automotive engineering – if not now, then a hundred years ago, before its industrial monoculture grew. Do you think it was (or still is) an engineering center like that, or do you think it's always been a production center based on ideas from elsewhere?


  2. Pete Saunders

    You raise a very good point. I make sweeping generalizations sometimes, and that may be the case here.There are a lot of people who make a Detroit :: Silicon Valley comparison, and I think there's a lot to it. Detroit's early engineers were at the forefront of industrial innovation 100 years ago, and the agglomeration that characterizes the valley today was present at the start of the modern auto industry. Personally I think that spirit of innovation ceased sometime shortly after WWII, when the automakers focused on selling products to market niches instead of selling better and better products.I'd also say there was a fair amount of innovation in Chicago, too. Architecture, transportation and engineering are areas where Chicago stood out. But there are many other Midwestern cities that seemed to set up factories for making products without questioning how to make them better.


  3. Betty Barcode

    Other pre-European occupants of the Lower Lakes include the Seneca Nation in Western New York, which still has two reservations, Cattaraugus and Tonawanda, south and north of Buffalo, respectively.I don't think it is accurate to dismiss the Erie Canal as \”nearly obsolete\” when it opened. It was not until 1843 that there was a complete rail route paralleling the canal. So it enjoyed almost two decades of dominance., someone more ambitious & knowledgeable than me should do an animated patent awards data visualization (or map) of this region. If they did, I think you would see intense nodes of innovation in Buffalo & upstate NY. If one exists, I'd love to know about it.


  4. Pete Saunders

    Everyone's made their point. I've seen the evidence. I'm ready to walk back from my statement about the Lower Lakes area being one known for mindless production over innovation. Like I said earlier, I am prone to sweeping generalizations, and this definitely seems to be one of them. I will admit that my mind might be stuck in the early '80s, when foreign automakers were eating our lunch regarding auto quality, design and engineering. I stretched that imagery too far.I do know that metros like Rochester, Buffalo and Detroit have significantly higher numbers of engineers compared to other metros, and they've led the way to the above-average number of patents generated there. The point is well taken.



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