The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

The "Five Midwests" Series, Part 4: The Heartland

View of downtown Dubuque, IA, one of the many quintessential midsize cities that dot the Heartland landscape.  Source:

Series to date:

My first exposure to the Heartland subregion of the Midwest came when my family moved from Detroit to Muncie, Indiana in 1981.  For someone from Detroit, the transition was a culture shock.

In terms of a manufacturing legacy, Muncie was very familiar; in every other aspect, however, it was not.  In Detroit I was part of a significant African-American majority neighborhood, in a significant African-American majority city.  I attended a Catholic high school that was about two-thirds black.  In Muncie, I was one of about seven (as I recall) black students out of 260 in my class at Northside High School, in a city where black made up about 7% of the total population.

The people were different.  They were friendlier and more polite.  People spoke as you passed them by on the street, although it didn’t always seem genuine, just customary.  Accents were different.  I’d been to the Deep South before going to Muncie, and the accent I heard there — some had it, others did not — seemed to approach what I heard in Georgia, but not quite.  People seemed slightly behind current trends in fashion, music, food and other popular culture markers.  But there was a near obsession with certain values that people in the Heartland hold dear: agriculture, independence, small town virtues, old-time religion, the flag, and in Indiana, basketball.  That’s the Heartland.

I used the picture of Dubuque, IA above because I think it represents the way most Heartlanders live in the Heartland, in midsize cities that stretch from Mansfield, OH to Ames, IA.  But if you Google “the Heartland” and look at images, you get iconic pastoral images like this:


Or this:


That evoke a feeling, rather than a place.  Because of that, perceptions of the Heartland revolve around where people believe that feeling is strongest, and it leads to wildly varying opinions about where “the Heartland” really is.  I’ll weigh in on what I think it is.

By my estimation, the Heartland is a broad swath of middle America, south of the Great Lakes and north of the Ohio River valley.  It extends westward from central Ohio, starting somewhere west of Youngstown and east of Columbus, and continues westward through the central parts of Indiana and Illinois.  The Heartland takes in the eastern half of Iowa before moving northward to include southwestern Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota.  This map pins down the area:

Most Americans will recognize this area as some of the most productive agricultural land in the world.  The areas where American corn and soybean production is strongest corresponds pretty well with my Heartland definition:


Heartlanders have taken pride in “feeding the world” for generations.

The Heartland was home to many Native American tribes before European movement into the area.  Tribe names live on in many of the place names in the subregion — Illinois and Iowa were named after tribes in the area.  Even Muncie, where I landed, was named after the Munsee tribe that early American settlers encountered there.

The Heartland had an interesting American settlement pattern that contributes to its ambiguity as a subregion.  Its earliest settlement was done by Appalachians that came either across or down the Ohio River, often moving northward from Kentucky and Tennessee, or westward from Pennsylvania or West Virginia.  Groups from these areas moved in after the Northwest Territory was organized into states (Ohio in 1803, Indiana in 1816, and Illinois in 1818), and before the Erie Canal, which opened in 1825, made transportation much easier along the Great Lakes.  That gave Midland Valley and Appalachian settlers a critical head start on establishing the culture of the area.  One way of understanding the Heartland is that it is a transitional subregion that is the southernmost extent of those who came into it from the Great Lakes, and the northernmost extent of those who came from the Ohio Valley.

In other words, it’s where North and South meet in America.

Despite its agricultural reputation, with about 15 million people (my estimate), the Heartland is the second most populous of the five Midwest subregions, after the Lower Lakes.  Of course, it’s not defined by large metros like Chicago, Detroit or Cleveland; typical Heartland cities include Muncie, Terre Haute and Kokomo in Indiana, Peoria and Bloomington/Normal in Illinois, the Quad Cities on the Illinois/Iowa border, and Dubuque, Cedar Rapids and Waterloo in Iowa.

However, the Heartland’s largest cities are state capitals.  Indianapolis and Columbus are the largest cities, with both having nearly 2 million within their metro areas.  Des Moines has just over 600,000 in its metro area; Springfield, IL has just over 200,000.

In fact, state capitals could be considered a defining feature of the Heartland subregion.  One way that the region’s initial settlers from the south and east made their imprint on the Heartland was with the establishment of state capitals.  Heartland capitals gave the subregion political cache far above its weight, and, in my opinion, contribute to intra-regional rivalries to this very day.

Another defining feature of the Heartland is its concentration of major public universities, for the same reasons as its state capitals — a central location within each state.  Ohio State University, Indiana University, Purdue University, the University of Illinois and the University of Iowa are all Big Ten schools that are among the best and largest public institutions in the nation.  All except for Ohio State, in Columbus, nearly rise out of the corn and soybean fields that surround them, and all offer excellent education and research opportunities.  Sadly, connecting them to the economic engines that exist in the Lower Lakes subregion has not been a strong suit.

Manufacturing did come to the Heartland, but in comparison to the Lower Lakes, it came slightly later, slightly smaller in scale, and did not define Heartland cities in the same way it did the larger cities to the north.  This might be due to the primacy of the rail network that emanated from Chicago, which was most successful in taking goods and products along an east-west axis, and not so much on a north-south axis.  This might be a blessing and a curse; the Heartland was able to maintain its strong sense of values, but it may have lost out on greater economic opportunity that will never return.

If you want to understand the Heartland today, I can think of no better resource than Richard C. Longworth’s Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, published in 2008.  The book speaks to the existential crisis that faces the Heartland, because it has lost not one but two of the economic engines that provided its citizens a middle-class life.  Mechanized agriculture produces all of the yield with a fraction of the employment; globalized manufacturing means the products that Heartland communities used to produce are built more cheaply in other parts of the world.  The intra-regional rivalries that stem from cultural differences within states makes Heartland connections to the more globalized parts of the Midwest difficult.

State capitals seem to do well, as do the homes of the major public universities.  However, what lies ahead for the Heartland is an open question.

3 Responses to “The "Five Midwests" Series, Part 4: The Heartland”

  1. Kevin Klinkenberg

    Its quibbling a bit, but I would make this region extend further west and south than you've drawn it. Culturally speaking, there's very little difference between the northern 1/3 of Missouri than most of Iowa, and the eastern portion of Nebraska. I think a lot has to do in fact with similar ag products as the base for the economy. That changes as you head further west, which is drier and tends more toward wheat and cattle. Also, as you approach the Missouri River into mid-Missouri the demographics shift as does the landscape. Clearly there's also a difference historically as you head into Kansas, since Kansas was largely settled by New England abolitionists originally (and if you know your history was the true spark that ignited the Civil War)


  2. Kevin Klinkenberg

    And as someone that grew up in two little towns in this region, I'd agree that it does have serious, structural challenges. I once did a comparison of population trends since 1900 for all towns in northern Missouri, and they all peaked around 1900 unless: a) they were in commute range of a major metro or b) along an interstate highway. What's most depressing is that most of these towns also have destroyed most of the historic charm that would otherwise draw people to them, I'm favor of big roads, strip malls and WalMarts. It's quite different than New England or even much of the Southeast where many small towns still have intact and charming main streets and older neighborhoods. A question I've had for a long time: why did the Midwest so completely adopt the car culture in ways far more obvious than others. I don't think it's simply because there's more land – that's not a hindrance in most of the US.


  3. Anonymous

    The Midwest probably bought into \”car culture\” to the degree it did because a) that's where most cars were (are?) manufactured, and b) it's a lot easier to drive where it's flat than it is where it's mountainous.



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