Tonight, an epic battle between two of the longest-suffering fan bases in major league baseball will square off to determine who will be this year’s World Series champion. The Cleveland Indians (last World Series win: 1948) and Chicago Cubs (last World Series win: 1908) will face each other in a decisive Game 7. Someone’s long streak will come to an end.
The series between two beloved teams from quintessential Rust Belt cities has more in common than just generationally-measured streaks without championships. They both have fan bases who, on the surface, are displaying their pride and confidence in the Tribe and the Cubbies. However, scratch that surface just a little, and you will find a sentiment that fans of both teams will express:
Please don’t find a way to screw this up.
Yesterday I had a brief interview with a reporter who wanted to get my thoughts on an intriguing subject. I certainly hope I’m not sabotaging the interview or her article by writing this (if so, my apologies), but the reporter was doing a piece on the angst that Chicagoans feel about our region’s lack of progress toward building a bigger and more impressive startup community and culture. She said she’s come across many people who feel more than a little insecure about Chicago’s position in the tech economy hierarchy. I am definitely not a tech guru, but she wanted to ask me — is there an inferiority complex among Chicagoans? If so, why?
I think there’s most definitely a Chicago inferiority complex, but it’s not unique to Chicago. I find it to be a Rust Belt inferiority complex, and Chicago is one of many Rust Belt cities that exhibit it. Certainly Cleveland exhibits it, Detroit does, and many other Rust Belt cities do as well, both large and small.
It’s not hard to find recent manifestations as to why Rust Belt cities have an inferiority complex. In Cleveland’s case, a fire on the Cuyahoga River and accelerated economic and demographic decline led the city to be defined as the “Mistake on the Lake”. Detroit’s similar economic and demographic collapse, and an infamous riot in 1967, made the Motor City the epitome of urban decline. Pittsburgh’s been dealing with the horrible moniker “Shittsburgh” since the collapse of the steel industry in the ’80s, and it’s a term often propagated by its own residents. Chicago escaped much of the same labeling, mostly because it benefited from its role in attracting most of the Midwest’s best and brightest to attend its fine schools and work for its corporations. But Chicago still maintained its East Coast envy, even as New York descended down its own spiral in the ’70s.
And if some cities had an inferiority complex because of loss, others had one because of their blandness. Indianapolis has worked long and hard to shed its “India-no-place” tag by working hard to bring pizzazz to the city’s downtown. Cincinnati has a reputation as a pent-up, buttoned-down conservative city, and it’s had its difficulties marketing itself to coastal types as it’s also remade its downtown. Smaller cities like Fort Wayne, Dayton, Grand Rapids, Des Moines, Toledo — they become better known for being places where coastal types are from.
Why is it that the Rust Belt holds on so deeply to such negative views? Three reasons come to my mind.
Dealing with loss. I found Richey Piiparinen, a senior research associate for Cleveland State University’s Center for Population Dynamics, through his blog a few years ago. For some time, he’s been saying that the economic loss that the Rust Belt has experienced is, weirdly, a binding feature:
“I was born a loser. Not in a character impediment kind of way, but rather in a time—1976: on the cusp of a great recession—and in a region: the Rust Belt, which would slide into a prolonged period of economic contraction—and in a place: the inner-city of Cleveland, which would lose 25% of its population in the decade of my birth alone…
After long, the anxious air begins to saturate across the whole of the collective—regardless of birthplace, age, outlook, or the will to be aware of possibility outside of what can become a very normal-like sense of suffering. This aura has been given a name, “Only in Cleveland”, or “OIC’ for short. The name is meant to connote an inevitability that the region will suffer loss after loss, not only in sport, but also in economics, demographics, or more generally: in the city’s “life”…
But why is that? Why is our identity so entangled with suffering? The short answer is that’s how we’ve come together in the face of trying times.”
Other Rust Belters are aware of the same feeling, and can connect it with the economy, vacant land and buildings, or the lack of sports success.
Middle Syndrome. You know that saying that sometimes your biggest strength is your greatest weakness? I wonder if that applies to the Rust Belt. One thing that can be said about the Rust Belt is that its manufacturing economy essentially created the American middle class, and spread that ethos throughout the nation. That was its strength. However, while the East Coast (and later West Coast) was creating empire builders, the Rust Belt steadfastly held on to its middle class mindset. That can be seen as a detriment in a society that rewards “winners” and sacrifices “losers”. And certainly, the decline of the manufacturing sector in the American economy has made the Rust Belt look like losers. But there’s a long-time reason I see at work as well.
The Rust Belt’s junior partnership role in the American economy. By virtue of the way America was settled, the American hinterlands of the Great Lakes and the Ohio and Mississippi valleys were settled long after the East Coast. In New York, Philadelphia, Boston and other cities, plans were developed, money was made, and sights were set on new endeavors. The open expanses of the Midwest were seen, by East Coast financial interests, as the places were crops could be raised, timber cut down, minerals extracted — as long as we can get the people there to do the work and transportation network in place to move it.
The Midwest did not develop as organically as the East Coast did, or even as any other U.S. region did, for that matter. Without question, the South developed through its expansion of the slave and plantation economy — later discredited and overthrown by the Civil War, but critical to its growth nonetheless. The vast distances of the West made its connections to other regions more tenuous, but it led to a “destination” feeling to it; you can’t have a “from sea to shining sea” mantra without a shining sea ending. The West became more independent as a result.
Meanwhile, the Midwest, the Rust Belt, was tied to the East Coast cities that would always perform the senior partner role. New England settlers founded many of the region’s cities and towns. East Coast banks funded land acquisitions and railroads. Financiers invested the money to establish the Midwest’s agricultural economy and the manufacturing economy that followed it.
Midwesterners have been following the East Coast’s lead for 200 years, and we’ve developed an inferiority complex as a result.
I see this changing in one of two ways. One, the Midwest/Rust Belt could embrace the sense of loss, continue through the other stages of grief and move on. Yes, unlikely. Or, the region could have its fundamental regional philosophy altered by migrants who see opportunity where locals see no such thing. This could actually happen. Believe it or not, there are forces at work — high housing costs on the coasts, climate change impacts leading to droughts or floods — that could bring people back to the region. If so, that could lead to some new blood and new thinking that could alter the region’s economy as well as its inferiority complex.
If only we don’t screw it up.