One man’s Midwest is another man’s Northeast

One man’s Midwest is another man’s Northeast

While transcontinental flight and the equalizing influence of national broadcast television have smoothed out once-gaping gulfs of differences between the different regions of the United States, you still find those who identify strongly with the place they’re from or where they live now. We still speak of Southerners and New Englanders and corn-fed Midwesterners. Texans, Californians, and New Yorkers merit their own special state identities as well. 

Yet, what defines the South or the West or the Midwest? I was reading a book recently by someone who grew up in Savannah, Georgia, and he mentioned a friend who’d moved to Memphis after college. The friend eventually moved back because, the author said, he missed the easygoing Southern culture he’d left. That struck me as funny, since as a New Englander, Memphis is as Southern as Savannah. Evidently, Georgians don’t agree.

When I moved to eastern Ohio for college, I elicited guffaws from classmates from Arizona and Oregon and Washington when I declared Ohio to be the Midwest. From their point of view Ohio—separated from the Atlantic Ocean by the length of one state—was as Eastern as Pennsylvania and New York. in their view the Midwest was Iowa, Minnesota, and even the Dakotas. To my friends from Texas or Alabama, Ohio was the Northeast, as if it were part of New England like Maine and New Hampshire. 

What defines these different regions? What states make up the South or the Southwest, the Midwest and the West? As far as I can tell, the only clearly defined region of the United States, one with a clearly defined set of members is New England: Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts. I’m not sure why that is.

How do you identify where you live and what defines your region?

  Posted via email  from Domenico’s posterous 


  • Yes and until I moved to Massachusetts, I’d have told you that New York and New Jersey were New England. I’m still not entirely convinced they aren’t, I’ve just learned to pretend to do so in polite society.

  • There was a book called The Nine Nations of North America that might be of help to you.

    1. “The South” is not too difficult to define.  You begin with the political boundaries of the Confederacy and make some adjustments (add the Missouri Ozarks, add Kentucky, add West Virginia bar the metropolitan zones along the Ohio River, add those portions of Maryland and Delaware outside of Greater Philadelphia, Greater Baltimore, and Greater Washington; subtract Greater Miami and coastal sections of Florida dominated by retirees). 

    2. “The Midwest” as your interlocutors define it is more amorphous.  Follow the boundaries of the grassland biome and make some adjustments.

    You’ve got the Dakotas, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri outside the Ozarks, and downstate Illinois. 

    3. “The West” can also be defined by the biomes as the desert and mountain zone which includes New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, eastern Washington, and eastern Oregon).

    4. The Left Coast runs from somewhere south of Santa Cruz to the Canadian border.

    5. The term ‘Rust Belt’ did not come into vogue until you and I were in high school, but it is apt.  It is defined by the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Ohio River. 

    6. Southern California, Miami & Geezer Central, and the metropolitan globs running between Boston and Washington are each their own place.  Texas and Oklahoma are difficult to place.

  • That certainly sounds definitive, but there’s also New England, the Mid-Atlantic, the Southwest. Some would make Appalachia its own region too.

    Never thought to use biomes, but doesn’t that ignore the cultural and/or political connections? Or are those dependent somewhat on the natural divisions of the land?

  • 1. I was recently reading a regional geography and there was a remark congruent with something I had noticed in face-to-face conversation: people who are actually from Appalachia seldom identify themselves as such.  They identify with more particular loci, e.g. “East Tennessee, “the [Shenandoah] Valley”, &c.  The upland South is distinct in its ethnic composition, in the evolution of its landscape, and in its electoral history.  The thing is, its population is modest and its urban hierarchy is truncated; I am not sure you would find any particular within-group relations between its cities. 

    2. I did not mention ‘New England’ because you had already brought it up.

    3. Any definition of the South does begin with cultural and political connections – the Confederacy, the ambit of post-colonial slavery, plantation agriculture, and distinctive Southern drawls (distinctive in the older generation, not our contemporaries).  Its all in a forest biome as well, though that’s not its distinguishing feature. 

    4. It is a characteristic of popular regions that there is some overlap in designations.

    5. Biogeography does have its influence on settlement patterns.  The desert zone in the southwest is an example – tiny rural populations and an imbalanced settlement hierarchy which incorporates few small towns but a succession of primate cities.  About 60% of Arizona’s population is in greater Phoenix, about 2/3 of Nevada’s is in greater Las Vegas, &c.  For that reason, you might tend to distinguish the Southwest (Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and the desert zones of Texas and California) from the remainder of the West, much of which has a vigorous network of small urban settlements. 

    6. Having grown up there, i tend to think of “Mid-Atlantic” as meaning ‘Northeast, but not New England’.  Rich Leonardi, now resident in Southern Ohio, thinks of our hometown as ‘East Coast’, whereas I would put it in the (industrial) Mid-west, with Southern Ohio, Michigan, and such.  Recall the proclamation line of 1863 and look at the settlement history of Upstate New York.  Albany was founded in the 17th century, but there was not one European settler in the Genesee Valley until 1788.  If you look at western New York and then at eastern Michigan, you will notice the same place names have been recycled.  The two areas are kin. 

    7.  Look at New Jersey outside the urban globs which form components of greater New York and greater Philadelphia respectively.  It has a population of about 1.6 million, pine woods, a long shoreline, and five small cities.  Sounds just like Maine, but with gangsters.  The U.S. Postal Service also puts New Jersey in the ‘0’ zone rather than the ‘1’ zone with New York.  Your wife’s got a point.

  • My state tends to be left out of all regional groupings (except perhaps in 5th grade geography textbooks).  Sometimes we are included in the Pacific Northwest, but generally we seem to be considered as a case by ourselves.  Alaska.  Of course, locals here refer to the rest of the United States as “Outside.”  If Alaskans say, “I went outside,” we mean we were out of Alaska, not out of doors. Our size and distance from the rest of the country also seems to make a lot of folks from “Outside” regard us as a separate country.  I’ve had people ask me what currency we use, and I’ve had mail order companies refuse to accept credit card payments or ship to me because they think the credit card is from a bank outside the U.S. and they don’t ship goods to foreign countries. Our nation has some serious deficits in geography education.

  • Run down the list, M:

    1. Geographically non-contiguous;

    2. Unique climate;

    3. Natural landscapes dominated by tundra (unknown elsewhere) and swaths of boreal forest (otherwise found only in northern New England).

    4. Absence of agriculture;

    5. Second to none in the importance of extractive industries;

    6. The state with the greatest amount of demographic churn and comparatively fewest natives.

    7. Politicians who can kick out the jams; one of just three states where the Democratic and Republican parties do not form an unbreakable duopoly.

    8. The only state where you can play basketball at midnight under natural light. 

    no regional affiliations.