Rediscovering Our Middle West

By Kotkin, Joel | The American Enterprise, July-August 2004 | Go to article overview

Rediscovering Our Middle West


Kotkin, Joel, The American Enterprise


ST. Louts, Missouri -- When President Thomas Jefferson acquired the vast new territory of the Louisiana Purchase, St. Louis, founded in the late 1760s near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, was the natural launching point for an exploratory expedition. So in May 1804, Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery set out from this city to map the sprawling new American wilderness.

At that point the city had a population of roughly 1,000. As it became the fulcrum for decades of expeditions and migrations west, rapid growth ensued. By the time of the Civil War, St. Louis was a great city: the nation's top river port, our largest flour producer, a key trading center, and home to a burgeoning base of specialized manufacturers (many run by industrious German immigrants, who by 1850 accounted for one out of every three residents). St. Louis made more shoes, bricks, and street cars than any city in the nation. It was the anchor of America's thriving agricultural and industrial heartland.

When it staged its famous 1904 Exposition, one of the greatest parties in American history, St. Louis was at the top of its game. Exactly 100 years after launching the Corps of Discovery up the Missouri River, St. Louis was the nation's fourth-largest metropolis. It was recognized around the world as a sophisticated, technologically advanced city. And it had sprinkled new settlers all across the Great Plains, where in innumerable towns they built homes and businesses, and erected churches, schools, hospitals, and cultural institutions at a rapid rate, profoundly influencing both the economic development and the moral character of the American nation.

Today, many parts of St. Louis are deserted, or forlorn.

From a peak of more than 850,000 in 1950, the population has shrunk to barely 300,000 at present. Wide swaths of old city blocks lie abandoned. Further out, in the sprawling expanse explored by Lewis and Clark, many small towns and homesteads are likewise desolate or abandoned. To much of America, this is "passed over country" in every sense of the word.

Recently, however, there have been stirrings of life in the lands of the Louisiana Purchase. Not only neighborhoods of St. Louis, but scores of cities and small towns throughout our Middle West are being rediscovered by a new generation of Americans. Places like Sioux Falls and Fargo in the north, Boise, Casper, and Missoula in the west, and Kansas City and Omaha in the center are out-and-out thriving, despite little or no attention from the national media.

The elements behind the Midwest's recovery from a century-long shrinkage of America's agricultural and industrial economies are many. They include things like the increasing costliness and dysfunction of our larger coastal cities, the liberating power of the digital revolution, and revived respect for what may be called Plains values in our current era of moral confusion.

Over the last ten years, according to analysis by demographer William Frey, there has been a marked decline in the longstanding out-migration from America's Midwest. Since the end of the dot-com boom in 2000, the region's cities, including St. Louis, have done far better than places like San Francisco, San Jose, New York, and Boston, all of which have been losing more domestic migrants than gaining. In addition to attracting "cultural refugees" from other parts of the U.S., many heartland cities have at last begun to attract some immigrants from abroad. In cities such as St. Louis and Kansas City, the numbers of immigrants arriving in the 1990s was more than twice what was experienced in the 1980s.

This demographic resurgence has been supported by an evolution of local economies away from their previous dependency on agriculture and basic manufacturing into new areas like information, business services, and finance. Over the past five years, some of the very fastest growing "new economy" towns in the U. …

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