College Grads and the Disappearing Industrial Midwest

So this article in yesterday’s New York Times attracted a lot of feedback/opinion on the Times’ comment section, Twitter, and Facebook; with the majority seeming (in my highly unscientific analysis) to back the article’s premise — that college graduates are fleeing former industrial strongholds in the Midwest and elsewhere (places like Dayton, Ohio, which was the focal point of the article, but also — and even more so, really — smaller cities like my hometown and current location of Rockford, Illinois for larger, culturally richer, and more diverse metropoles like Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, and of course New York, among others.)

I don’t dispute the article’s main thrust, which boils down to something like “the better-educated you are, the better-suited you are to enjoy a larger city’s cultural offerings and the more likely you are to want to be in a similarly well-educated populace.” I myself have zero intention of remaining in Rockford, and intend to head to Seattle, New York, hell, even considering Melbourne, Australia when the time comes. Yet at the same time, returning to Rockford — particularly as it was unplanned, that itself a lengthy and separate story for those who don’t know it — has forced me to reevaluate this unaesthetically-pleasing, benighted, depressed, mismanaged, crime-infested city. It may be the case that the young and educated get the hell out of here as soon as they can. I graduated from Guilford High School here in 2003, and promptly went to New Hampshire for my college education, then to Frankfurt, Germany, and Boston. In another words, half a country and half a world away.

But — and maybe this is just my Midwestern sentimentality peering through — there’s a sense of community here I didn’t experience in Hanover, Frankfurt, or Boston. That could be due to the “stay calm and carry on” sense of resilience among Rockfordians or maybe even what’s often referred to as “Midwest nice” (which is true, by the way, if not necessarily sincere). I guess what I’m trying to say is that for a smallish Midwest city like Rockford (160K pop., 330Kish metro area), I’d be willing to stay here if it seemed possible to establish a youth culture here, to open a business, or run for office. I spent my teens hating this city, and have only recently, since returning, learned to appreciate the good things about it — and there are many. So no, I don’t foresee staying here, but I don’t think the so-called Heartland is really dead; it’s just going to take a creative mix of public policy measures and private entrepreneurship to create the kind of climate that fosters, celebrates, and can afford an outstanding creative class.

Update: Edited twice to correct two minor punctuation errors.

~ by Benji on May 31, 2012.

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