Midwest has the world’s straighest roads

One man set out to find the world’s straightest roads and he found them in the Midwest of the United States:

McCann writes:

“Using OpenStreetMap (OSM) data, I was able to see how bendy or straight the roads are all over the world. One theory I had was that Europe, where current roads are based on older roads that predate cars, would have more bends and curves than the USA, where current roads were (in many places) only put in in the last 150 ? 100 years, and probably put in directly and dead straight.

“The Mid-west USA and Canadian prairies have the most straight roads. Nearly all of the roads there are straight. This broadly matches my theory.”

For anyone questioning McCann’s methods, rest assured he used an actual “bendyness ratio” defined as the “length of the road divided by the straight line difference between [its] end points.” He didn’t think to abbreviate this ratio with a mathematical symbol, but I would suggest ||/?.

The project, which McCann launched some time ago but is now featured at Maps Mania, has its shortcomings. One is potentially incomplete road data in OpenStreetMap, another a technical issue with split “ways” that McCann delves into on his site. Still, it appears to paint an accurate picture of the Midwest, land of unbending, endless-feeling roads (red-orange areas mark hotbeds of straightness):

A lot of this is due to the fact that it is possible to have straight roads on flat land. Yet, these straight roads may be helpful in other ways. Back in graduate school, I wrote a paper about cognition in cities and some have argued that having a grid system – often aided by having flat land (see San Francisco for an interesting application of a grid on numerous hills) – is helpful for navigation (it is easy to tell directions) and better for traffic (multiple options in a grid rather than having some roads that are used more heavily). Think the Manhattan grid. Having this grid may even allow city dwellers to use the landscape as extended cognition where they don’t have to cram so much into their brains because they can offload information onto the grid. In contrast, I was recently in the western Philadelphia suburbs where the roads tend to follow the topography. It took me a number of visits before I knew which roads went where as they tend to twist and turn in ways that make sense. Of course, the Midwest roads may not be as scenic as those dipping and turning around hills, forests, water features and other natural phenomena. Some of the early wealthy suburbs like Riverside, Illinois intentionally had such curved roads on the flat landscape in order to highlight the landscape. Such curved roads in neighborhoods can also slow down drivers who have to be a bit more wary.

Illinois the first Midwest state to have majority of minority students in public schools

New data shows that Illinois for the first time has a majority of minority students in the state’s public schools:

Whites fell to 49.76 percent of the student body this school year, the new data show, a demographic tipping point that came after years of sliding white enrollment and a rise in Latino, Asian and multiracial students.

The black student population also has declined, but it still makes up almost 18 percent of the state’s public school students…

If those numbers hold, Illinois would be one of a dozen states — and the first in the Midwest — to have a school system in which minority students are in the majority, according to the most recent federal education data. Included in that category are Western and Southern states with large Latino or black populations, as well as the District of Columbia, according to the National Center for Education Statistics…

Illinois’ diverse student population doesn’t match the diversity of its teaching staff. Based on 2012 state data, 83 percent of Illinois’ public school teachers are white.

This is a relatively common thing in the United States today though it is unusual for it to happen to a Midwestern state. Relative to whites, minority populations in the United States have been growing.

One way this happens is through immigration. This is a reminder that although certain states are associated with immigration – places like California, Texas, Florida – immigration is closely tied to big cities. Here are some bits from a 2012 Census report looking at foreign-born populations in the 2010 Census:

While the foreign born resided in every state in 2010, over half lived in just four states: California, New York, Texas, and Florida. Over one-fourth of the total foreign-born population lived in California…
In 14 states and the District of Columbia, the percentage of foreign born was equal to or greater than the national average of 13 percent. With the exception of Texas, Florida, and Illinois, these states were primarily in the western and northeastern parts of the country.
With the exception of Illinois (14 percent), the percentage of foreign born in all states of the Midwest region was below 8 percent, including North Dakota and South Dakota, each with about 3 percent.

The Chicago region draws a large amount of immigrants and drew a large number of black migrants during the early 1900s in the Great Migration. Without the draw of jobs and opportunities in Chicago, the demographics of Illinois children today might look much more like Iowa or Wisconsin.

Updated data on interracial marriages in the US

Pew published last year a report on interracial marriage in America and here are some of the findings:

The Pew Research Center study released last year, using 2010 data, is the most recent major look at interracial relationships. It found that among new marriages in 2010, Asians were the group most likely to intermarry, at 27.7 percent. Hispanics were next at 25.7 percent, then blacks at 17.1 percent and whites at 9.4 percent. For the Pew study, marriages between two people who are mixed-race weren’t considered interracial…

The prevalence of interracial relationships varies widely by region. Census data show that in 2008-2010, the Midwest had the fewest mixed-race newlyweds with 11 percent. The Northeast region was next with 13 percent and the South had 14 percent, boosted by the high numbers of blacks in states like Virginia and North Carolina who marry outside their race.

At 22 percent, the West had the most interracial newlyweds, with the majority involving an Asian, Hispanic or Native American. Hawaii was by far the state with the most mixed-race couples, followed by Oklahoma, Nevada, New Mexico, Alaska and California. Illinois ranked 29th among the states.

Interesting findings. This is a shift in American life – just 50 years ago this would have been quite rare. But, there are still big differences between whites and others.

Why does the Midwest have the lowest percentage of interracial marriages? Two quick ideas. One, the region might be the most white as the Census Midwest region stretches from Ohio to the northern Great Plains. Second, large cities in the Midwest tend to score quite high on residential segregation (as does the Northeast), suggesting people of different races don’t live in the same places. If marriage and dating is partly about who one is exposed to, living in more racially homogeneous areas could limit the pool.

Mapping the boundaries of the Midwest

Mapping the Midwest has now become a crowdsourced project through asking “What’s the Midwest to you?”

That’s the question design and planning firm Sasaki Associates is asking visitors to its new exhibit, “Reinvention in the Urban Midwest,” which opens at the Boston Society of Architects (BSA) Space this week. The project includes an interactive survey that contains a timeless challenge: Draw the geographic boundaries of what counts as the U.S. Midwest…

Judging by the maps drawn by others and myself, it appears Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Oklahoma are the states of most contention. I personally felt I had no choice but to cut some of them in half. Perhaps the correct answer is still the textbook answer: the states of most intensified yellow (at least as identified by those who’ve lived in the Midwest the longest) make up the U.S. Census Bureau’s definition of the Midwest: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin to the east, plus Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota to the west.  (As a commenter pointed out, cartographer and historian Bill Rankin has also done a Midwest mapping project, in which he overlaid 100 different maps of the Midwest and made the confounding observation that  “no area that was included on every single map”.)

So the geographic boundaries of what most Americans consider the Midwest aren’t exactly clear, but Sasaki has also included another set of maps that reveal a much less murky truth: the Midwest has urbanized in a vastly different way from the rest of the United States. The graphic below maps out the population densities found in urban areas from four U.S. regions in 2010 (a darker shade signifies a larger, denser population)…

The Midwest is characterized by small but strong urban centers that transition sharply to rural surroundings. This pattern has of course grown from the region’s historical focus on agricultural land use. Sasaki’s recent work in Iowa suggests a continued population decline in rural areas but growing population density in more urban areas. However, the growth of urban areas in the Midwest is not uniform. The firm has further identified that agricultural cities in the plains sub-region, such as Des Moines, Iowa, or Lincoln, Nebraska, are indeed growing due to factors like de-ruralization and in-migration to city centers, while traditionally heavy-industry cities in the forest sub-region, such as Milwaukee or St. Louis, are still losing population.

One takeaway: the Midwest is a fuzzily-defined entity that perhaps has more to do with perceptions and culture than it does with exact geography. This would be aided by then asking people who drew the maps to then type in words they associate with the Midwest. I like the contrasting maps between those who have spent more of their lives in the Midwest versus those who have not: there are some clear differences.

The connection between farmland and cities is a good catch. Big cities like Chicago or Omaha were (and still are) intimately connected to agricultural commodities that needed to be distributed and sold through the big cities. For example, if you look at the early railroad construction in the Chicago region, much of it was linked to shipping products from the plains, everything from wheat (southwestern Wisconsin) to lead (Galena) to then distribute further east. Or look at the trading of commodities in places like Chicago and the creation of new kinds of markets. Even though there are big gaps between the Chicago area and the rest of Illinois – they operate as very different worlds – both would strongly consider themselves part of the same region, even if they can’t speak to the deeper ties that connect them.

Superman, Midwestern superhero

Superman may be a superhero but he is a Midwesterner at heart:

It’s not a point that’s often made about Superman, who is celebrating his 75th anniversary this summer and starring in director Zack Snyder’s quite Midwestern movie, “Man of Steel,” opening Friday. What with all his universe saving, the intergalactic lineage and the part-time big-city address, the fact that Clark Kent grew up on a Kansas farm has never been the sexiest part of the legend. And yet, for better or worse, his Midwestern-ness is the key to coming to grips with what has for decades been alternately one of the most durable and tedious of cultural icons, a symbol of American can-do albeit delivered with an insistent piety…

Superman is the embodiment of Midwestern character — the well-meaning, the sturdy, the pious and the provincial. In “Man of Steel,” when young Clark realizes he can hear literally everyone on Earth, he runs into a broom closet (a scene shot in Plano’s Centennial Elementary School, in far west Kendall County), presses his hands against his ears and refuses to leave, moaning “The world’s too big.” The response from Ma Kent (Diane Lane) sounds distinctly Midwestern: “Then make it small.”…

Without giving anything away (I swear, there are no spoilers here): “Man of Steel” tells the story of a guy who comes from a place where fracking (or at least the Kryptonian equivalent) creates earthquakes. He settles in a town where expanses are flat, and barns and windmills and water towers stand tall, breaking up the rows of corn. He gets into fights at the IHOP and is reminded by his parents he is better and more upstanding than everyone else but shouldn’t flaunt it — stay modest. He watches college football, wears a Kansas City Royals T-shirt, tends to keep his feelings bottled up. He’s hard to read but turns deeply moralistic, stoic and judgmental, willing to go out of his way to help anyone but eventually siding with the authorities. He heads off for the big city and gets beaten down by hipster jerks who wear a lot of black. But finally he decides that though people outside of the Midwest can’t be trusted, he will be nice to all of them…

Some of the best Superman comic book tales of the past few decades have had an air of repressed heartland stoicism (Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”) or focused on Superman trying to retain a tight, manageable community (Brian Azzarello’s “For Tomorrow”). But in its Midwestern iconography, self-proclaimed American values and locations, none comes close to Snyder’s “Man of Steel.” For instance, Metropolis, usually a substitute for New York City (partly because Superman films tend to shoot there), is more distinctly a Midwestern metropolis now, partly because it’s Chicago you’re looking at.

Fascinating. The virtuous Midwest strikes again. This could lead to a very interesting discussion of how cities become associated with superheroes. New York is the clear leader in the United States with heroes like Batman (operating in Gotham, a thinly disguised NYC) and Spider-Man (born in Queens). But, why aren’t there well-known superheroes in Chicago or Los Angeles? Is there some sort of economic sociology explanation where the comic book industry was centered in New York and they wrote about what they knew and for the biggest market? Does it have to do with the relative status of New York City as the leading global city and symbol of the free world? Do other cities not quite have the combination of glamor and grittiness of New York City? The connections between spaces and the social relationships within and modern myths, superheroes or sci-fi or post-apocalyptic scenarios or otherwise, could be worth exploring.

Smart Midwesterners flock to Chicago?

An excerpt from a new book about the Rust Belt looks at why Chicago attracts so many educated Midwesterners:

The North Side of Chicago is such a refuge for young economic migrants from my home state that its nickname is “Michago.” In 2000, a quarter of Michigan State University graduates left the state. By 2010, half were leaving, and the city with the most recent graduates was not East Lansing or Detroit but Chicago. Michigan’s universities once educated auto executives, engineers, and governors. Now their main purpose is giving Michigan’s brightest young people the credentials they need to get the hell out of the state.

In the 2000s, Michigan dropped from 30th to 35th in percentage of college graduates. Chicago is the drain into which the brains of the Middle West disappear. Moving there is not even an aspiration for ambitious Michiganders. It’s the accepted endpoint of one’s educational progression: grade school, middle school, high school, college, Chicago. Once, in a Lansing bookstore, I heard a clerk say with a sigh, “We’re all going to end up in Chicago.” An Iowa governor once traveled to Chicago just to beg his state’s young people to come home…

As Chicago transformed itself from a city of factories to a global financial nexus, its class structure was transformed in exactly the way globalization’s enemies had predicted. “Many Chicagoans live better than ever, in safe housing in vibrant neighborhoods, surrounded by art and restaurants, with good public transport whisking them to exciting jobs in a dazzling city center that teems with visitors and workers from around the world,” wrote Richard C. Longworth in Caught in the Middle, his 2008 book on the modern Midwest. “And many Chicagoans live worse than ever.

I look forward to reading the more complete argument. This excerpt suggests the changes that have made certain Chicago locations so attractive, places like the Loop, Lincoln Park, Wicker Park, Bucktown, etc., come at a cost as other areas of Chicago have seen little improvement.

This also seems related to the ideas of Richard Florida and the creative class. Florida tends to rank all US cities on his creative scale indexes. Could there be regional creative class cities? Chicago isn’t at the top of Florida’s rankings but it might attract a sizable number of the Midwest creative class. A city doesn’t necessarily have to attract the creative class from throughout the United States to experience some of their influence.

It would be helpful to see data on this. Who exactly is moving to Chicago? For example, looking at a place like Michigan, where do college graduates and other young adults go if they leave the state? Or, looking at the Chicago area itself, do they tend to stay in the metropolitan area at similar rates to other major cities like New York City, Los Angeles, Dallas, Philadelphia, and others (and there could be very different patterns going on in each of these major cities)?

McMansions part of the “dark side” of the Midwest

A review of the work of author Gillian Flynn suggests McMansions help fill in the scene for the darker side of Midwest life:

But the novel – like the 41-year-old Flynn herself – is a deeply felt product of the midwest. The real place, not the idly dismissed fantasy image held in the minds of those too lazy to venture out into what really goes on in the American heartland. The book is set in an ailing Missouri river town on the banks of the Mississippi – the same giant waterway that inspired Mark Twain. But the town is dying, its mall crushed by an ailing economy and its McMansions crumbling at the seams. Beneath the surface glitter of the marriage of Nick and Amy Dunne, dark things lurk: secrets, hidden plans and desperation.

To anyone who knows the midwest for real, this is no surprise. This is the same region that gave us Truman Capote’s exploration of random, empty Kansas murderers in his masterful In Cold Blood. This is a place founded on the old grass prairies, whose Native American inhabitants were butchered and displaced, and whose soil was ripped up. The midwest is the Indian Creek massacre and the “dust bowl” as much as Little House on the Prairie.

Who knew the Midwest was so dark? Actually, this sort of portrayal sounds very similar to a common genre of work about suburbs that arose after World War II. Both the Midwest and suburbs might be viewed as the “heartland” or where “average” Americans go to live. (At the same time, the Midwest can’t claim the same sort of population proportions as the suburbs – now over 50% of Americans live in suburbs.) But, authors, filmmakers, artists, and musicians have frequently “exposed” the seemy underside of these places. There is no doubt that there are bad things lurking below the surface in all places so perhaps the issue here is the facade that cultural producers think too often gets portrayed as “the truth” about the Midwest and suburbs.

Overall, certain places tend to get a more noir treatment compared to others. For example, the Los Angeles School of urban scholars has argued that Los Angeles also is presented in this way – it may look like a glamorous, sunny place but there is a lot of crime and cruelty below the surface. (See the revered movie Chinatown or the TV show Dragnet.) From the perspective of the LA School, this noir treatment tells the truth as it exposes the capitalistic underpinnings that make Los Angeles both glittering and a hotbed of inequality. Should we take a similar perspective about the Midwest – it really is a place with problems that need to be revealed to the world?