Global | Local | Middle

Friday, December 29, 2006

When Did the Midwest Become the "Heartland"?

When I moved from Chicago to Champaign, Illinois, in the fall of 2005 I noticed the pervasive use of the term "heartland" in local businesses. There are banks, heating and cooling companies, burger shacks, etc., all with some version of Heartland in their name. Chicago has its lefty Heartland Cafe and a few other similarly named businesses and organizations. But nothing like downstate. Why all this claiming of the heartland, I wondered, and what does it mean?

For about a year I've been thinking about a project that would answer these questions.

My working thesis is in two parts, one about timing, the other about meaning. First, although a term of long-standing, the use of "heartland" to describe the Midwest grew as the region was heading into industrial decline after 1973 in the face of a new wave of global economic integration. Second, "heartland," is a term of reaction and forgetting. It recasts the "rustbelt" (the image of urban decay) into a bucolic, racially homogeneous (white), politically and socially conservative small-town region.

After talking to Jim Akerman and Bob Karrow at the Newberry Library, specialists in maps and vernacular geography, I decided to track the use of "heartland" in historical newspapers. Thanks to the digitized databases, this is just a matter of an afternoon's work. The chart at the head of this post shows the results of that work (if you click on the image you can see a full size version). It charts all articles (including advertisements) in the Chicago Tribune that use the term "heartland," whether or not they are referring to the American Midwest, from 1849-2006. It is a rough measure, but serviceable.

The search seems to confirm the first part of my thesis, about the timing of "heartland" popularity. The term "heartland" rarely appeared in the Tribune in any form before the mid 1940s, and remained limited in use until the late 20th century. There were only 15 articles before 1940 (none of which seem relevant), and only 8 between 1940 and 1946. From 1946-1949, there were 28 articles (perhaps half about the midwest). From there, heartland becomes an ever more attractive (and diffuse) metaphor and label. There is a big jump in the decade of the 1980s, and then an apparent leveling off.

A combined search for "heartland" and "midwest" actually yields a more dramatic curve, although a much smaller volume of articles. Once again the big jump comes in the 1980s. In the 1970s only 46 articles or ads included both terms. In the 1980s, 240 did so. 431 during the 1990s.

Why? And what does it mean? Those are the subjects of my next post or posts. Until then, for the data-inclined I offer the following related charts to ponder:

Use of "heartland" in the Tribune and the New York Times. Notice that the Times is way out ahead of the Tribune in the 1970s, but they are almost equal in the '90s. An example of cultural diffussion? Or just New Yorkers' love of the exotic other?

Use of "global" in the Tribune and the New York Times

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Genealogy of a Project

The Global Heartland project (GH, for short) has a complicated history. This blog is a late addition to something I have been working on for several years, a digital project with my old employer the Newberry Library. In the next few months we'll be rolling out a long-delayed redesign of that project, and hopefully opening it for public comment. In the meanwhile, I'll be posting some draft text for that project, and and some things that are more like "notes."

But before we go there, allow me to offer a brief genealogy of the project.

It began several years ago during a summer vacation to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Somewhere in the Keewenaw I was reading some text on a map that listed two interesting facts. One was that the Cliff Mine was allegedly the most profitable mine ever (apparently based on investment vs. revenue), and second that the Calumet and Hecla mines earned some millions and millions and millions of dollars (the specifics I now forget) for their Boston investors. I then began a long epiphanic moment that lasted from Hancock all the way to Copper Harbor. Looking at the wooded countryside rushing by my window, pulling into a passed-over Calumet, passing abandoned mine shafts, rocky outcroppings covered in birch and white pine--all of it territory I had been through several times before--the landscape came alive with ghosts. Ghosts of people, ghosts of ore, ghosts of landscapes past; the apparitions swirling about, reaching into the old mines and all the way to Boston, all the way to Finland, into the house I grew up in with its copper sink, and into every early 20th century house in North America wired and plumbed with copper wire.

This out-of-the-way place reached across the globe, into the lives of people whose daily practices gave little or no mind to the chain of connections that linked their kitchen sink and light switch to the drama of immigration, the struggles of mineworkers, and the vast profits to be made from converting the earth's natural wealth into wires, sinks, and pennies.

Soon after I wrote a proposal for a book called "Transnational Midwest" that would have taken on this topic. Let's just say the fates of funding were not smiling on that version of the project (in the meanwhile there have been some good books covering similar territory). So I converted the book project into a digital resource project for the Library. If it was funded at least it would keep me working on the topic, and cover some of the costs of my research center. Around the same time I submitted a proposal to a different funder for an exhibition on the history of free speech activism in Chicago. The two projects had slightly different time frames, so it all seemed doable--it always does.

Then my wife announced that she was pregnant with twins. To my great surprise, both projects were funded. Not so surprisingly the twins were born about 9 months later. I finished the text of the exhibit at 9 pm on June 20th, 2004, my wife went into labor at 7 am the next day, and the girls were born 34 hours later. The next few months are still a blur. Not much sleep with two newborns in the house--oh yes, and then we moved to a new apartment. Jen Koslow took over running the center (thanks Jen!!), and I used all my vacation and sick leave to take the summer off. The exhibit opened on October 1st. But my short-term memory didn't come back for about a year.

It would be fair to say that the project officially known as the "North American Midlands Website Project: Resources for Teaching and Learning American History in a Global Perspective" has suffered from my over-extended commitments, despite the heroic efforts of Doug Knox who stepped in as project director, and Aaron Shapiro our Center's Assistant Director. In the fall of 2005 I took a job at the UI, and soon discovered that the GH project was utterly incomprehensible to many of my new colleagues--especially the ones who would be voting on my tenure case. This slowed the project down quite a bit as I changed research emphasis in a futile effort to fit the expectations of the department. Recently, that problem was happily taken care of, and I will soon be employed by an institution that at least won't penalize me for doing the project. So I'm back at work on GH, and happy to be here.

So in the next few weeks I will be posting some project text to this blog, and if my readers would like to comment, you will be contributing to the project as a whole. Also, you may have noticed that I have set up a GH group on Flickr, and I invite you to submit photographs you have taken that reflect connections between the local and global, or the obscuring, hiding, and forgetting of said connections.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Chicago Labor History Map Goes Online


A few years ago when I was still working at Chicago's Newberry Library, I had the opportunity to help out with a project to create a labor history map of Chicago. This was coordinated by Leon Fink and drew on the energy of graduate students at the University of Illinois Chicago and Northwestern University, as well as Lisa Oppenheim of the Chicago Metro History Education Center, members of the Illinois Labor History Society, the Chicago Center for Working Class Studies, the Illinois Humanities Council, and the Newberry.

The result was The Labor Trail: Chicago's History of Working Class Life and Struggle, which was an attractive fold-out map with several neighborhood walking/driving tours. This resource has now been repackaged online, making it more accessible and interactive. As the title suggests, the map tries to place the history of the labor movement into the context of working class life.

In addition to serving up neighborhood tours, the new site provides links to video of Chicago labor leaders nominating historic sites at public meetings sponsored by the ILHS and the Chicago Center for Working Class Studies. I recommend Ed Sadlowski on the Steel Industry and the roundtable on Labor in the Black Metropolis.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Teaching Globalization

Originally uploaded by Tobias Higbie.
Yesterday I was up in Alsip, Illinois, at the IBEW Apprenticeship school to help out with our "Solidarity 101" program. This is a two-day crash course in Labor Studies taught by the Labor Education faculty. We are outsiders coming into an ongoing educational process, and we get the good and the bad from that position.

My role in this program has been to teach sessions on contemporary economics, particularly on globalization. That's right, globalization in 2 hours. I've been jiggering my lesson since day one, and finally have found something that works: a lesson plan by Bill Bigelow called the "Transnational Capital Auction," which is in two of his books, Rethinking Globalization and The Line Between Us: Teaching about the Border and Mexican Immigration. You can get it from Rethinking Schools.

It's a remarkably effective lesson plan for explaining the "Race to the Bottom" concept, and for understanding the pressures on developing nations to lower their living standards. It's also a very hands-on example of how ideology works to conform social actors to the needs of capital.

Students break into teams. They play the role of ruling elites in developing, post-colonial nations. I play the role of Transnational Capital. The goal is to get some development capital into your country. Over five rounds, teams bid on my investment. Bids are figured through a set of social indicators (minimum wage, child labor, worker rights, and environmental laws, and taxation on profits). The worse your social indicators, the higher your "friendly to capital" score. But you can't just grind your people into the ground. The team with the third highest "friendly to capital" points gets the most "Game Points," which is what you need to win. This last rule makes the game more strategic and more engaging for students. But the educational point is that "Capital" wants a balance between poverty and order. Too much poverty brings disorder, and potential revolution, and that's bad for capital. The students "get it."

During the bidding, I circulate around the room reiterating the basic outlines of the game, collecting bids, and promoting the interests of capital: "remember, winning is everything;" "remember, you have to compete against the other teams, you don't want those other countries to get ahead of you, do you?" I notice that most are opting strategically for high wages and bad conditions--"at least we'll eat," they say. "What is the largest piece of an employers budget?" I ask. "Wages and benefits," they say. In the next round, minimum wages drop.

The trend of game is usually the same: the friendly to capital scores go up round after round, sometimes dramatically as teams try to catch up or strategically bid high to win some Game Points. Their bid in the final round, you tell them, is what their people will have to live with. "So what is life like for common people in your country now?" I ask. Minimum wage of 25 cents an hour, no child labor laws, troops stationed in the factories. In short, "Hell," they respond.

Time's up. Go to your next class. Half the class stays with me, the other is off to learn about the impact of recent elections on labor law, etc.

My sections replay the Auction, this time not as elites but as representatives of workers, farmers, etc. They struggle to do well by their constituents, but the logic of the game moves them toward declining wages and conditions. "Remember, winning is everything" I say in my role as "capital." One team asks alound, "What if we all got together. We could agree on minimum wages." I stop talking and try to hide in the corner so they can organize. The response from other teams: "now you say that, but you were just trying to cut our throats. It's every man for himself"--this is actually said by one of the few women in the room. "Winning is everything," I say trying hard to be ironic. But the game moves on to the inevitable conclusion: "hell."

In the wrap up, the students talk about how they felt powerless to resist the logic of the game. We talk about what life would really be like for workers under these conditions, and what people might do in response. They might leave their homes and come to the US, someone says. But there really isn't enough time to go into a long discussion, just enough to reiterate that "capital" is seen as "America" in many parts of the world, and to mention something about Lula and other leaders who are trying to avoid what they just did: play the transnational capital auction for the benefit of common people. Not so easy to do.