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D avid R o b b ins Notes on a Midwest MakeOver May/June 2001 Rumors There’d Been, But Still the News Jolted The Onion, beloved free weekly deadpan satirical newspaper extraordinaire, had relocated, departing its long-time base in Madison, Wisconsin for New York City! How could they? How dare they? Had The Onion really no grasp of how essential to our fragile regional pride it had become? Disappointment was instantly supplanted, however, by a welling feeling of, gulp, patriotism, rendered in the style of an Onion headline: “Wisconsin’s Loss Is Corrupt Nation’s Gain.” Let them go. They should go. Over the course of the next four years (the new Administration ’s efforts to blur the line between church and state making it easier for us to pray publicly it’ll be only four) Americans will need a ruthless retailer of hard truths operating from some quarter, and nothing currently in circulation more expertly pinpoints the delusions we inhabit or the lies deployed against us than does The Onion. Scaling up the weekly’s hilariously bracing observations about Who We Are, Right Now, Like It Or Not for the New York market and positioning its mercy-unencumbered writers before the shiny bouquet of microphones comprised of the book, TV, and radio deals they so evidently yearn to ink and, more importantly, richly deserve, ought to do a lot to deflect the Bush-league inequities certain, to flow our way. So let them go. If their move from Madison is a blow to the renewal of indigenous contemporary Midwestern culture—and we shouldn’t kid ourselves, it is—well, doesn’t their departure just make room for the next configuration, whatever it might be, to take shape? D A V I D R O B B I N S    Notes on a Midwest Makeover   315 That one needn’t feel altogether cockeyed in indulging such optimism is attributable to the fact that the American Midwest is, thankfully, in a fascinating period of renewal and re-invention. It’s true that in recent years the entire stratum of this nation’s “mid-cap” cities has bloomed, seeded and watered by a decade of economic boom; the dispersal of power sponsored by the personal computer and the Internet; cable TV, which has piped into homes everywhere a sophistication that’s broken the deadly sleeperhold long applied by local media outlets; and, more amorphously, the indie, DIY aesthetic, unbottled by punk 25 years ago and still permeating modern life to glorious effect—the accretion of these forces working to blur any simple distinction between province and capital. While widespread, this happy evolution of America’s second - and third-tier burgs (our versions of Rotterdam, Antwerp, Naples, Stockholm . . .) is perhaps most compelling—because perhaps most unexpected—in those cities lodged in the belts of rust and of corn. The cultural makeovers currently underway in towns like Milwaukee, Cleveland, Des Moines, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis were hardly elective . Crisis and pain spurred their innovation. With America’s transition away from the family farm gradually eroding the region’s cultural import, its vitality was already on the wane when, during the 1970s, the proud industrial era that had underwritten America’s transition from rural to urban at last petered out. As, one by one, the manufacturers of the machine tools, farming equipment, and mining equipment that had literally made those rust-belt towns went down the tubes, big chunks of indigenous cultural identity were carried along with them. Through the subsequent decades, the region’s cities mostly limped along—wounded, stunned, famously “out of it,” semi-somnambulant. Although they remained for the most part physically pleasant and livable places, such “local culture” as these cities offered their residents came drawn from increasingly stagnant wells of nostalgia for heydays of harvesting, brewing, smelting, and welding. A genuine and vibrant contemporary indigenous culture was, for all intents and purposes, here nonexistent, which absence appeared to doom the cities of the Midwest to be ever receivers, never senders. Anyone who required a snazzier life split, or yearned to. Fortunately these were, always had been, pragmatic places; whatever they’d absolutely had to do they’d done well and seriously. Forced now to play serious catch-up lest they shrivel up and blow away, the more progressive Midwestern towns gradually groped their way onto the post-industrial grid of the emerging information/service economy. In 316   T h e E s s e n t i a l...


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