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Generations of people came to the Midwest in hopes of finding a better life. But economic opportunity has been harder to find since the recession began, and people have left the region in record numbers in search of jobs or a better housing market.
Changing Gears is launching a project to document the stories of these Midwestern exiles. We’ll be mapping where these people ended up. And, they will be sharing their own stories about why they left and if it’s better where they are now.
If you'd like to leave a message for somebody in the Midwest, or your old hometown, call 1-888-968-7677 or 1-888-YOUR-NPR.
Name: Kelly Nieman Anderson
Midwest Home: Ann Arbor, MI
Kelly and her husband moved to Mexico City in 2008 to keep him working in the auto industry. They returned to Ann Arbor in 2010. She shared her thoughts about what she missed while she was away and some lessons she learned in Mexico.
There were a lot of things we missed about Michigan. For me, it was my family and community. Nearly all of our college friends had left the state to find work, so we didn’t have a lot of friends in the area anymore. But, we missed the food - cherries, apples, squash, and the changing seasons - crunching snow, blooming daffodils, fireflies, falling leaves. I missed trees. The Midwest has so many trees, everywhere, and we take them for granted. I missed roads that made sense.
It was hard on me to be so far away from home when Michigan was struggling so much. It was hard to realize that in order to keep our home in Michigan, in order to keep working in the auto industry, in order to have enough extra to donate to our charities and churches in Michigan who were doing so much good in the community, we had to live in a different country. The day that GM went bankrupt, I wrote a blog, and my husband’s grandma thought someone had died I was so sad.
Mexico does not have a lot of cultural diversity, but it directly faces class diversity. The neighborhoods are very economically diverse - a maid will live next door to her employer. Because of this actual unemployment in the cities was low.
Many people were working under the table, or for less than living wage, which was very unfortunate. There was a sense of responsibility amongst those who had money to hire as many workers as possible and to pay them as much as you could. In Mexico, hiring a housekeeper and going out to eat and tipping our security guard was seen as our responsibility. We traveled locally, shopped locally, ate locally, and tipped locally - all to do our small part to keep our little community going. Lots of other Mexicans more wealthy than us did the same. The working class, in the city at least, didn’t resent the richer class. They resented the government’s policies and corruption. This is very different than here in Michigan.
Culture means different things to different people. Whatever it means, the Midwest isn’t known for it. Motown may have changed the face of music forever, but the company also moved to L.A. when it wanted to expand. Just a few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a (widely derided) article about how Midwest food culture is so retro it’s still impossible to be a vegetarian here.
People often mentioned a lack of culture as something that sent them packing from the heartland in submissions to our Midwest Migration project.
But we’ve also heard from plenty of people who think the Midwest has culture to celebrate. Here’s a mash-up of those submissions. We’ve created a pretend conversation using the real words of some of the people we heard from.
Chris Molnar: I always wanted to leave the Midwest. Although I was raised in Iowa City, Iowa, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, I identified with the idea of the big coastal city. I knew that I would be accepted there for who I am, someone craving culture and rejecting homogeneous provincialism.
Chris O’Neill: Over the course of my 20 year career in banking, I’ve relocated now eleven times, three of which brought me to the Chicagoland area. The quality of life and the cultural offerings provided by the city is hard to find elsewhere. Not to put down my new home of Dallas, but it’s certainly no Chicago.
Chris Molnar: I worked for three months, six days a week, at a factory which manufactured brake shoes for semi-trucks. I took a Greyhound to New York when I had saved $5,000. I didn’t care what job I got - I just wanted to be young and bohemian. But I’ve found a series of increasingly satisfying jobs. I love my solitude and the grimy greatness of New York City. It is a haven for all, where people are brought together by their aspirations, not because they were born there or found larger places anxiety-inducing.
Jamie Dorman: I miss Fourth of July parades, church picnics, little antique shops, and the sense that you’d better get along with the neighbors you have instead of finding a self-reinforcing community of sameness.
Chris M: I will never go back, and even visiting the Midwest makes me extremely uncomfortable, seeing how quickly the unchanging mediocrity and faceless strip malls can swallow you up and turn you into the exact replica of those around you. Here, I don’t have to work in factories in order to write in my spare time. I don’t have to drive three hours for Chicago or Detroit’s meager culture. I don’t have to filter my opinion through dominant religious or ethnic groups. New York City is the American Dream, and I invite everyone to move here.
Kaila Frymire: Minneapolis and Chicago in particular have extremely strong arts communities that rival those of Boston and New York in some aspects. There are a lot of original ideas coming out of Minneapolis. Many top-notch artists who have worked in NYC, LA, and overseas have returned to the Midwest to produce their own projects.
For me, the Midwest has the best of all worlds - reasonable cost of living, a strong arts community, great healthcare, friendly people, a beautiful natural habitat, and a general pleasant atmosphere.
Name: Greg Chopp
Midwest Home: Kalamazoo, MI
New Home: New York, NY
I left my job in retail banking in 2010 due to the increased pressure to sell loans to consumers during a recession. I spent the vast majority of the following year trying to find a job around my area, Kalamazoo, a city that I was and still am madly in love with.
That was the realization that forced me to step back and evaluate this situation. I was bored. I was stagnant. It seemed the only way to break away from this mindset was to unnerve myself by abandoning any conventional idea of job hunting in Western Michigan and start over from scratch.
A month later, I stepped off the plane at LaGuardia a resident of New York City. I threw myself into this move, hoping only for the best. The job market here is drastically different than in Michigan in terms of availability and diversity. I’m also a writer, and I couldn’t ask to be in a more nurturing environment than NYC. So the moral of my experience is this: If you have the gumption to leave behind all that is familiar and comfortable, and are brave enough to start over from scratch, that your courage and hard work will eventually circle back and take care of you. As for me, I’m happier than I’ve ever been, and couldn’t have ever imagined that such a spontaneous move would have resulted in such a wonderful outcome.
Name: Rikki Brown
Midwest Home: West Michigan
New Home: Astrakhan, Russia
I left West Michigan because I study Russian and the best place to enhance my studies is in Russia. After finishing my undergraduate degree at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, I went to Saint Petersburg to learn more about Russian culture and language. While there, I received a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship and was assigned to Astrakhan. Now I teach English at Astrakhan State University.
Is it better here? Is any place better than another? Russia is interesting and exciting and provides things I cannot find in the Midwest; however, the Midwest has advantages of its own. I love the challenge that Russia offers, and the uniqueness of its culture.
Part of my heart will always be with West Michigan, as part of my heart will always be with Russia; but I refuse to say that one part is superior.
I am still young, my skills are still developing and it will be quite a long time before I am able to move back to the Midwest. Maybe I will make it back there for my retirement.
Name: Kara Varilone
Midwest Home: Metro Detroit, MI
New Home: Los Angeles, CA
I grew up in the Metro Detroit area dreaming of moving but not actually realizing what that meant: leaving everything and everyone I had ever known and held dear.
After university I explored several different career options but found none fulfilling. Therein lies the true reason I ultimately left Michigan: the opportunity to explore a far deeper pool of creative and career opportunities. After living in New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, I can definitively say this: the grass is NOT greener.
The Midwest offers many things the rest of the country cannot: seasons, for one. There is an affordable lifestyle, real people with morals, close knit communities, and areas of as yet unspoiled beauty. These are nearly impossible to find on the west coast.
I would move back in a heartbeat. If a good job opportunity presented itself, I’d be out of Los Angeles before I could blink.
Midwest Home: Sioux City, IA
New Home: Eddyville, OR
My knowledge of my hatred of and my love of the Midwest is informed by many years spent there.
My high school is now a vacant lot, where scabrous alley cats urinate in the dirt, and the cold wind blows old papers in the same spot where I had to study algebra. Yet my mind goes back to the room where Miss Edith Pollock taught me how to write.
I love Sioux City so much it hurts. I wish to hurt it back.
Would I move back to the Midwest? Not if they made me the governor of Iowa. Not for a million dollars in cash. Not at gunpoint. Not if I got to relive it all, and be a teenager again. But the memories of that place and time are precious.
Click here for the full chart
Over the last few weeks, we have been hearing from people who have left the region to settle in other parts of the country and the world. We’ve been mapping the migration and documenting the experiences of these Midwestern exiles. We’ve heard from around 200 people. Now that the project is wrapping up, we wanted to know how these stories compare to regional trends.
Name: Sarah Wells
Midwest Home: Van Wert, OH
New Home: Hollywood, CA
I left my small town in Ohio to become a working actor. It seemed to me the only way to do this was to be in a city where the entertainment industry is in national shape. Four years later, I can see that I was wrong, and I would give anything to have never left at all.
I think everyone who has left the Midwest ought to go home where they belong. We as a nation have created cities where no one knows anyone else outside of their little created circles.
The ideal small town, the one of our collective American dream, is one in which the dentist sings in your church choir and the grocer is the brother of your doctor, and we all work together to help each other out, spending our money amongst ourselves and enriching each other instead of outside, unnamed, faceless corporations. This is what we have in Los Angeles, it’s accidentally been created by people who left what was left of a functioning community.
Name: Layton Ehmke
Midwest Home: Dighton, KS
New Home: Chicago, IL via Homer, AK
The first chance I got, I took a job as far from the Midwest as I could get and still be in the U.S., which landed me in Homer, Alaska — 3,685 miles west of Dighton, Kansas.
I was a reporter there for about 1,300 days before I really started to miss consistent sunshine and thunderstorms, so I came back to Kansas for a year of farming before heading to the capitol of the Midwest, which I’ve recently figured out, is a place I love.
But days before I moved to Chicago, one of my farm chores was to burn a neighboring farm house to the ground. The little house had stood there on the face of the High Plains of western Kansas–empty and weathered, for a generation. Then it was gone. Up in smoke.
There are more of them too, these farmhouses and barns leaning to their ruin–relics that dot the horizon, reminding us that farming doesn’t take the labor force it once did.
In 10 years, 20 percent of the county’s population had fled or died. One in five people I’d known were gone. Today in Lane County, cattle outnumber people forty to one.
I came to Chicago for something that both Homer, Alaska and Dighton, Kansas didn’t have, which was an opportunity to do anything outside of agriculture, which I definitely found on the 16th floor of 680 N. Lake Shore Drive as a researcher at Playboy Magazine.
Does fact-checking the magazine have any resemblance to cleaning a grain bin or driving a tractor for 15 hours a day? Nope. That’s the point.
Meanwhile, I keep in touch with my brother since he actually left Chicago to go back to the farm. Sometimes I wonder if I should join the family business, too, and give up the rest of the world to grow wheat in the wind.
I want to be part of Chicago, because Chicago has just enough. It’s not insane like NYC and LA. It’s Chicago: the great metropolis of moderation.
This is a shorter version of a longer essay originally published in the February, 2012 issue of The Chicagoan.
Midwesterner’s a a group appear collectively scarred by winters past.
So traumatized, in fact, that over 30 percent of the people we heard from mentioned the weather—either as a reason they left the region, or a reason to stay put where they’ve ended up.
We were wondering if the weather really plays such a big role in decision-making. Or, is it something that, after the fact, becomes a socially acceptable justification for leaving. Something easy to talk about and easy to understand. People in warmer parts of the country can’t conceive why people would ever live someplace that comes with what can be a monocromatic nightmare of shoveling, salting, and pre-starting vehicles for months on end.
But, out of nearly 200 responses, only five people mentioned the weather as the primary reason they left the region. Five more said the weather was part of their decision to leave.
Among these is Donald Vandersloot. After a job loss, he and his wife spent years looking for a place outside the region to call home.
“We had researched this move since 2005 and chose Greenville because it is a really neat town, had a lot of restaurants, music, theater, and other cultural events we enjoy,” said Vandersloot. “Also, Greenville has good weather with the lowest humidity in the southeast.”
Like Vandersloot, many of the people we heard from say that regardless of why they left, the better climates they’re living in now will keep them from coming back. This was the case with nineteen of the people we heard from.
We did hear from a few people who want to or did come back to the Midwest because they missed the weather. Among these is Eric Norenberg. He left Arizona and is now the City Manager of Oberlin, Ohio. “In the ninth year of a drought and with 36 days over 110 degrees in 2007, I was ready to return to Ohio.”
How big of a deal is the weather to you? Share your migration story here.
Name: Esperanza Rubio Torres
Midwest Home: Lansing, MI
New Home: San Luis Potosi, Mexico
I was making ends meet by working a couple waitressing jobs, the winter was coming, and I think I had gotten depressed and sort of refused to recognize it. My life was in an ugly rut. After much thought, I threw all my cares to the wind. I sold my car and I quit my jobs and got out of Michigan. It was really freeing and scary and amazing.
I have no plans to move back to the Midwest. But, I miss my friends and the family I left there. I still recall with great joy the beautiful moments I spent there, and the warmness of the people in the city I was born in. Lansing really is a gem, and anyone who thinks otherwise doesn’t really know Lansing. That said I do not miss the winter-so many grey months where I felt sad and depressed, shoveling, expensive produce and driving everywhere. I really love where I am now, and the challenges I’m facing. In the event that I did return, I know the Midwest, and Lansing in particular, would welcome me back with arms wide open.
Name: JoAnn Martin
Midwest Home: Ann Arbor, MI
New Home: England, UK
My family moved to England, United Kingdom after living in Ann Arbor, MI for eight years. My husband’s job moved us here. His company helped us get fair price for our home, or we would have had to sell our home for almost nothing.
We do enjoy the non-car dominated lifestyle. We walk, bike, take train, and only occasionally need a car. We live in a small British village, with good schools and nice people, but our family is far away. It is expensive to live here; however mild and very sunny weather has been great, along with great farmer market shops for produce.
We do want to move back before our kids go to high school, and so we can see family.
Sam Steiner moved from St. Louis to Portland, OR and says she loves her new lifestyle.