Robert Wuthnow on the Midwest

I am a big Robert Wuthnow fan for his analysis of the American ethos and American religion. He and his team of researchers keep putting out great books. Today, whether you call it fortuitous or providential, I received an email announcement that Robert Wuthnow will release his new book on the Midwest in Jan 2011. The book is on the general ethos, he will probably issue a book on the religion of Midwest in 2012. So, after giving “AS” a chance to view the Midwest as declining compared to the East and allowing others to offer a personal nostalgic look, let us turn to the data and use that to try and analyze where Midwest Jewry is going

The book is called Remaking the Heartland: Middle America since the 1950s. As in many of his other books, he starts with the 1950’s and 60’s and then gives the changes of the 1980-2010. Most people and most textbooks still view social change as forever wedded to the issues of the 1950’s.

His current work shows that people have stereotypes of the Midwest and people need to stop looking at the decline in farming and rust belt industries. Now it is booming due to avionics, fiber-optic communications, finance, medical technology, and bioscience. There are new suburbs. And new meat packing towns made up of immigrants

What does this mean for Judaism? First, whoever gets to the new suburbs with new congregations wins. Most of the Orthodox neighborhoods are not in the new suburbs and exurbs. This is also true about the data from the Census. Open your synagogues in the new carpet-bagger suburbs in Texas of transplanted Northerners and over time they will fill up to capacity. (Who will win by opening first:Chabad? Aish Hatorah? Reform? Renewal? Lakewood Kolel?)

Second, the fields of avionics, fiber-optic communications, medical technology, and bioscience are not emphasized back East. I do not think a researcher in fiber-optics will in any way feel inferior to the lawyer or radiologist of the East Coast. The East coast may need to lose it pride. But the image of midwest Jewish shop keeper is over.

Third, Wuthnow’s point about the complexity of the meat-packing towns was shown in the Potsville case. The Orthodox Jews who move out there to supply the ever increasing need for kosher meat will not be the same sort as those interested in bioscience and they wont live in the same towns.

So does this data change anyone’s comments on Centrism in the Midwest? What narrative would you create for this vision of the midwest? Are doctors who come for the medical schools leaving because they want Torah or because they want kosher restaurants?

One things is certain: The same way Centrism created doctors in Teaneck who drink dry wine and ignored the small towns and elderly shop keepers of the North East and Bronx, the new narrative will be entirely about those in the new suburbs of fiber–optics and medical research and it will ignore Detroit, Cleveland, and all the Jewish shop keepers. Does this effect anyone’s comments about the Midwest?

Several of the commenters mentioned that the community was not divided in clear denominations when they were growing up, Can anyone remember the moments that created the labeling? Which Rabbis? Which events? Who tore it apart and in what year?

From the introductory chapter of Wuthnow’s Remaking the Heartland: Middle America since the 1950s

During the half century that began in the 1950s, the American Middle West— Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Missouri, North and South Dakota, Arkansas, and Oklahoma—underwent a dramatic social transformation. The region’s population grew at only half the national rate. More than three thousand towns declined. Agriculture suffered from adverse weather and wild market fluctuations in the 1950s, experienced worse conditions in the 1980s, and became far less significant to the region’s economy.
But the heartland was far different in the early twenty-first century than predictions of its demise had suggested.

Stereotypes of a benighted hinterland had been replaced by images of hospitality and ingenuity. The region’s elementary and secondary schools were among the best in the nation. Its commitment to public higher education consistently ranked high. Without any of the nation’s largest cities, the region was known for innovative medical research and bioscience technology. It hosted some of the nation’s largest businesses and had become a magnet for sprawling exurban commercial districts and housing developments.

Retailers in small towns lost business to franchise outlets in regional centers.

Surely the region was remaking itself, they argued, by importing cheap labor to work in conditions reminiscent of The Jungle and with ethnic tensions as the expected result. But the restructuring of agribusiness proved to be a more complicated story.

Edge cities were not expected to emerge in the Middle West to the extent they did in the Sunbelt and on both coasts, but they did appear and increasingly became symbolic of the Middle West’s new role in the national economy. By 2005 there were ninety-five independently incorporated edge cities with at least ten thousand residents within twenty miles of the region’s eight largest cities. More people lived in these suburbs than in those large cities combined.

Those employers were the principal architects of the region’s new emphasis on avionics, fiber-optic communications, finance, medical technology, and bioscience.

One response to “Robert Wuthnow on the Midwest

  1. Pretty interesting. I don’t see any new stimulus in these parts, but know there is a lot of growth in Texas with new communities popping up and thriving. I agree that whoever gets there first sets the tone.

    In St. Louis there were no divisions until some decided to form an Agudas Israel synagogue in the late 80’s. They hired a very dynamic young Rabbi and started a kollel, but the real division occured several years alter when a cheder and Bais Yaakov were started which competed with the existing Centrist day school. I would say that was the real trigger. Also around that time the first Aish in the country was started here, which was very successful and fed into the kollel and Agudah. Since then the kollel has expanded and done a lot of kiruv work which has expanded the haredi schools and shul, both of which are now larger and younger than the Young Israel shul.

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